12 Jul 2017

Tips for Applying to Graduate School

Tips for Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can be a challenging process that requires effort, patience and time. However, there are many things you can do to overcome your anxiety about the application process. Here are some tips that APA gathered from recruiters and successful graduate students that can help bring you one step closer to acceptance at your dream school.

Find you perfect match

Selecting the graduate program in psychology that is best for you requires thoughtful consideration. First, think carefully about your career goals and training interests, then apply to programs with graduates that succeed in the types of jobs and training programs you are most interested in. In addition, make sure your previous education and training have prepared you for success in the program. As you review graduate programs, ask these questions:

  1. What is the profile of recently admitted students in terms of academic background, standardized test scores, research experience, work experience and demographic characteristics? Your profile should be similar to theirs to help ensure your acceptance to and success within the program.
  2. What is the program's success rate in terms of the percentage of admitted students who graduate, and what is the average number of years they required to do so?
  3. What are the goals and objectives of the program? Do they match your interests and academic preparation as a prospective graduate student?
  4. For programs with an emphasis on academic and research careers, what is the record of graduates' success in obtaining postdoctoral research fellowships, academic appointments or applied research positions outside a college or university setting?
  5. For programs that require an internship or practicum, what is the success rate of placement for students attending the program? What level of assistance is provided to students in obtaining practicum and internship placements?
  6. For programs with an emphasis on professional practice, what is the program's accreditation status (only applicable to clinical, counseling and school doctoral programs)? Are their graduates successful in obtaining licensure, in being selected for advanced practice residencies, and in getting jobs after they finish training?
  7. What types of financial assistance does each program offer?

Graduate school is more of a mentorship program, where students are required to conduct their own research. Therefore, graduate schools look not only for students who will do well in the program, but also for those who will benefit from the program and contribute to the research projects of the schools. Before you apply, make sure that the program is the best fit for you academically and financially. Research the program carefully so that you can find out whether you are the best fit for the program.

Settle Your Score:  GRE and GPA

Most graduate schools seek the best students who will match their programs and offer the most to the field. One approach they use to select these students is to consider students’ GPA and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Even though these are not the only elements graduate schools use to decide whether a student will be accepted to the program, they are usually the explicit cutoff point. Your awesome recommendation letter or experience will not be considered if your GRE and GPA score is below the required level. There are many things that you can do to prevent yourself from a GRE/ GPA crisis:

  1. Set a goal to get your GPA and GRE scores up to the level that the schools expect you to have. This will offer more opportunity for your recommendation letters and experience to be considered.
  2. It is always smart to start early. You will never realize how difficult and time-consuming the GRE can be until you begin your learning process. Therefore, plan to study for the GRE early, so that you will be well prepared despite other unexpected factors that might affect your plan.
  3. Ask other students to study for the GRE with you. Having a partner can motivate you to be more serious with your study plan.
  4. Take advantage of all the resources you have. There are many different books, apps, and websites that can assist you in getting a higher GRE score.

In contrast with the GRE, building a strong GPA is more of a long-term process. You have to keep on working hard throughout all four years of undergraduate school to achieve a good GPA. The good news is that you do not need to have a 4.0. Be ambitious but also be realistic when you set out to reach your goal GPA so that you will not lose your motivation. Always keep in mind that you have to meet the requirements of the schools to which you are applying. If you have already tried hard but did not get the GPA or GRE score that you wanted, don’t let this undermine your academic career. You can still impress many programs with a well-written personal statement and by spotlighting research experiences and providing strong letters of recommendation. It is important to remember that many graduate programs, including the top ones such as Stanford University, look at more than just your GPA and GRE score.

Research Experience

  • Start research early. Graduate school admission reviewers expect stellar grades and strong GRE scores. Stand out from the applicant crowd by immersing yourself in research as soon as you think a psychology career might be in the cards for you, says Katherine Sledge Moore, a third-year cognitive psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan.

"Research experience is the best preparation for graduate school, and these days is virtually a requirement," she says.

There are many ways you can find research opportunities before applying to graduate school:

  1. Ask professors from your undergraduate psychology courses if they need research assistants or want to take on independent study students. And completing a senior thesis is a must, she adds, because it shows that you have the ability to conduct an entire research experiment from idea conception to final data analysis.
  2. Get psyched for summer.  Spend your free time over summer break or during afternoons off, for example, working in a research lab or volunteering at a hospital's behavioral health center.
  3. If you are having difficulty finding research opportunities, go to the APA’s PSYCIQ website: http://psyciq.apa.org/psyciq-quick-links-funding-sources/. There you will find search tools for locating grants, funds, internship, and research internships.
  4. Always remember to start early. Do not wait until the first semester of your senior year to look for your first research team. If you start early, you will be well prepared by the time you apply for graduate school.

"In two years, you'll have the substantive amount of work done, maybe even enough to submit for publication, before you apply," she says.

Personal statement

The personal statement is the most important element in your application package. You may have chosen the right schools to apply to, but now you must prove that you are the best fit for their program. Throughout your personal statement, show the recruiters that you have amazing research experiences, abilities, potential, clarity of plan, and writing skills. There are a few things that you should keep in mind while drafting your essays:

  1. Do not use the same statements for all schools. Different programs might have different requirements, which means you have to adjust your statement accordingly to what the programs are looking for.
  2. When you are writing about your goals and experiences, aim for precision and detail. Avoid generic statements.
  3. Proofread your statement many times before submitting it.

Recommendation letter

Most graduate school applications require recommendation letters, often from faculty you've worked for or taken classes with. It is easy to get a recommendation letter, but it takes more effort to get a good one that can impress the recruiters:

  1. Remember to ask the right people. Choose only those who know you and your abilities well, and who won’t simply say you got an A in the class.
  2. Make the process easy for your professor. He or she will appreciate it. Be specific about the program or position you are applying for, and provide an accurate list of your experiences and activities.
  3. Do not forget to show your sincere appreciation. A thoughtful, handwritten thank-you note may increase your chances for a future recommendation should you need one.

We hope that this advice gives you a clearer idea of the application process and what you can do to increase your chances of success. Remember that you have to show the recruiter how special and unique you are. Many applicants have outstanding grades and research experience, so make sure that you stand out to the recruiter with your own story. Applying for graduate schools can be challenging, but APA has tools and resources to assist you on your journey.

The information for this article comes from APA’s Graduate and Postdoctoral Education website:

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