You Want to Go to Graduate School?
If your answer is "Yes",
then read over this page carefully.
This page outlines and describes the different parts of the application process.
Preparing for Graduate School
You're thinking about going to graduate school, and you're wondering what you need to do to prepare. Many undergraduate students who would like to apply to graduate school believe that they will not be competitive applicants because of "less than spectacular" GPAs (i.e., less than 4.0). Grades are only a small portion of the graduate school application package. There are a number of factors that graduate faculty ordinarily consider when evaluating applicants to their MS and PhD programs. In general, graduate schools review eight sources of information, what I refer to as your “Professional Portfolio.” See below for a description of each part of the Professional Portfolio.
Why do Graduate Programs require numerous pieces of information about you?
Graduate Programs need this information because they are attempting to determine, first-and-foremost, whether you can survive your first year as a graduate student. Put another way, the information in your portfolio helps to predict your future success as a graduate student. Of course, the faculty of the graduate program are also reviewing your portfolio for goodness-of-fit. In other words, do you and the graduate program have something in common, such as mutual interests in research, training and/or a theoretical approach?
Parts of Your Professional Portfolio
1. Undergraduate transcript and GPA
2. GRE scores
3. Curriculum Vita (CV) or Resume
4. At least 3 letters of recommendation
5. Research and/or practical experience in the field of psychology
6. A personal statement written by the applicant
7. “Goodness-of-Fit" between the applicant and the program
The Above Eight Parts are Described Below:
1. Undergraduate Transcript and GPA
Obviously, the better your grades, the better you look as a candidate for graduate school. However, other factors come in to play here. The type and breadth of courses you take is important as well. Knowledge in other fields, such as biology and statistics, can aid your understanding of Psychology. Thus, courses, concentrations, or minors in such areas can enhance your application. Additionally, graduate schools may look at your GPA in light of your elective courses that are more intellectually challenging (i.e., math and science courses) than courses that appear as easy electives. Graduate programs take this into consideration when evaluating your transcript and your GPA
Your GPA: Do You Know Your Three GPAs?
You have three GPAs to consider and potentially discuss within your application (e.g., Your Personal Statement). Obviously, you have an Overall GPA that is calculated from your total course work resulting in your graduation and undergraduate degree. Your second GPA is your last two years as an undergraduate (Junior and Senior Years). Your Junior/Senior GPA represents an evaluation that might better reflect your maturity, academic growth, and seriousness about course work. Some students need their first year and sophomore year to adjust to the many social and professional expectations required of them once they have left home for college. Thus your course grades and academic habits may not have been at their best when you were a first year student and a sophomore. Finally, you should calculate your GPA within your major (i.e., Psychology). By knowing your Major-GPA your can show off how focused, serious, and responsible you were when taking course work directly relevant to future graduate school studies.
Remember, as I said earlier, Graduate Programs are first and foremost attempting to determine if an applicant’s GPA predicts future success as a graduate student. Review your three GPAs, and determine which one best reflects your future success as a graduate student. Whatever the outcome, make sure graduate programs focus on the GPA that makes a better impression of you.
2. GRE Scores
Most graduate programs in psychology require that you take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The GRE consists of three subtests: a verbal subtest, a quantitative (mathematical) subtest, and a writing proficiency subtest. The verbal and quantitative sections of the GRE are much like the corresponding sections on the SAT (the exam you took before you entered college). The writing subtest is relatively new, and evaluates your ability to compose using the written language expressions of professional and analytic thinking.
Some graduate programs also require (or strongly suggest) that you also take the GRE subject test in Psychology. This subject test assesses the breadth and depth of your knowledge of basic principles of Psychology.
GRE scores are often used to "screen" candidates applying to graduate programs. In other words, admissions committees may look at your GRE scores first before deciding to review the rest of your application. Ordinarily, in order to be competitive, you should have scores of at least 500 (which is about the national average) on each of the sections of the GRE, including the Verbal, Math and Analytic sections. Students should also consider taking the GRE Psychology subject test. If you are concerned about your performance on the GRE, there are a number of companies that publish preparation guides (some examples are: The Princeton Review, Kaplan, Cliff's, and Baron's) that can be purchased at most bookstores. Although many people may say that you cannot "study" for the GRE do NOT believe them!!!
