There is no doubt that being offered admission into a graduate program in clinical psychology is a competitive endeavor. The high number of applicants and the low number of admissions makes admission a rare event. Most programs will seek the highest-quality applicants, making this a competitive event for both the student-applicants as well as the admitting programs. It is typical for a single program to receive about 200 or so applications for between 5 and 8 admission spots, making the chances of being admitted less than 5%. This article describes a few of the ways in which you can increase your chances of being offered admission into a graduate program. The focus here is on doctoral programs in clinical psychology but the advice can be applied to any type of graduate program.
The earlier you know that you want to go on to receive a graduate degree in clinical psychology the better. Undergraduate students should seek out various opportunities beginning in the first or second year of their degree programs. If you are one of the lucky ones who knows what you would like to do upon completion of your undergraduate degree, good for you! Get started early! Inquire as to whether your undergraduate degree program has an Honors degree or other “track” for those interested in going on to graduate school and take advantage of this opportunity. Typically, an honors degree will involved advanced coursework as well as a research project. Both of these will help to prepare you for the rigors of graduate school.
Of course, many students will not discover their interest in psychology until later in their undergraduate degree programs. As soon as you know that you would like to go on to graduate school, you need to get started on this process. The first thing you will want to do is talk to the faculty in your department and find out who is working on what research. It is very important that you start to know the faculty members in your department and find someone with whom you can work. This experience will be invaluable.
Get Involved in Research
There are two types of doctoral degree programs to which you might apply—a PhD program or a PsyD program. There are more PhD programs available but these tend to be much more competitive than the PsyD programs. The PhD degree is a research degree and so you will need to complete a dissertation to obtain your doctoral degree. Although PsyD programs tend, in general, to be less research-oriented, this does not mean that you will be able to make it through a doctoral program (any doctoral program) without having to do some research. Research will be an inevitable part of your doctoral program and so individuals who have research experience are going to be more competitive in their applications than are those without research experience. If there is only one thing that you do as an undergraduate to prepare for graduate school, it should be getting involved in research!
Working with a faculty member and getting involved in their research gives you at least three distinct advantages when applying to graduate school. First, it allows you to begin to understand how to conduct research, which is important to graduate programs. Second, it gives you something to talk about in your graduate school interviews (most clinical programs will conduct an interview of their top candidates). Third, it allows you the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member who will then be able to provide you with a strong letter of recommendation.
Many times students will say that they did not get involved in research because there was no one on faculty who was interested in what the student wanted to study. This is not the way to go about this process. Students should get involved in research of any type. Most psychology departments do not have forensic psychologists on faculty but this should not stop students who are interested in pursuing forensic psychology from getting involved in research while an undergraduate. No graduate program is going to say, “Well, she had research experience but it wasn’t in forensic psychology (or cognitive psychology, or neuropsychology, etc) so we didn’t offer her admission.” Graduate programs do not expect that students will have experience conducting the exact type of research that they would like to conduct while in graduate school. In fact, they know that most students will not. Simply getting involved in research while an undergraduate is what’s important!
Try to Obtain Some Clinical Experience
For those who are interested in pursuing clinical psychology degrees or forensic clinical degrees, it is a bonus if you can obtain some clinical experience while an undergraduate. This can be difficult to do since most clinical facilities require their employees to have at least an undergraduate degree in psychology, if not a masters degree. However, being an employee is only one way to go about gaining clinical experience. Volunteer clinical experience is just as good so think about becoming involved as a volunteer at a clinical facility to gain this experience. Ask the faculty members in your department where they might recommend that you volunteer to get this experience. If your undergraduate program has a graduate program, they will most likely have contacts with community mental health centers and other treatment facilities that you can then inquire with about the possibility of volunteering to gain clinical experience. Find out who serves as the Director of Clinical Training (DCT) for the graduate program in your psychology department and ask this person about clinical opportunities to help you prepare for graduate school.
While obtaining clinical experience is a benefit that will make you more competitive when applying to graduate programs, it can be difficult to obtain so try your best. If you have to make a decision between obtaining research experience and obtaining clinical experience, choose the research experience, as it will put you at more of an advantage for most doctoral programs.
Prepare for the GRE
In order to apply to graduate school you will need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test for admission to graduate schools across the United States and Canada. The GRE consists of a number of sections and measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. In addition to the GRE General test, you may also be required by some graduate programs to take the GRE Psychology Subject test so inquire with the programs of interest to you to determine whether you will also need to take this test in addition to the GRE General test.
Most graduate programs have their application deadlines in the late part of the year (typically, November – December). This means that you will be applying for graduate programs shortly after beginning your senior (fourth) year as an undergraduate. You will need to submit your GRE test scores with your application (or have them sent directly from the Educational Testing Service to the graduate schools to which you are applying) so this means that you will need to allow time for the scoring of your exam. Typically, the summer between your third and fourth (junior and senior) year of your undergraduate degree is when you will want to take the GRE. It is, however, a good idea to try and take this test a little earlier if you are one of those people who does not do well on standardized tests and would like the opportunity to take the test again before applying to graduate school so factor this into your timeline. If you think that you might want/need to take the GRE more than once, you should make your first attempt sometime in your junior (third) year as an undergraduate (perhaps in the Spring semester).
