Suggestions to consider regarding the grad school application process (continued)
by senior psychology honors major Kim Maurelli (continued)
some schools also require the GRE Subject Test in Psychology. Make sure that you take these tests at least two months before the first application due date so that you will have your test scores before you have to send in your applications. The GRE test is offered fairly frequently, so if possible I would recommend taking it the summer before your senior year, if not earlier. Make sure that you also spend some time studying for the test. I had always thought I was pretty good at math, but I took a practice test and was shocked to realize how long it had been since I had done trigonometry or algebra and in a timed test I didn’t do very well. I ended up having to study quite a bit for the math section, which I didn’t initially expect to do. The verbal section is quite challenging because it is not something people would usually be tested on. I studied a lot for the verbal section because when I took some practice tests there were many words in the verbal section that I had never even seen before. Studying and taking practice tests is important and will help you prepare for the test and hopefully get a great score. It is also important to have a good understanding of what the test is like. It is computerized and timed.
The Subject Test in Psychology is quite a bit different from the General GRE test. It is only offered a few times a year, so make sure to find out when it is offered. You may want to begin looking at test dates spring semester of your junior year. I ended up taking the test in November and I didn’t get my scores back in time to apply to a few schools. Don’t make the same mistake. Make sure to take it early enough that you will get your scores in time to apply to all the schools you want to. It is 200+ multiple choice questions, and it is a paper and pencil test. The number of questions on the test varies, and when I took the test I had three hours to complete it. I was told by several people that the best way to study for the subject test is to read an introductory psychology book. I also kept all my notebooks from all of my psychology classes and I looked over my notes. They do sell study aids in the stores which you can use as well. Make sure to check which schools require the subject test before sending it to the schools. You can only send your score to four schools without having to pay extra, so I only sent them to the schools that required them. Who to send them to is up to you though. If you get a really great score, you may want to send it to all the schools you apply to. If you don’t get a great score, you may want to send it only to those schools that require it.
Finding the Right School: Start looking for schools fairly early. I would suggest starting to look at schools once you have a good idea what you want to pursue in graduate school. There are a couple of different options when you go to graduate school. You can get a master’s degree, PhD or PsyD. What type of degree you should pursue depends on what you want to do for a career later in life. If you want to go into counseling psychology and have no interest in being a professor later in life, then you may only need a master’s degree. However if you want to go into clinical psychology or want to be a professor then you’re probably going to need either a PhD or a PsyD. The biggest difference between a PhD and a PsyD is the focus. PhD programs require a research dissertation, so if you don’t like research it is probably not a good idea to pursue a PhD. PsyD programs focus more on clinical training. PsyD programs are private and they don’t usually offer much, if any, funding for students whereas PhD programs usually have funding in the form of research or teaching assistantships or fellowships.
Begin looking at schools at least the summer before your senior year. I used the book “Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology” by Tracy J. Mayne, John C. Norcross and Michael A. Sayette. Compile a list of schools that interest you, and then research those schools to determine what they are really like. Look up various professors to see what type of research they are conducting and if it is something you would be interested in working on. Look up what research labs and facilities they have at the school. Or if you are interested in more clinical work, look to see what clinical opportunities they offer. See what various sites you could work at and if they have opportunities that you would want to pursue.
There are many factors that go into deciding what schools to apply to. Make sure that the program really does interest you. If it is highly research intensive and that’s not something you are interested in, don’t apply. Even if you got into the program, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it. You may also want to take into consideration what types of financial aid they provide to students, and how many students receive this aid. Many schools will say on their website that they offer tuition waivers and assistantships and fellowships. A tuition waiver means they will pay for a certain number of credits. They should also say on their website what percentage of incoming students received a tuition waiver, assistantship/fellowship or both. From what I have seen larger universities tend to provide more funding to students, while private graduate schools may not provide as much funding. You may also want to consider location. If you want to be in a certain area you can look more closely at schools in that location. I personally had no reason to live in a specific location so I looked at schools all over the country which was nice because I didn’t limit which schools I looked at. But depending on what you want to go to school for you may not need to look at schools all over the country. For example, if you are interested in doing research on anxiety disorders many schools do that type of research so you will probably be able to find several schools in some specific area.
