Careers & Grad School
Applying to graduate school can be a difficult process, but it doesn't have to be. The following pages offer some tips to make your application process a little easier. As you will notice, this process is not isolated to your last year as an undergraduate; in fact, you should begin looking at some aspects early in your sophomore year. If you come across this timeline a little later in your college career, however, there is no need to panic. You may just have a little catching up to do. Good luck in your search! These guidelines should be of some help no matter where you are in the process.
During your sophomore year, it is important to begin building a strong GPA. Because you will apply at the beginning of your senior year and your freshman year may be viewed as a transition period, graduate schools will primarily look at your sophomore and junior years as far as grades are concerned. If you have a Ph.D. program in mind, it would be beneficial to enroll in some laboratory classes not only to gain research experience, but to cultivate relationships with professors as well. This is also a good time to get involved in volunteer or work experience related to the psychology field. The Community Affairs Board and Counseling and Career Services are good resources for this.
Keep your GPA up. Admissions requirements in the psychology field are often more competitive than students expect, so your grades are very important. If you find yourself in psychology classes that are too large to get to know the professor well by merely attending class, make the effort to go to their office hours. Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation and they do not want to receive generic letters from professors who only know what grade you received. Your junior year is a good time to become involved in faculty research projects. Psychology 199 was designed with this purpose in mind. These classes will provide you with important research skills if you are considering a research-oriented program or if you are looking into a Ph.D. program. (Research experience is a MUST if you are considering these areas.) Begin thinking about the type of program to which you would like to apply, and when you would like to take the GRE. Two important resources for researching programs are the APA guide to graduate schools (the full title appears at the end of this document), and Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Summer Following your Junior Year
Mail away as earlier as possible for applications and information from the schools in which you are interested. Make sure to request a list of current faculty and their research interests. Applications may not be ready at the time of request so be prepared to wait for several weeks. This is also the time to register and study for the GRE. (Refer to section on the GRE.) You should begin to think about who you will ask for letters of recommendation. It is good to ask professors at the beginning of fall quarter, due to the many requests they receive for letters. Try to ask professors who can give you a positive character reference as well as a good academic recommendation. Remember, graduate schools use these references as an indicator of your ability to work at a graduate level.
Request your recommendations as soon as possible. Recommendations and applications can be due as early as the beginning of December, depending on the graduate school. You will also be required to send a number of official transcripts from each college or university you have attended, regardless of how many units were completed or whether courses were eventually applied towards degree requirements (this includes any summer school classes that may have been taken at a community college in your area). During the latter part of fall quarter, the registrar gets backed up with many transcript requests, so it is important to begin this process as early as possible, as the registrar’s office may take up to two weeks to process a request.
- If it is a Ph.D. program that you are considering, can you get your Master’s Degree along the way? (Life circumstances may cause you to drop out of the program early, and this will ensure that you may still earn an advanced degree, even if you are unable to complete the Ph.D. program.)
- If you are considering a clinical program, is it APA approved?
- Is the school located in a place that you are willing to live for two to six years?
- Are the research interests of the faculty compatible with yours? (This will be a determining factor in your admission. Even if your credentials surpass the admissions standards, your interests must match those of a faculty member or you will not be admitted.)
- What is the reputation of the department (independent of the school’s overall reputation)?
- For information about the national rankings of various programs, visit the following website:
Five areas on which your application will be evaluated:
- Undergraduate curriculum and GPA
- GRE and possibly MAT scores (Counseling and Career Services can refer you to study materials and classes to prepare for these exams)
- Letters of recommendation
- Past experience: both research and practical
- Statement of purpose (consult Counseling and Career Services for workshops to help you format this)
You will be expected to know your research interests and the people at the university with whom you will want to work. Be prepared also to write different variations of your statement of purpose for each university. It is important to take this essay seriously because it is the only evidence of character with which the university’s admissions committee can evaluate you. Many university deadlines are posted for when all the application materials must be in the office, not when it needs to be postmarked. Make sure you are aware of the differences. When you send your applications, make copies of all your materials for your records, and send everything certified mail. After approximately one week, call the college and make sure everything in your file is complete. Graduate schools do not consider this their responsibility. REMEMBER: this is a big commitment of time as well as financial resources. However, it is important to keep in mind that this is your future, and you do not want to skimp on any aspect. All graduate programs are extremely competitive, so plan to apply to 10-20 schools. This may sound excessive, but acceptance rates are 1-5%, so it is best to cover all your bases. Also, because of the competitive nature of graduate programs, you may want to apply to more than one type of program (i.e., if you are looking towards a clinical program, you may also want to apply to a counseling program)
Most likely, the programs you will apply to will require the GRE general exam as well as the psychology subject exam. The GRE general exam is a computer-based test. It is available for the first three weeks of the month from September-February, and the first two weeks of the month from March-August. More information on the GRE, registration materials and test bulletins are available at the GRE web site http://www.gre.org/, where you will also find a new feature, a search function that allows you to input relevant data about yourself which is disseminated to graduate schools who are recruiting students with your interests and qualifications.
The GRE website also offers a wealth of information on preparing for the test. According to Educational Testing Service (the company that designs the GRE), it is difficult to study for the general test per se, and potential examinees are advised to familiarize themselves with the types of questions that will be asked, and the format of the questions. The psychology subject exam is approximately two hours long, and includes 215 multiple-choice questions. The subject test is only offered 3 times per year, so plan accordingly. Prep courses are available for the GRE, however, it is up to each individual student to assess the usefulness of such courses. They can be very expensive. There are also books available for students who want to prepare on their own. GRE offers free sample tests, which you can obtain by requesting them through the website. Counseling and Career Services is also a good resource for information on the GRE and sample tests.
Take the GRE as early as possible during your senior year, as scores take up to six weeks for processing. You can indicate up to 4 schools to receive your scores at the time of registration, and for a fee you may add more schools on the test date, or through a phone system recently developed by GRE
Letters of Recommendation
Request these as early as possible. You will need to prepare a fact sheet which includes your overall GPA, your psychology GPA, research interests, applied experience (volunteer work, etc.) and career goals for the letter writers. A copy of your personal statement can be very useful. There is a system in the Psychology main office for setting up a file for your letters of recommendation. Professors in the Psychology department are familiar with this system and find it the easiest way to complete your letters. See Chris McFerron for more information.
More on letters of recommendation
Statement of Purpose
This may be the most important part of your application. It is the only representation of yourself that is not hard data. It is also your chance to address any weaknesses in your application. Allow yourself enough time to write a good one, and be prepared to revise and rewrite as necessary. Counseling and Career Services provides workshops on how to write these essays, and can also provide samples for you to examine. Although you want to include the basics: "I have done this, I would like to do that, and this is why I chose your program", this is also your chance to bring out anything about yourself that would set you apart from other applicants. Concentrate on narrative style, and don’t be afraid to be yourself – let them know that you have studied up on their program and tell them how you will be a productive member of their department.
Talk to a wide variety of people, for example:
- Peer Advisors
- Others currently applying to graduate school
- Professionals in your field of interest
- Graduate students in your field of interest
- Graduate advisors at the universities to which you are applying
The following is a partial list of books you might find helpful as you go through the application process. Check with Counseling and Career Services for others which might be helpful.
- Graduate Study in Psychology and Associated Fields (Published yearly by the American Psychological Association)
- Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Programs in the Humanities and the Social Sciences (available at Counseling and Career Services)
- Careers in Psychology (a pamphlet available from the American Psychological Association - write to the Order Dept., APA, 1200 17th Street N.W., Washington, DC, 20036)