I suggest strongly that you study and familiarize yourself with the test's content as well as practice strategies for answering the different types of questions you will encounter on the exam. Furthermore, the more familiar you are with the content and format of the exam, the more likely you will feel at ease in the actual testing situation. Thus, preparation (in my humble opinion) is essential, critical and prudent if you desire to go to graduate school.
Additionally, if you take the GRE and are not satisfied with your scores, you can re-take the exam. Of course, this is costly, as you must pay registration fees each time that you take the exam. Nevertheless, many students elect to re-take the GRE. This may have different effects on your graduate applications, depending upon the programs to which you are applying. Some graduate programs consider only your most recent GRE scores, while others benevolently consider only your highest GRE scores, and still others consider an average of all of your attempts at the GRE. Because you are not guaranteed to perform better on a second (or third, etc.) attempt at the GRE, you should weigh your options carefully before electing to re-take the test.
3. Curriculum Vita or Resume
Ordinarily, you should also include a resume or "curriculum vitae" (CV) with your graduate school application. CV is Latin, and roughly translated means "the story of life." In academic circles a CV is usually shortened to "vita," and the vita is the document used to summarize a person's academic and professional experience and accomplishments. A vita is much like a resume in format. However, a vita includes more depth in terms of education, research, and related experience. In my research group, I typically require my students to create their own CVs.
For more information see "Examples of my Research Assistants' Vita".
4. At Least 3 Letters of Recommendation
Most graduate programs require that you submit at least 3 letters of recommendation with your application. Ideally, these letters should provide the graduate admissions committee with an accurate sense of your potential success in their program. Thus, letters from individuals (such as university professors) that are familiar with your performance as a student and/or a researcher will carry more weight than letters that can only speak of your "good character." With this in mind, you should try to target your experiences as an undergraduate student so that you know (and are known by) professors who will be able to write recommendations for you. This will be discussed further in the next section.
Many students are not comfortable with the thought of asking a professor for a recommendation. However, professors expect to do this for students; and many professors are quite happy to write recommendations for students with whom they have worked with on scholarship or course projects. When requesting letters from professors, make sure you provide them with the appropriate forms from each of the application packets along with addressed, stamped envelopes for each letter. Additionally, be sure that you are aware of your application deadlines so that you can provide your "recommenders" with enough time to complete the task (at least 2 to 4 weeks is usually appreciated by busy professors).
A word of caution is necessary here. Avoid requesting letters of recommendation from professors with whom you have had little contact other than as a student in one of their courses. In such cases (as in large course sections, or in situations where you took a course with a professor many months or years ago), the professor may not remember who you are. In any event, in these situations the professor will not know much about you beyond the specific grade that you made in the course, and the letter that he or she writes will reflect that fact. Finally, be aware that graduate applications provide you the opportunity to reserve or waive the right to see your letters of recommendation. Ordinarily, you present a better application if you elect to waive the right to see the recommendations. This indicates that you are confident in the recommendations you will receive from your referees, and it insures that the referees will be as honest as possible in their responses.
For more details on recommendation see "Asking for Recommendations from Dr. Berry",
5. Research and/or Practical Experience in Psychology
As stated previously, grades and test scores are not the only things that are considered in graduate school applications. Many candidates for graduate programs demonstrate excellent academic abilities and high GPAs, but they are not skilled in the practical aspects of psychology necessary to excel in their chosen area of study. As a consequence, these students demonstrate excellent classroom performance in graduate school (they have "book smarts"), but they have difficulty completing the independent scientific research required by most graduate programs.
One way to develop your skills in these areas (and see whether you like the research side of psychology) is to become involved in the research program(s) or labs of one or more professors in the Department of Psychology. In fact, it is best to work with more than one professor during your undergraduate career so that more than one professor is familiar with your skills, abilities, and potential for success in graduate school. The key here is not necessarily to discover the area of research that interests you most, but rather to gain experience in the research process itself - regardless of the particular professor's area of research interest.