Criteria for admission vary greatly from one school to another so make sure to look closely at each school to see what they require and what they prefer. For some schools you may not meet the average GRE scores or GPA, for other schools you may be well above these averages. Some schools want applicants that have research experience (most schools that emphasize research in their programs do) while some schools want applicants that have clinical experience (most schools that emphasize clinical training). Many schools also prefer that students have both research and clinical experience; however, they don’t expect you to be an expert in the field of psychology. They realize that many applicants are coming straight out of undergraduate school, and they certainly take that into consideration. Pay attention to what courses are required and preferred. If you haven’t yet taken those classes either plan to take them or maybe look at another school. It is also helpful if you have taken at least some of the courses that they prefer but do not require incoming students to have taken. Not having a class isn’t necessarily going to prohibit you from being accepted, but it does help to have as many courses as possible that they require or prefer.
Applying to Schools: Once you have decided which schools you would like to apply to, get started on the applications. The earlier you start working on the applications, the easier the process will be. Every school that I looked at required applicants to write a personal statement. The personal statement is very important because it is what often distinguishes one applicant from another. Most people that apply to graduate school are at the top of their class in terms of GPA and have good GRE scores. The personal statement allows you to explain to the school why you are unique from the other applicants and why you should be accepted. You get to highlight your accomplishments in this section as well as what it is you want to achieve while in graduate school. Some schools have specific requirements of what they want in the personal statement while others are more flexible with what you can write. Pay close attention to what each school requires. Most schools have their applications available online for you to download. If they don’t, email or write the school to request an application. Most schools will have their applications available September 1, and some schools have application deadlines as early as November. For many schools you will need to apply to both the department and the graduate school. Sometimes the graduate school will have a different deadline than the department, so make a note of the deadlines so that you don’t miss them.
Apply to several schools, some where you are at or above the averages for GRE scores and GPA, and some “harder” schools where you are below the average GRE scores and GPA. It helps to keep in mind that a GPA and GRE score isn’t going to really set you apart from other applicants. Most students that apply to graduate school have great GPAs and good GRE scores. You will notice that at many schools the average GPA is 3.9 or higher. Don’t be discouraged by this if your GPA or GRE score is not as high. While GRE scores and GPA are taken into consideration, they are certainly not what determine your admittance. The personal statement and recommendation letters for many schools carry a lot of weight when making a decision.
Ask for letters of recommendation early so that your writers will have plenty of time to complete the letters and send them out before the deadline. Provide your writers with addressed and stamped envelopes. If they are to return the letters to you (some schools prefer that you send all materials in at one time in one package) provide them with envelopes and let them know when you will stop by their office to pick the letters up. It is very helpful if you provide your writers with your resume and/or curriculum vitae so that they have an idea of what research and clinical experience you have been involved in and what your accomplishments are. It is also helpful if you let your writers know what you are looking to accomplish while at graduate school. If you are applying to PhD programs, let them know what type of research you are interested in. This will help them tailor their recommendation letter to have it reiterate some of what you will be writing in your personal statement.
Applying to quite a few schools will increase your chances of being accepted at one. I believe the average number of schools people apply to is 10-12. I applied to eight schools, and I know some other people that applied to six and ten respectively. It is a personal choice how many schools you want to apply to, and it usually comes down to how many schools have programs that really interest you. You can apply to only a few schools, but keep in mind that there are usually over 100 applicants to any program that only offers admission to 6-10 people a year. The amount of applicants and the number of people admitted will vary from program to program. On the flip side you don’t want to apply to all the schools that sound remotely interesting to you, because it is expensive applying to schools. All schools have application fees, and you also have to pay to have your GRE scores sent. Also take into consideration the expense of postage for the application and recommendation letters. The expense of applying to schools will begin to add up quickly.
