How to Get into Grad School

Aspiring graduate students should follow these tips.

Posted Sep 19, 2018

I applied to graduate school way back in 1969. That was the year Richard Nixon was sworn in as president, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, Charles Manson’s "family" brutally murdered several people in their upscale Los Angeles homes, Lieutenant William Calley ordered the soldiers in his platoon to gun down 400 women, children, and elderly villagers in the My Lai massacre, the Rolling Stones released the Let it Bleed album, and 400,000 people converged on a farm in Woodstock, New York to hear Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, The Who, and the Jefferson Airplane.  But I missed all that, since I was in the library reading psychology books and preparing for the GREs (which are the graduate school version of the SAT). I was not the greatest college student in history, and I was coming from a tiny school no one had ever heard of (Dowling College, which has since closed its doors). It was not surprising that I was rejected from several of the schools to which I applied, but I did manage to score sufficiently well on the GREs to get into my first choice graduate school–Arizona State University, which was then known to psychologists as Fort Skinner in the Desert.

Going to grad school was the best thing that ever happened to me. Or, taking a more active perspective, I should say it was the best choice I ever made. Back in my home culture, of New York shantytown Irish heavy drinkers and drug abusers, a lot of my friends and relatives ended up going to prison instead of college. So by simple social comparison it was a good choice. But in an absolute sense, my graduate training led to as good a life as I could imagine, during which I have had the opportunity to study fascinating topics—from love to homicidal fantasies (see Sex, murder, and the meaning of life, and The rational animal:).  I've also gotten to travel the world meeting with inspiring intellectuals interested in fascinating problems, and work with students who are a continual source of energy and curiosity.  

I started grad school in clinical psychology, but found that it reminded me too much of the dreary madness I’d left behind in New York. So Gus Levine, my stats professor, suggested I switch over to the new social psychology program to work with Robert Cialdini (who Gus informed me was going to become famous). That was the best advice I ever received. Cialdini did go on to become an internationally renowned scientist (the Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler later referred to Cialdini as the "guru of social influence"). Among other perks of my graduate training, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Cialdini for over 4 decades now (and I’ve talked about some of his interesting research here on several occasions; see the list of related blogs below).  

Earlier today, several graduate students and I met with a group of eager young undergraduates who have their eye on graduate training, and wanted to hear some advice about how to get into grad school. So, I shot off an email to some of the people with whom I would myself want to study, if I had it to do over again, asking for their advice for the next generation of grad students. My expert panel included Josh Ackerman at the University of Michigan, David Buss at the University of Texas, Sarah Hill at Texas Christian University, Becca Neel at the University of Toronto, and Jaimie Krems at Oklahoma State University.  

Here are some of their tips:

Choose the right program for you.

The majority of students in psychology want to apply to programs in clinical psychology. I think that’s because a clinical career combines a sense that you are helping others, and also some anticipated prestige: the image of sitting in a pleasant office wearing an upscale outfit, offering sagacious wisdom to others; a bit like going into medicine, but without all the blood and gore. Although I was more interested in doing scientific research, I applied to clinical, on the assumption that if I couldn’t get an academic job, I could go into private practice.  

Maybe you are perfectly suited to clinical work, but there is a down side to narrowing your sights on a degree in clinical psychology–lots of other people have their sights on that same degree, and the vast majority of applicants from most programs are rejected. Some are of course accepted, but if you don’t have stellar GREs, consider other pathways to a helping career, such as counseling psychology or social work. And if, like me, you are more interested in the scientific study of behavior than in being a helping professional, consider going into basic research. It can also be very difficult to get into the top graduate programs in social and personality psychology, my area, but not all areas or all programs are equally competitive, and you don’t have to go to the most prestigious program in the world to get good training. As Jaimie Krems noted to me, what makes for a high prestige undergraduate program does not always make for a top graduate program. And Sarah Hill pointed out that working with a young up-and-coming professor may be more likely to result in published papers than working with the world’s most prestigious senior professor. And as Becca Neel, another rising star, pointed out: More senior people can be a lot more picky. Indeed, David Buss’s list of what he looks for in a grad student included an unqualified “high GRE scores” as one of his 4 points. Even though Becca is at an equally prestigious university, she said she’d be willing to look at a student who had good grades and other redeeming aspects to their application.

And when you’ve found a group of people with whom you’d like to work, be sure to mention them, and their work that interests you, prominently, in your statement of purpose. As Becca Neel mentioned, she looks for students interested in working with her, in particular. And Josh Ackerman adds a critically important point: Be sure your target faculty member is accepting students this year. Many of the best researchers already have full labs.

Study (and then study some more) for the GREs.

Unless you are a freshman or a sophomore, it’s pretty hard to change your grade point average by the time you start thinking seriously about graduate school. And the range of GPAs is fairly restricted among grad school applicants. Mine was 3.2, which is about as low as they get in grad school applicants, most cluster comfortably above 3.5. Josh Ackerman tells me that last year’s entering class in his program at the University of Michigan had an average GPA of 3.83 (that’s the average, so there’s not a lot of variation in that group).  

There is a lot more variance in GRE scores. Unlike top-weighted GPAs, GRE scores cluster near the average. This makes it possible to make up for a less than stellar GPA if you can come in with a high set of scores on the GREs. If you are good at standardized tests, but not too conscientious in doing classwork (as I was, and wasn’t, respectively), then you can boost your chances by making sure your test-taking skills have not gotten rusty. 

