Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Careers in Psych

Applying to Clinical PhD Psychology Programs

How many applications to send?

Posted Jul 22, 2018

Now is the time that many individuals are going to be thinking about their future career. For many, their career journey includes graduate program in a clinical psychology PhD program. For these individuals, the next few months will involve carefully researching various programs to determine which programs might be best for them. One big question that will hit all of these potential applicants concerns the optimal number of applications to send.

stocksnap/pixabay
Researching and discussing graduate school options is a must for those wanting to apply
Source: stocksnap/pixabay

It might seem like someone or some computer program has figured out the number of applications to send, but like most aspects of the application process for PhD clinical psychology programs, determining this number is complex. To begin, it is likely the case that most applicants know that getting accepted to a clinical psychology PhD program is very difficult. To illustrate this in concrete terms, we looked at the acceptance and matriculation rates of PhD programs that are members of the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology. These rates are publicly available for these programs website under the link “Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data”. We were able to locate data for 100 programs, and found that the acceptance rate was most often 4%, and the matriculation rate (those who actually enrolled) was most often 2%.

These extremely low values reflect the high standards of all clinical psychology PhD programs, the high number of applicants that apply to each program, and the low number of open slots at each program for an incoming class. One other point should be kept in mind related to the above points: The applicants to PhD programs are at the “highest level.” This means that if you are applying to a PhD program in clinical psychology, you really need to be a strong candidate. There is no hard and fast rule on what constitutes a strong candidate, but rest assured it is a combination of very high GRE scores (on all three components of the exam), a very high GPA in rigorous courses (forget those gym courses and basket-weaving courses!), research experience (remember that a PhD is a research degree), excellent letters of recommendation, and a great fit with a potential mentor.

Besides showing that it is really difficult to be accepted into a particular PhD program, the acceptance and matriculation (enrollment) rates raise other interesting issues that are important to the question of how many programs you should apply to. First, acceptance rates are higher than matriculation rates. This is because not every person who gets accepted to a clinical psychology PhD program ends up attending. For example, an applicant may realize that that being a clinician is not for them. This applicant’s slot is then open for another applicant. Second, applicants to clinical psychology PhD programs almost always apply to multiple programs. This leads to a lot of movement with regard to who gets accepted. Let’s take the example of a fictitious applicant Susan who applies to 15 clinical psychology PhD programs. She receives acceptances from five programs—Michigan State, UKentucky, UDenver, Alabama, and UTexas. Of course, she can only matriculate at one program—she picks UKentucky (not for the basketball!). Her matriculation decision means that the four other slots that were originally reserved for Susan must go unused or go to other applicants in the applicant pool, who may or may not enroll at each of the remaining four programs.

Given the above information, we can now focus on how many programs you should consider applying to. Right up front we should note that there does not appear to be any publicly accessible data that shows the number of applications per clinical psychology PhD applicant. This is different than other types of post-graduate applicants, where data is available on the number of applications per applicant for medical program (16 applications) and law program (6 applications).  

Nonetheless, there is some guidance from the Internet on determining how many programs an applicant should apply to:

1) Although neither the American Psychological Association (APA) nor one of the most widely cited websites about applying to clinical psychology graduate program (“Mitch’s Guide”) recommends a specific number, these resources (and others) discuss applications in terms of “fit”. That is, an applicant should apply to programs where there is a fit between a student’s credentials and the characteristics of a particular program, including location, training emphasis, and potential mentor(s).

2) Some sites offer more specific recommendations. These sites discuss applying to different levels of programs. These types are typically defined based on the GPA and GRE data listed in a program’s link to Student Admissions, Outcomes, and Other Data. At the top level are “Dream” or “Reach” programs (programs where your credentials are lower than the data), “Match” programs (programs where your credentials match the data for that program), and “Safety” or “Back-up” programs (programs where your credentials exceed the data). Sites recommending that you apply based on level of program will typically argue that an applicant should apply to perhaps two or three at each level.

3) Some Internet sites offer recommendations on how many programs to apply without mentioning level of program. These sites recommend varying numbers, often as high as 10-20 programs.

The lack of clarity on the number of applications to clinical psychology PhD programs means you may have to adjust your thinking as you move forward with your plans to apply to clinical psychology PhD programs. You will have to decide whether applying to different levels makes sense for you. While some students may need to use the levels approach because of specific gaps in their credentials, others may have a record so strong that the levels approach does not really apply to them—these students are competitive at all programs.

shad0wfall/pixabay
Source: shad0wfall/pixabay

In addition, if you are a highly competitive applicant, it is probably worth you increasing your number of applications. Figuring out additional programs to apply to will involve more work, and it might involve considering multiple research areas you are willing to pursue, but it will likely increase your overall chances to be accepted to a program. You must always keep in mind that your chances of being accepted anywhere is still a function of your credentials, the competition (always an unknown), and what programs are considering. Moreover, each application has an application fee, and takes time and effort to complete. Therefore, you should probably only apply to those programs that you feel you would be willing to attend. With all of the above in mind, good luck as you move forward with your applications!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

Want More?

Check out career possibilities for psychology majors at scoutiescareersinpsychology.org

Learn tips to succeed in college at beginnersguidetocollegesuccess.com