The better prepared you are for the General GRE, the better your chances of obtaining a score on this exam that is an accurate reflection of your abilities so make sure to prepare. There are numerous websites and books devoted to preparing you for the GRE exam.
Obtain Strong Letters of Recommendation
Typically you be asked to submit three letters of recommendation along with your application to graduate school. The best letters of recommendation come from those individuals who know you well and who can speak about your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. The worst letters of recommendation come from those who do not know you well or with whom you have had little interaction. Students will often ask a faculty member with whom they have taken one course to write them a letter of recommendation. If you can avoid this, please try to do so. These letters, although common, are not considered to be strong letters of support as the faculty member is unable to truly speak to your abilities if they have only had limited interaction with you. If you must obtain a letter from someone with whom you have only had one class, try to ask a professor from a class where you were able to interact meaningfully with the professor, such as senior-level seminars with a lot of class discussion or courses where you had to write papers or conduct presentations. These more interactive classes will allow the professor a better chance to assess the abilities and skills that will be important in graduate school.
If you have worked or volunteered at a clinical facility, get a letter from your supervisor at this facility. Even if this person is not a psychologist, he or she will have a sense of your abilities and how well you performed in your clinical tasks and should be able to speak to your strengths and weaknesses.
If you have worked with one or more faculty members on their research, get a letter from each of these professors. These will be your strongest letters of recommendation, as these individuals will have had the opportunity to work closely with you and to observe how you manage in a research environment. These individuals will also be familiar with what it takes to get into graduate school and will be able to speak about your strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to the requirements of graduate school.
Often times it is difficult for undergraduate students to obtain strong letters of recommendation as they have not had much contact with professors other than those with whom they have had classes. If you start early in your undergraduate career and seek out faculty members in your department, this will be an easier task.
Research the Programs where you are Interested in Applying
Many times, students will make the decision to apply to graduate school in clinical psychology (or forensic psychology, or whatever other area of psychology they are interested in) but then use a shotgun approach to the application process—applying far and wide without much thought about what program might be a good fit. This is not the way to go about applying to graduate school.
If successful, you will spend the next 4-6 years in a doctoral program so it is important to make sure that the program is a good fit for you. The program will also be invested in attempting to determine which students would be a good fit for the program. The interview process is an opportunity for the student to visit the program and for the program to engage with the student so that both the student and the program can get a sense of whether it is a good fit. So, it is important to do your research and find out about the program to make sure you are making a decision that works for you.
The easiest way to being this process is to come up with a short list (which might not actually be all that short!) of programs that you are interested in and then start to look in detail at the program’s materials. How many credits of coursework are required? Will you complete a Masters thesis as well as a dissertation? How many students does the program accept each year? Is the program accredited? What types of clinical opportunities are available? In what types of research are the faculty engaged? What is the training model for the program? These general questions should help you narrow down the programs and assist you in determining which programs you are most interested in (perhaps even allow you to come up with a ranking of programs).
Once you have a sense of which programs are the top ones of interest for you, you should then invest your time in researching the faculty and attempting to determine which 2 or 3 faculty members with whom you would most like to work. Look at the research interests of the faculty in the program’s promotional materials but remember that these materials are typically printed once every few years and that the research interests may have changed or may not be up-to-date. The best students go beyond the program materials and will conduct a literature search (using PsychLit, PsychInfo, or some other general psychology database) of the faculty they are interested in. Look for their most recent publications and read one or two of the ones you find most intriguing. This will give you the best sense of whether the faculty member is active in research, whether they work with students on their research (are students listed as co-authors?), and whether this is an area of interest for you.
Contact Faculty Members before Applying
Once you have conducted research on the programs of interest to you and have made a determination regarding which faculty members at each of the programs you would be interested in working with, it is best to attempt to touch base with the faculty member(s) to determine whether they will, in fact, be accepting students.
Depending upon the model used by the graduate program, you may or may not be “assigned” to work with a faculty member upon admission. Some programs adhere to a strict mentoring model wherein students are offered admission into a program by a particular faculty member, with whom the student is expected to work. Other programs will admit students into the program without a mentor assigned. And yet other programs adhere to a mixed model wherein they try to match students with mentors upon admission but allow students to switch from one mentor to another once the student has had a chance to figure out with whom they would like to work. (The type of model used by a program is an important question to ask if you get to the interview stage.)
