Applying to Grad School in Psychology?

Get organized now—don't be late!

Posted Oct 10, 2016

It’s October and some readers, particularly college seniors, may be thinking about applying to graduate school in psychology. Many applications will be due soon, in the next two months or so. I am already getting requests from my students for letters of recommendation. So, if you are planning to go to graduate school in psychology next fall, now is the time to get cracking on your applications.

Here are some steps to take right away:

Decide if graduate school is really for you. Don’t apply just because you don’t know what to do with your life if you’re not in school of some kind. That’s not a good reason. Really think through why a graduate degree in psychology will help you in the career you anticipate wanting for your future. If you cannot articulate this clearly for yourself, then you shouldn’t be applying to grad school in the first place.

Draw up a list of graduate programs that interest you. Go to their web sites, learn about what you need for their applications, and create a list—including submission dates and deadlines.

Take the GRE and the Psychology GRE. Yes, you will likely need to take these two exams as part of your application package. Be sure to sign up soon for testing dates near you. It is also a good idea to review what each exam is like and how it is scored before you take either test. You can have your scores sent directly to your grad schools of choice or you can send them later.

Identify who is writing your letters of recommendation. You need to ask people who know you well, preferably psychology faculty, to write letters on your behalf. Don’t assume you can wait until the last minute—I tell my students I need at least a month’s notice, preferably more. Make sure you only ask people who really know you well—a brief letter that says little about you won’t get you into a good school. Also, waive your right to see whatever letters are sent—no one is going to write a candid assessment of your skills if you can see what is written about you.

Write a good personal statement. Most grad school applications in psychology will want you to include some personal statement regarding your research interests and experiences. Take this seriously and write a detailed account of what interests you in psychology and what steps you’ve taken to make yourself a good candidate for grad school and a position in some researcher’s lab. You can tailor each copy to each grad school, mentioning, for example, particular faculty members you might like to work with because of shared research interests. Get one of your faculty advisors to read and comment on your statement—his or her feedback will likely make it stronger.

Decide whether you want to apply to doctoral or to masters programs. Current advice is to shoot for PhD or PsyD or EdD programs first, using masters programs as “backups” if you are not admitted to doctorial programs. Why? Primarily because the job market and postgrad jobs mostly are designed for doctoral level candidates—not exclusively—but in the main, this is true. Sometimes, however, getting into a good experimental masters program (and doing well in it) can allow you to apply for more competitive doctoral programs in the future.

My colleague, Jane S. Halonen (University of West Florida), and I recently published a short book provides step by step advice and guidance for individuals who major in psychology and want to get into graduate school. You can learn more about the book, The Psychology Major’s Companion: Everything You Need to Know to Get Where You Want to Go, here.

Good luck—going to graduate school in psychology can be a life changing and improving event for many people!