From speaking to professors at Gustavus, reading online, and also talking to professors while visiting a school, the most common thing I have been told is the most important thing that determines if an applicant will be accepted is if they are a good match with the faculty and program. That is why it is so important that you find a program you are legitimately interested in. If you aren’t interested in the program, the faculty will be able to tell and chances are you won’t be accepted. If you are looking to do research, look up some of the studies the professors are working on and decide if they are studies you would also be interested in working on. What the professors want to do is find students who they have enough shared interests with that they can devise a research project that both parties will find enjoyable and beneficial. Your interests don’t need to be completely defined yet, and you don’t need to conform completely to what the professors are interested in, but it is crucial that you find someone whose interests are close to yours that you would want to work with.
Interviewing: Many schools will narrow their applicant pool down to about 20-30 students and invite those students to visit the school for an interview/open house. Some schools have formal interviews, while other schools have more of an open house format that isn’t quite as formal. Some schools require that you attend and go through the interview process while other schools make it optional. I would recommend that if you can go to the interview/open house that you do go. It’s a great chance for you to see the campus and get an idea of what the school is really like, and it’s also a chance for the faculty to meet you and get a better idea about how you would be an asset to their program. Unless you have horrible interviewing skills and social skills, going to an interview or open house will only help your chances of being offered admission. Many schools will say that the open house is not that formal, but I would recommend wearing a suit anyways. It is better to be overdressed than underdressed, and wearing a suit will make you appear more professional.
If you need to fly to a graduate school for an interview/open house there are some companies that offer discounted airfare for students. I used the site STAtravel when I flew to Michigan for an open house and I saved a lot of money on my airfare. The sooner you can book your flight, the less expensive it will probably be. Some schools will provide transportation for you from the airport to the school. If they also offer to house you with current graduate students, take advantage of the opportunity. Not only will you save money by not having to get a hotel room, you will also be able to talk to the graduate students about what the program is like, what the school is like, and what living in the area is like. Graduate students are a great resource for you because they can tell you things about the program and life in that area that the professors can’t. They can give you a good idea of what classes are like, and how the program progresses. You can also ask them why they chose that particular program and how they feel about that decision now. It’s also really nice to meet the graduate students because if you are accepted and choose to go to that school you will be spending a lot of time with them in the coming years.
This is not required, but I have found that people are impressed if you send thank you cards after your interview. If you talked to a few professors, send them a card thanking them for their time and personalize it to the conversation that you had with them so they know you were paying attention and it was meaningful for you. If you stayed with a graduate student, make sure to thank them for their hospitality. Sending thank you cards is certainly not required, and it’s probably not expected as well and that’s why it is all the more meaningful.
Schools vary in how quickly they notify students about their application status. Some schools will call, email or send you a letter letting you know their decision a few days after your interview. Other schools might wait a few weeks or even a few months. The deadline for students to accept or decline offers is April 15, so if you are waitlisted at a school you may not find out if you are accepted until after April 15.
Accepting/Declining Offers: If you are offered admission at a school, you can hold the offer until April 15. Schools ask that you don’t hold more than one or two offers so that they have an opportunity to invite someone else if you decline. You should rank the schools you have applied to, and using this you should be able to choose which of two offers you would rather take. As a courtesy, schools ask that you notify them as soon as you can if you are going to decline the offer. But you have the option of holding offers until April 15. Also, if you have received a few offers but are waiting to hear back from some other schools, you can contact those schools to ask about your application status.
What to do if you’re not accepted: It is possible that you will not be accepted at any schools the first year that you apply. Do not take it personally. There are probably at least a hundred people that applied to the same program as you. Almost everyone that applies has a great GPA and has high GRE scores. As my advisor said “It’s kind of like taking a shot in the dark”. You may meet and exceed all of the requirements, but if the faculty member you are looking to work with isn’t accepting students that year, or just finds someone else that they feel is a better fit, you may not be offered admission. But that is no reason to give up. Re-apply in the fall if you still want to go to graduate school. Re-take your GRE tests if you didn’t score very well and you feel that may have hindered your chance of being admitted somewhere. Try and get some more research or clinical experience. Then re-apply in the fall.