If At First You Don't Succeed

Conquering the graduate school application process

Posted Oct 22, 2011

If you're considering applying to graduate school (or you just like stories of perseverance and triumph), you'll want to read what I'm about to share. It's a story about three undergraduate psychology students who dedicated themselves to their work, earning top honors and recognition at their university and finding a mutual interest that all three thought was worthy of their life's pursuit. They spent many long hours and hundreds of dollars preparing for and applying to master's and doctoral programs across the country with the belief that they had done all that was necessary to reach that next level. But, as with many things in life, it was not that simple.

John, Erika, and Alex ending their undergraduate journey

Like thousands of other soon-to-be college graduates, John, Erika, and I decided that what we wanted to do with our lives required us to continue our education and earn advanced-level degrees. Each of us had set our sights on careers in psychological research and teaching, and this goal could only be achieved by completing master's and doctoral programs. We were fortunate enough to be members of an undergraduate research laboratory, with mentors who had been successful in getting students into graduate programs before and who were willing to help us through the process, and so we embarked on this journey with high hopes and expectations.

Our first move was to compile comprehensive lists of graduate programs around the country that were involved in researching topics that engaged our personal interests. My own list included around 20 doctoral programs in various areas of social psychology, and I kept track of what grade-point average (GPA) and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores the universities considered necessary for admission, when the deadlines were for submitting an application, and who I could contact at each school. The next step was to sign up and prepare for the GRE, and we each took the exam in November, just in time to have our score reports ready to send out by the December application deadlines.

After receiving our results, we further refined our lists of schools and began the actual application process. This included collecting multiple copies of all of our transcripts and sending them to each school; asking our mentors and professors to complete and upload letters of recommendation; writing personal statements describing our journeys into psychology and why we wanted to continue our education; and completing the generic forms covering our demographic, academic, and employment backgrounds. I was fairly confident that I would get in somewhere, and we all had hopes that, come spring, we would know where we'd be starting the next school year.

January, February, and March rolled around without hearing much from any of the programs we had applied to, and we each began to receive letter-sized envelopes in the mail with return addresses from schools including the University of Pennsylvania, Colorado State University, Yale, UC Irvine, and others. I knew that only large packets were a reason to celebrate, and, sure enough, I only had to read the first sentence of each of these letters before my fears were realized. Over and over I saw the same first sentence: "We regret to inform you... We regret to inform you..." John and Erika, too, would come to school with a looks of disappointment on their faces, and the spring semester was tough for us. When all was said and done, I was only accepted to one program, and that was only at the master's level. The program wasn't exactly what I was looking for, and it was at a private school, meaning that I'd accumulate close to $100,000 of debt over the two years I'd be there. John and Erika, too, were unsuccessful in getting into any of the programs they had set their hearts on, and we all felt dejected about the entire process.

One morning in late April, however, I remembered that one of my mentors had mentioned a list of schools that the American Psychological Association (APA) sometimes publishes. This list contains the contact information for universities that are accepting applicants for spots not filled during the normal admissions process. I hopped on the APA website and spent some time exploring. Sure enough, hidden several pages deep on the site, I found that list for graduate programs with spots for the upcoming fall semester. Most of the openings were in PsyD and master's programs, but there were two spots in research psychology doctoral programs that I immediately started writing emails to. I sent the list along to John and Erika as well, and the three of us had reason for hope once again. One of those schools was Washington State University (WSU), and I was put in contact with a professor there who, oddly enough, was doing research into personality that I felt a strong connection with. It was easy for me to see where I could find my own niche working with her, and I spent several hours laboring over an email to her that felt like my last hope. She emailed me back, and we began to communicate back and forth, culminating in a phone interview that made me certain that, if offered the position, I would take it. The WSU professor, however, gave me no indication that I would be offered the spot and told me that she'd have to interview several other applicants as well. A week or so later, while I was at a research competition, I received another email from her telling me that WSU would open their application for me. I completed that application and waited several weeks more before I got a phone call from her and was offered the spot. I took it.

