The Three Rs of Clinical Psychology Doctoral Interviews
What admissions committees are looking for in clinical psychology applicants.
Posted April 8, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Graduate program interview season recently passed and during the last few months, I have worked with many clients who were preparing for clinical psychology program interviews. This is an extremely important topic so I’ve asked Katherine S. Salamon to shed light on what clinical psychology admissions committees are looking for when evaluating applicants. Katherine is a Pediatric Pain Psychologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She has worked extensively with aspiring and current clinical graduate students.
This post is for applicants who have been invited to interview with a doctoral program in clinical psychology. First, congratulations on succeeding in the first round of the application process! You have been chosen to interview because your credentials on paper indicate that you would be a good fit for the program. The next step is to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are just as great (or even better!) in person as you are on paper.
The initial excitement you should be experiencing due to this achievement may soon be replaced by apprehension as the interview date approaches. Given the competitiveness of interviewing, preparing for an interview can seem just as overwhelming as completing the application itself.
To prepare well, it will help to know the ways in which clinical psychology interviews are different from other types of interviews. The main differences are that clinical psychology interviews are designed to explore applicants’ potential clinical skills, determine how well they approach challenges, and examine whether or not they come prepared to new situations.
Next, I will discuss three skills that admissions committees are looking for in applicants (the three Rs). They are specific to interviewing for a doctoral degree in a predominately clinical psychology program. Being aware that you will be evaluated on these traits during the interview will help you perform better and they could also help reduce some of the jitters you might be experiencing.
The dictionary defines rapport as an “especially harmonious or sympathetic relation.” Rapport is a fundamental trait in human communication and one of clinical psychology’s infamous common factors. Also referred to as therapeutic alliance, rapport is a skill utilized to build trust in a clinical relationship, to deliver treatment, and to promote at-home utilization of the skills. It is often believed that rapport is malleable, but difficult to teach. Therefore, the interview at a clinical program is intended to determine your level of rapport.
In plain English, this means you will be assessed on how easy or difficult it is to speak with you just as a regular person. This is the reason why so much of the interview day is not spent in actual interviews, but interacting with students and faculty in everyday situations, at meals, during tours, and evening parties. The key is: be yourself. Genuine interactions demonstrate rapport. Have you ever been in a situation in which someone provides explanations for commonly known ideas or tries too hard to impress another person? We all have examples of situations in which the conversation has felt forced or uncomfortable in some ways that we couldn't describe. Being genuine during the interview process involves appropriately highlighting your strengths, but not overly so in an attempt to "show off."
It is important that a clinical psychologist demonstrates resilience, or the ability to be flexible and adapt to stress and adversity. To do this in an interview, I do not believe you should tell a personal story of how you overcame some major life event, unless that fits into a well-planned answer to one of the interviewer's “why psychology?” questions. What I do mean is to be resilient during the interview. Schedules will change at the last minute, you may trip and fall, have food in your teeth after lunch, have your name tag get stuck in your hair for hours (personal experience). At the end of the interview process, you will be remembered for how you responded to the event and not the actual details of the event. It is important to keep in mind that the interviewers are attempting to get a sense of how you will be as a future clinician; in therapeutic situations, things rarely go as planned.
Demonstrating that you can handle unforeseen stressful situations is key to your successful completion of a doctoral program in clinical psychology. Therefore, if things don't go as planned during the interview, try to remain calm and go with the flow as much as you can. Also, utilize problem-solving skills if it's a situation that you can't ignore. Let's look at an example: despite reporting to the interview coordinator that you have food allergies, there is no allergy-free food for you to eat during lunch. Obviously, there are a number of ways you could react. You could confront the coordinator, simply not eat, politely inquire about other options, and the list could go on. While there is no correct answer, know that you will be remembered for how you responded. Thus, take the course of action that best aligns with how you want to be remembered.
Finally, the interview is your chance to show that you possess qualities that will lead to a successful completion of the program if you are admitted. Your level of conscientiousness, determination, and desire to learn and grow will be assessed. Students who successfully complete their doctoral degrees demonstrate these characteristics and, moreover, each of these characteristics is needed to be a successful clinician.
The interview is your chance to “put your money where your mouth is” by showing these qualities in the questions you ask, how you present yourself with others, and your overall knowledge of the program. For example, asking targeted, thoughtful questions that reflect that you read the material available on the website illustrate these characteristics more effectively than a generic question (e.g., “I saw in the brochure online that students need to complete two years within a practicum placement. What are the available sites in the area in which students usually place?” as opposed to “How many years do students have to complete practicum?”). When looking at the broader picture, the interviewers are thinking about difficult, complex clinical cases and are considering how well candidates could rise up to those challenges. If an interviewee did not spend the time to read the brochure and prepare questions, the thought is that this may reflect on how well they may (or may not) manage a difficult case.
Through the excitement and apprehension about an interview, being aware of these three areas that you will be assessed on can provide some reassurance about how to prepare to best showcase your skills and potential as a clinician. Setting yourself apart from other candidates at the interview for a clinical Ph.D. program revolves around these three Rs (rapport, resilience, and readiness). And lastly, after using these three Rs for your interview, don't forget to get a little R&R (rest and relaxation) before you start preparing for the next one!
I am a graduate school admission consultant in psychology and related fields; follow me on Twitter for current grad school admissions news.