Some professors may announce to their classes that they are seeking undergraduate research assistants. However, many do not. Thus, it may be necessary for you to approach a professor and ask her or him whether they need any research assistance. If you do commit to working with a particular professor, it is VERY important that you conscientiously stick to your commitment. Dependable, efficient students receive better letters of recommendation than unreliable ones - don't forget that you are shaping your future!
A majority of graduate programs, whether experimental, or clinical/counseling (except most PsyD programs), require that students complete a research-based thesis and dissertation as part of their graduate program requirements. Thus, research experience is beneficial for virtually all students in psychology bound for grad school. However, students who are interested in clinical or counseling psychology may also wish to gain practical experience in human services as well. This kind of experience can be gained, for example, by volunteering at a homeless shelter, a rape crisis center, or for any other organization that provides counseling, social, or psychological services.
6. A Personal Statement Written by the Applicant
Most graduate school applications require that students submit an essay or "personal statement" with their applications. The purpose of such an essay is: (1) to state your professional goals and objectives, (2) to explain how the particular graduate program to which you are applying can help you meet these goals and objectives, and (3) to describe how your undergraduate career has prepared you for graduate study. In addition, this essay allows you to highlight your strengths, as well as explain what might appear to be weaknesses. This is the place in your application where you might point out your research experience or provide reasons for a "less than spectacular" GPA. These essays are NOT intended for students to relate their life stories and struggles that led them to desire a career in psychology (e.g. "I came from a dysfunctional family”, "I was orphaned at a young age”, "I battled alcoholism and have been sober for 3 years"). Remember, you are seeking to begin a PROFESSIONAL relationship with a graduate program - not a personal one, and your essay should reflect this fact.
Finally, your essay provides a sample of your writing ability to the graduate admissions committee. Graduate study in psychology involves a great deal of writing, and proficiency in writing is a definite advantage. Keep this in mind as you put together your essay. Make sure your essay is well organized, composed, and that your ideas fit together logically. In addition, do NOT submit essays with typographical errors and misspelled words. Finally, if the programs to which you are applying do not provide a form for your essay in their application packets, write your essay in APA style.
7. "Goodness-of-Fit" Between the Applicant and the Program
Graduate programs want their students to succeed. To this end, they seek to match students with faculty members (as often as possible) on the basis of shared research and professional interests. Thus, when you are considering graduate programs, make yourself aware of individual faculty members' research interests. In your personal statement, when you are describing how a particular graduate program fits your needs and goals, you can mention individual faculty members whose research specifically interest you. By mentioning this in your “personal statement” you demonstrate to the admissions committee that (1) there is a good "fit" between you and their program, and (2) that you have done your homework!
After reviewing a pool of graduate applications for a given academic year, graduate programs may select a small number of candidates to "visit" the campus and graduate program. This "visit" may last an entire day, and it serves many purposes. First, it allows you (the candidate) to see the facilities (classrooms, offices, research space and equipment, etc.), meet the professors, and get a feel for the "climate" of the department. If you are admitted to the program, you will be spending a great deal of time there, over several years of your life, and you need to be sure that the department is a place where you want to be living and working. Consequently, you should view the "visit" as an opportunity for you to interview the program. Ask questions of the faculty you meet. For example: Do they provide office space for graduate students? How long does it take a typical student to complete the program? Do they provide opportunities for graduate assistantships? This last question is an important one, as graduate assistantships generally offer students the opportunity to assist a professor in teaching and/or research for a modest salary (called a stipend) and tuition remission (they pay your tuition). Thus, the opportunity for an assistantship may be the deciding factor between graduate programs that you are considering.
Second, the "visit" allows the faculty a chance to meet YOU before making an admissions decision. Thus, you should treat this as an INTERVIEW, just as you would any other professional job interview. First impressions are important, so dress professionally, and be prepared! As stated above, have questions for faculty members prepared in advance. In addition, faculty members will ask YOU questions. For example, they may ask about your research experience, about your specific areas of interest in psychology, or they may ask you to describe your career goals in psychology. Consequently, you need to consider these kinds of issues before the interview and be prepared to give well-thought-out answers. Finally, if time permits, you should do a literature-search and web-search (e.g., PsycFirst, PsycLit, Google, Google Scholar, …) and familiarize yourself with the faculty members' research.