For those programs that use a mentoring model where a particular faulty member admits a student, applicants who apply to work with a faculty member who is not taking students are thus disadvantaged and may not be considered. Therefore, it is important to know whether a faculty member is planning to take a student. Of course, these things can change (and who gets a student can be a political issue within the department) but it is best to send a brief introductory email to a faculty member with whom you would like to work to inquire about whether he or she will be accepting graduate students for the next year. This is especially important if you have decided that you would only accept an offer of admission to a program if you could work with a particular faculty member (generally, not a good idea but always a possibility).
No need to go into a long and detailed description of who you are and what you would like to do in graduate school (interests do change and faculty can become inundated with these sorts of inquiry emails) but a brief email to a faculty member indicating that you have read their work, are interested in applying to work with them, and are wondering whether they will be accepting students in the Fall is a good idea. Don’t fret if the faculty member does not reply (as I said, the good ones can become inundated with these emails) but do take this as a sign that you might need to also select one or two other faculty members that you might be interested in working with just in case.
Note: Please do not send the same email to every single faculty member in a department as a way to “hedge your bets.” It becomes painfully obvious when a blanket email is sent to multiple faculty members and faculty do talk so this type of inquiry is to be avoided. Only send emails to those that you are truly interested in working with.
Spend Time on your Personal Statement
Most graduate programs will require that you submit a personal statement as part of your application. This is an opportunity for you to tell the program why you are interested in pursuing a degree in clinical psychology and why you are interested in this program. This should not be used as an opportunity to divulge too much personal information about your own pathologies! What many programs do not tell you is that the personal statement is also used as a writing sample; thus, it is imperative that you submit a well written, grammatically correct statement. Nothing looks worse than a personal statement that has not been proofread and that sounds like it was written by a second-grader. Talk about your interests and why you want to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, talk about why this particular program is of interest to you and would be a good match for you, and talk about the research interests of 2 or 3 faculty members with whom you would like to work. Mention these faculty members by name in your personal statement and show that you have read some of their recent work by including cites to this work and indicated that you are interested in working with them on this type of research. Many programs use the personal statement as a way of determining which faculty member might be a good match for each student so make their job easy by providing this information for them.
Talk about the Elephant in the Room (if applicable)
If there is an elephant sitting in the room, it does no one any good to simply ignore it. Most often, the elephant to which I am referring is low GRE scores. If you did not do as well as you would have liked on the GRE exam and you do not believe that this is a good indicator of your abilities, say so in your personal statement. It is not uncommon for bright, motivated students to do more poorly than expected on a standardized test. If this is the case, and you did not do as well as you would have liked or expected on the GRE, spend a paragraph on this in your personal statement. If you can, try to provide examples of how this test was not an accurate reflection of your abilities. Without going into lengthy detail about all the excuses or reasons why you weren’t at your best when you took the exam, simply state that you did not do as well as you expected, that you do not believe that your scores accurately reflect your abilities, and then try to provide an example of how your critical thinking, verbal reasoning, or quantitative reasoning skills are better reflected by your GPA or some other indicator of ability. Remember, however, that your writing abilities will be evident in your personal statement so don’t embarrass yourself by trying to make the argument that you are a great writer in a poorly written personal statement!
Talk with those who are writing your letters of recommendation and explain that you did not do as well as expected on the GRE and then ask them to address this issue in their letter of recommendation if they believe that your scores do not accurately reflect your abilities. (Remember, however, that we don’t always have the best insight into our own abilities so your letter writers may choose to simply ignore this request if they believe that your scores do accurately reflect your ability.)
Be Prepared for the Interview
Most clinical programs will hold an interview day where prospective students can visit the campus and meet with faculty and students at the program. If you are invited to an interview day, congratulations! Only the top students are invited and so you have solidified your spot as one of the top applicants. The interview day is the program’s opportunity to showcase itself and to meet with prospective students in an attempt to determine the fit for the program. Do not show up unprepared! Do your research ahead of time. Ask with whom you will be meeting (most programs will provide you with an agenda for the day) if you can. If you are not given an agenda ahead of time, show up prepared to speak with any of the clinical faculty members. Be prepared to talk about your research interests, your clinical interests, and your research and clinical experience. Most programs know that students’ interests will change over time but those students who have read research in a particular area and can talk about it intelligently will stand out. Be one of those students!
Treat the interview in as professional a manner as possible. Show up dressed appropriately (trust me, you do not want to show up wearing anything that would have you noticed for all the wrong reasons!). Follow up with a thank you note or email.
There will most likely be an opportunity for you to meet with and talk to other students in the program. Make the most of this opportunity. Ask them about their experiences, what they like about the program, what they dislike about it, who they work with, which faculty members are known for being good mentors, and which are known for being difficult to work with. They will be able to provide valuable information for making a decision regarding the program and its fit with your interests.
One final word of caution: If there is a student event where current students interact socially with interview candidates without faculty present, do NOT get drunk and do NOT act like a fool. Although this is a social event and will typically occur after the interview day, you are foolish to think that it is not part of the interview. Inappropriate behavior does not go unnoticed in this type of setting so act professionally and appropriately.
Photo courtesy of psychology-schools.com