GRE scores are, unsurprisingly, highly correlated with how you did on the SATs, and with your scores on an IQ test. Nevertheless, your scores will get much better if you practice, and hone your test-taking abilities. My son managed to score near the ceiling on the GREs, but when he took his first practice test, he got a ho-hum score. So, he started reviewing his basic algebra (having studied film, he hadn’t taken a math course since high school), and drilling himself on fancy vocabulary words over one summer. It made a gigantic difference in how he did on the actual exam.  

I just went online and saw that Kaplan has a website titled “How to Study for the GREs in 2 months.” They are of course trying to sell you on taking one of their courses, or buying one of their review books, but the website is full of incredibly good advice. And it’s worthwhile buying several of those GRE review books, from different companies (I think Princeton Review has one as well). Why? Because a great way to score well is to take as many sample exams as you can squeeze in before you take the actual exam. I recommend that you take a light semester in school, and study for the tests every day for several months. That number will matter more than how you do in any of your courses (which is not to say fail your courses, of course, remember those tightly clustered high grade point averages). 

Get some research experience

Even if you want to go into clinical psychology, the faculty at the top programs are typically involved in research, and will respond most favorably to evidence that you aspire to contribute to their research enterprise, and not only procure their advisement as you prepare for a career as a helping professional.  I should note, of course, that I am a professor at a research focused university, so you should seek other advice about preparing for an exclusively clinical career.  

Besides learning about how research is actually carried out, working in a lab, or field research group, also has the advantage of getting a more informed letter of recommendation from a faculty member. If you could get a letter of recommendation from someone of the caliber of any of the people I mentioned above, it will help immensely. Of course, it is important that you not only do a good job in the lab, but also visit with the faculty member to let him or her see how you think, and learn about your interests, which will improve the quality of the resulting letter. 

Just because you’ve taken a class from a professor and even worked in his or her lab, doesn’t mean that they are in a great position to write you a good letter. I strongly advise you to send potential letter-writers a resume, and a summary of your experiences working with them and with other psychologists, so they can write a more informed letter. It is also a good idea to meet with the letter writer face-to-face a few times, to solicit their advice about good graduate programs, and to familiarize them with your strengths, and your various relevant experiences. Don’t be shy, if you have worked in our labs, and done a good job, we owe you a letter. 

Write a good statement of purpose.

Your statement of purpose should begin with something interesting and unique about you, and what drew you into studying psychology. I recall one applicant who describes becoming interested in social norms when he was a child emigrating from a Communist country (behind what was then called the Iron Curtain), and noticed the dramatic change in how people acted at the first train stop in West Germany (I thought this was Vlad Griskevicius, but he says I must have mixed him up with another former citizen of the USSR). Another student (Brad Sagarin) described how he’d gotten his degree in engineering and went to work in Silicon Valley, only to discover that no one in engineering knew much about engineering people’s behaviors, which led him to read Cialdini’s book on Influence, and then to a desire to study with Cialdini himself.  

After capturing the reader’s interest, and proving that you can write an engaging opener, your task is to summarize your relevant experiences in a businesslike and efficient manner. Do not talk about how you came to psychology after overcoming your personal problems! As Jaimie Krems puts it, don’t write a “woe is me sob story.” That will make people wonder about your social judgment, as well as whether you might fall apart under the stresses of graduate training. In terms of what personality psychologists call the Big 5, we look for people who are high in Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, and low in Neuroticism. We don’t much care whether you are Extraverted or not (although Introverts may have a handicap in getting to know the professors who will write their letters!).

Oh, and rewrite your statement of purpose several times, and have several other people read it. It should be interesting and well organized, and it should not be overly complicated and hard to follow. Write a good story about what drew you personally into psychology, and avoid empty cliches, such as "I am highly motivated to help others." And don't brag, by calling yourself "intelligent" or "creative."  Show your creativity and brilliance, don't say it.

Prepare well.

Cari Pick, a doctoral student who runs several research projects with me and Michael Varnum, when asked what one piece of advice she’d give aspiring undergraduates about applying for grad school, said “Start early.” It takes time to do all of the above well, and you may find that you need to redo some of it, especially if you’ve chosen the wrong potential advisors to apply to, or done less well than expected on the GREs. But all the effort is worth it.  For me, graduate school involved intense pleasure—the opportunity to talk to intelligent curious people all day (and into the night), to really delve deeply into the research on profoundly important questions, and then to uncover data that we managed to publish in the field’s most prestigious journals. As Jaimie Krems put it: “grad school is way more fun than undergrad.” It’s not of course without a lot of effort, and once you get to grad school, it will be a better experience to the extent that you treat the work like fun, but that is another story.  

Related blogs:

The six principles of social influence: Tips from the "guru" of social influence.

Who are psychology's geniuses, Part II: Some brilliant psychologists I have known. 

Six degrees of social influence: What's so influential about Robert Cialdini?

And the year's best paper on consumer psychology is...

Pre-suasion: Before you try to persuade someone... 

Zen and the art of embracing rejection. What's so good about negative feedback.

References

Kenrick, D.T. (2011).  Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books.

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books.