John went through a similar process with UC Merced, the other university offering an opening in their doctoral program. The field of research there was one John had a profound interest in, and he was chosen from several applicants for the position. The two of us couldn't believe our luck. But the happiness was something we tried to keep private because Erika was still not accepted into a graduate program, despite her best efforts to get in. The school year ended on a bittersweet note, and we could sense the pain she was in at being rejected anew, this time alone in her sadness. John and I moved off to our new homes, leaving her behind. She still had a few applications out, but I think she had lost all faith. That changed as our new school years were beginning in August, when she was offered acceptance to a master's program in Massachusetts. After a little pushing from John, me, and some of the other members of our undergraduate laboratory, she accepted the spot. Within two weeks, she was in her new home and preparing for classes to begin, ready to brave the New England winter and to continue working toward the bigger goal: starting a career in psychological research.

Here's my advice to future applicants:

1. Earning a high score on the GRE will NOT be enough to get you into graduate school. I did well on the exam, and I thought (and was told) that I should have no problem getting into a doctoral program. Though this may have been true for generations of past applicants, it's not anymore. I'm not going to argue that GRE scores aren't important because most programs consider them an absolutely vital piece of a strong application, but there are so many other students applying in recent years that your scores won't be enough to distinguish you from the pack. That being said, take them seriously and score well because, once your foot is in the door, you will need them. If you're applying to graduate programs this year and haven't signed up for the test yet, leave this blog immediately and do so now by clicking here.

2. Tailor each personal statement to the schools you're applying to. To be frank, if you're sending out a generic essay to each school you're applying to, don't be surprised if the programs toss your application straight into the trash. I was told that I should apply to between 10-15 schools and, in doing so, I spent far too little time customizing my personal statement for each. Looking back, I wish I had applied to less schools and spent more time explaining to each exactly why I was the perfect fit for their program. This is one of the few chances you'll have to demonstrate your writing ability and to prove to the reviewers that you're serious about attending their school, so do more than tell them about your strengths: give them insight into your passion for psychology, the tenacity with which you've pursued your goals, and why the time and money they will be investing in you will be mutually beneficial.

3. Like with your GRE scores, your GPA and letters of recommendation won't be enough, either. Graduate programs expect that you will have done well in your coursework, and your letters can give these programs additional information about your work ethic and capabilities that won't be apparent in your transcripts and GRE score reports. It is vital that you've built solid relationships with some of the instructors in your major because they can add an honest and detailed assessment of your abilities, a unique perspective that no other part of your application will provide. But you can't count on being the only applicant with glowing reviews. Like with everything else I've mentioned, there are high expectations for your transcripts and your letters, but I believe the most critical and overlooked part of the application process is what comes next.

4. Make contact with people you want to work with. Do this early and do this often because this is truly the only way you can distinguish yourself from the other applicants. With the record number of people applying each year, graduate programs can't afford to get to know each one personally, and reaching out is the only way to actively get your foot in the door. You will be providing your potential mentors with direct proof of your interest and dedication, and your ability to communicate your ideas thoroughly and effectively. The single biggest mistake I made when applying to graduate school was not reaching out to the individuals in each program that I wanted to work with. My doctoral adviser told me that she didn't consider any application from people who didn't personally contact her, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of other faculty acted the same way. A carefully crafted e-mail, discussing how your interests overlap and what kinds of ideas you have for your work in the program is the easiest way to begin to build a relationship with the person you want to work with, and nothing is more valuable than this.

5. If April rolls around and you haven't been accepted to a graduate program, it is not the end. Look for that APA list. Start preparing a new list of schools for the next year. And ask yourself if this is something that you really want because, if you do, then the only way you can achieve your goal is to keep trying. Failure is not the end; it provides you an opportunity to learn something about yourself, and it can be used to your advantage. While it's much easier to quit than to keep trying, the most rewarding things in my own life have been the things I've had to work hardest for.

Applying to graduate school can be a very stressful process, and it's going to take a lot of time and a tremendous amount of effort to reach that next level. And just getting there isn't enough; once you're in, you're going to find that you'll be working harder than you ever have before in your life. But that is something to look forward to, not to fear, and for now, identify the programs that you can see yourself spending the next several years being a part of, and do whatever is necessary to improve your chances of getting in. While you may stumble a few times on the way, if you know that going to graduate school is the key to getting what you want out of life, never give up in your pursuit. The journey for John, Erika, and myself was marked with a lot of sorrow and disappointment, but I do promise you that, whatever bitter taste parts of the process may leave you with, they will only serve to make success that much sweeter.

About the Author

Alexander Spradlin is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at Washington State University.

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