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!