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Guidance on the Graduate School Application Process

The Do's and dont's of applying to graduate school for psych-related programs.

It's that time of year again! I can tell it's graduate school application season when my inbox is filled with requests for letters of recommendation from schools across the nation. For students and alumni that I have known going back into the 1990s! For programs ranging from law school to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology.

Glenn Geher - Students at NEEPS conference
Source: Glenn Geher - Students at NEEPS conference

In my years as an academic, I have helped thousands of students apply to graduate school. I see this as one of the most important parts of my job and, no matter how much work it may be, I would not trade it for anything.

To help guide students through this process over the years, I have created a "Guidance on Graduate School Application" document that I have updated and made available.

So You're Applying to Graduate School

So you're applying to graduate school - great! If you do it right, this process should be relatively painless and, fruitful. There are lots of things you should know to help you succeed in this process. Here's a list of things that I've found are useful for students to think about (in 20+ years of working with students on this process).

1. Realize that graduate programs that typically take in students with undergraduate psychology degrees come in all different shapes and sizes. First, figure out your long-term goals. Do you want to:

A. Help normal people with day-to-day problems (counseling psychology or mental health counseling - or clinical psychology)

B. Help people with diagnosable disorders - perhaps in the context of a hospital or clinic (clinical psychology or counseling psychology or mental health counseling - or perhaps psychiatry)

C. Help families and kids who are challenged by familial, economic, or situational circumstances (social work)

D. Help kids in the schools get the assistance they need based on their particular situations (school psychology)

E. Help kids in the schools figure out what they want to be when they grow up (school counseling)

F. Conduct research to help organizations function better (industrial/organizational psychologist)

G. Use music or art or wilderness experiences to help people heal after trauma (music, art, or wilderness therapy)

H. Conduct research on basic questions about behavior (experimental/academic psychologist)

... If so, which area of psychology are you interested in researching (evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, personality psychology, social psychology, psycholinguistics ... etc.)?

First thing's first - figure out which path you want to ultimately follow – because that will greatly affect your graduate school applications.

2. Realize that getting into graduate school is competitive - but programs vary considerably in terms of how competitive they are. Many Ph.D. programs accept less than 10% of applicants while MA programs in some applied fields (such as school counseling) accept a considerably higher proportion of applicants.

Do your research - know the numbers. You should know the acceptance rate of each program, the minimal requirements (in terms of GPA and GRE, etc.), and the specifics regarding how to apply (including the deadlines). This information is not all that hard to get. Create yourself a spreadsheet with the different programs that you want to apply to, including the name of the school, contact person for the program, % of students accepted last year, minimal GPA for admission, and minimal GRE (if required) for admission.

3. Realize that most Ph.D. programs include a master's degree as part of the deal. Many students don't realize this. There are implications. First off, don't apply to a program with just a master's degree thinking that you need to complete your M.A. before your Ph.D. - it doesn't really work that way. Most good Ph.D. programs accept most students right out of their undergraduate programs.

Another implication: Don't expect that work done in a master's program at one school will transfer to another school. You may get a master's degree at Schmedly University and then get into a Ph.D. program at Generic U. There's a good chance that the folks at Generic U will not allow your master's thesis and/or your prior classes to count toward their Ph.D. These decisions are likely done on a case-by-case basis – and their resolutions are often less student-friendly than students realize. The transfer process at this level is much trickier than the transferring of classes from one undergraduate degree to another. Don't enter one graduate program with plans to transfer credits or work from that program to another program. It probably won't work out!

4. OWN THE BOOK: Each year, the American Psychological Association publishes a Guide to Graduate Programs in Psychology and Related Fields. This book has all of the information you'll need to apply to every single program in the U.S., and, I believe, Canada. For instance, it has deadlines, minimal GPA and GRE scores, information on how many people applied last year – and how many were accepted. It will also have information on financial assistance. Some programs waive tuition for all students and pay all students to be in their program.

There are other easily accessible books out there that summarize this kind of information for other kinds of programs. For example, if you are interested in social work, there’s a book for that. If you are interested in medical schools, there’s a book for that too.

The reason you want to get the book is that the book provides an objective summary of all of the relevant information about most programs. If you visit the websites of various programs, you will find yourself looking at advertisements for the programs. Don't be fooled. Get the book!

5. Give yourself a fighting chance. As with applying to undergraduate programs, you should apply to some programs that seem like a reach but are possible. Apply to several that seem to match your grades, GRE, and so forth, and apply to a few safety schools. I suggest you apply to about 10 or so programs using this strategy. I've seen too many good students get shut out.

EXAMPLE: Suppose you want to get a Ph.D. in social psychology. You have a 3.6 cumulative GPA and a 3.7 in your major. Furthermore, your combined quantitative and verbal GRE scores are above the 75% mark. You've done research with some professors that was published and you're listed as one of the authors.

How should you proceed? Well, there are some top-notch Ph.D. programs in social psychology out there such as the ones at Stanford, Princeton, and Michigan.

Should you apply to these programs? Well, if the average GRE of the students who were enrolled last year at these programs was at the 90% mark, you might not bother – a sad, but true fact. The great GPA, letters of recommendation, and publication may actually matter less than you'd think. The field at this level is immensely competitive.

Perhaps apply to one top-flight program that is particularly of interest to you – but also apply to several that are more within the range that corresponds to your portfolio. Be sure to apply to a few schools that you should definitely get into (e.g., in this case, programs with average GREs that are less than the 75% mark, and with average GPAs less than 3.5 or so).

Without a detailed study of the programs of interest from the Guide to Graduate Programs, you're not really in a position to make the judgments needed to do this best. And, whatever you do, do not rely completely on information from the actual websites of the graduate programs of potential interest. These are pretty much all biased and marketed to increase attention and make their programs seems ideal.

(and BTW, applying to just one program is almost never a good strategy!)

6. Glenn's Suggested Timeline for Applying to Graduate School

Deadlines for applications are often surprisingly early for students. If you want to start grad school the Fall after you graduate from your undergraduate program, you may need to submit applications as early as December of your senior year. If you wait to start the process until spring of your senior year, there's a very good chance that you'll have to postpone the whole grad school thing for a year.

On a related note, you should realize that many graduate programs only accept students in the Fall. This is especially true for good programs. Waiting to apply to get into a program during the Spring is usually not a great plan.

Here's a suggested timeline:

If you want to get into a graduate program in the Fall of, for instance, '20, you need to start your homework way before Fall of '19. Here's a suggested timeline for applying to programs starting FALL '20:


A. Spring '19 - Buy the APA Guide to Grad Programs.

B. Spring '19 - Figure out what kind of programs you want to apply to.

C. Spring '19 - Narrow down your list to 20 or so programs - meet with an advisor to discuss - to help you break it down further.

D. Spring '19 - Take the GRE or make plans to take this test in the Fall, at the latest.

E. Spring '19 - Ask at least three professors if they'd be willing to write letters of recommendations for you. This process often takes longer than you might think.

F. Summer '19 - Try to get the list of programs down to 10 or so.

G. Summer '19 - Follow the steps for each program to acquire the application forms and letter of recommendation materials. These forms will likely vary from school to school, however, the website for the forms should be given in the APA book. Additionally, this book will have the name and contact information for the department chair and/or graduate program coordinator, who will help ensure that you have all the materials you'll need.


H. Fall '19 - Take GRE if you haven't already.

I. Fall '19 - Write a personal statement (most applications require you to write a statement summarizing your interests and background).

J. Fall '19 - Have a professor go over your personal statement with you.

K. Fall '19 - Get three professors in your field (psychology) to agree to write letters of recommendation for you. Start asking folks EARLY in the fall. With this said, don't be afraid to check on your letter-writers during the process to make sure they have sent the letters out - it's your future at stake here.

L. Fall '19 - Organize materials for the folks writing you letters of recommendations in a way that makes it very easy for them to help you.

Most importantly

• Organize the material clearly.

• Provide your letter-writers with all needed information and forms.

• Try to have all materials get to your letter-writers at about the same time. It is difficult to write letters for a student if the forms come via email across a period of two weeks.

• Give your letter-writer plenty of time to complete the task.

• Also, don't be afraid to check on your letter-writer. This is your future so make sure the letters get in the mail on time.

• Anticipate your letter-writer being out of service from about 12/10-1/20 of the next year.

• Spring '20 - Check your mail... a lot!

7. Don't worry about costs associated with graduate school! Most students who get a graduate degree after completing a psych undergraduate degree either get a master's degree in an applied field (e.g., Social Work) that they can use to get a well-paying job in a relatively short amount of time, or get a Ph.D. in some research-oriented area of psychology. If you get into a Ph.D. program, life is usually good – such programs typically will have assistantships which will often pay most or all tuition or pay students an annual stipend for helping faculty with teaching or research. Stipends run about $21,000 a year these days. You won't be rich, but you won't starve. So, in either case, don't worry about the money.

8. Keep your professors in the loop on how you're doing!

It's true! We really really do care. We’re in a strange profession where our success is measured by your success - so keep in touch!

Happy Applying!