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10 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Getting into Graduate School

Undoubtedly, being offered admission into a graduate program in clinical psychology is a competitive endeavor. The high number of applicants and the low number of entries makes admission rare. Most programs will seek the highest-quality applicants, making this a competitive event for the student applicants and the admitting programs.


10 Ways to Increase Your Chances of Getting into Graduate School

Is it Hard to Get into Graduate School?

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 how you can increase your chances of being offered admission into a graduate program. The focus here is on clinical psychology, but readers can apply the advice to any graduate program.

Check out APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology for help searching and comparing programs to find the doctoral program that best meets your training and career goals!

Start Early

Suppose you are one of the lucky ones who knows what you would like to do upon completing your undergraduate degree. Good for you! Get started early!

  • Seek various opportunities beginning in the first or second year. Inquire whether your undergraduate degree program has an Honors degree or other “track” for those interested in graduate school and take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Engage in advanced coursework and research projects. Both of these will help prepare you for the rigors of graduate school.
  • Talk to the faculty in your department and find out who is working on what research. This experience will be invaluable.
Of course, many students will not discover their interest in psychology until later in their undergraduate degree programs. However, as soon as you know that you would like to go on to graduate school, you need to get started on this process. 

Get Involved in Research

Research will be an inevitable part of your doctoral program, so individuals with research experience will be more competitive in their applications than those without. Therefore, if there is only one thing you do as an undergraduate to prepare for graduate school, it should be research involvement!

Working with a faculty member and getting involved in their research gives you at least three distinct advantages when applying to graduate school. 

  • It allows you to begin to understand how to conduct research, which is vital to graduate programs.
  • It gives you something to discuss in your graduate school interviews (most programs will interview their top candidates.. more on that later!).
  • 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 faculty interested in what the student wanted to study. However, students should consider getting involved in research of any type since the experience itself is valuable. Graduate programs do not expect that students will have experience conducting the exact kind of research that they would like to while in graduate school. 

Try to Obtain Some Clinical Experience

For those interested in pursuing clinical psychology degrees, it is a bonus if you can obtain some clinical experience as an undergraduate. This can be difficult since most clinical facilities require employees to have at least an undergraduate degree in psychology, if not a master's. However, being an employee is one way to gain clinical experience.

Volunteering is just as good, so consider becoming involved at a clinical facility to gain this experience.

  • Ask the faculty members in your department where you can volunteer to get this experience.
  • Your program will likely have contacts with community mental health centers and other treatment facilities, especially if they have a graduate program.
  • Find out who serves as the Director of Clinical Training (DCT) for the graduate program in your psychology department and other local programs. 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 challenging to get, so try your best. If you have to decide between obtaining research experience and clinical experience, choose the research experience, as it will give you an advantage in most doctoral programs.

Prepare for the GRE

To apply to graduate school, you must take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test for admission to graduate schools across the United States and Canada. The GRE comprises several 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. 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 application deadlines late in the year (typically, November – December). You will apply for graduate programs shortly after beginning your last year as an undergraduate. 

  • You will need to submit your GRE test scores with your application. Typically, the summer between your undergraduate degree's junior and senior year is when you want to take the GRE. If you struggle with standardized tests, take the GRE early. If you're going to take the GRE more than once, you should make your first attempt sometime in your junior year.

The better prepared you are for the General GRE, the better your chances of obtaining a score on this exam that accurately reflects your abilities, so make sure to prepare. Numerous websites and books are devoted to preparing you for the GRE.

Obtain Strong Letters of Recommendation

Typically you are asked to submit three letters of recommendation along with your application to graduate school. The best letters of recommendation come from those who know you well and can speak about your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

Letters of recommendation from those who do not know you well or with whom you have had little interaction are not as strong. 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, do so. Although typical, these letters are not considered strong letters of support as the faculty member cannot speak to your abilities if they only have 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 could interact meaningfully with them. For example, senior-level seminars with many class discussions or courses where you had to write papers or conduct presentations might be a viable choice. 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. Even if this person is not a psychologist, they 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 faculty members on research, get a letter from these professors. These letters will be the most influential for your application. These individuals will have had the opportunity to work closely with you and observe you in a research environment. They will also know what it takes to get into graduate school. They will be able to speak about your strengths and areas for growth. 

Research the Programs where you are Interested in Applying

Often, students will decide to apply to graduate school and then use a shotgun approach to the application process—applying far and wide without considering what program might be a good fit. However, taking a more thoughtful approach will likely yield better results.

If successful, you will spend the next 4-6 years in a doctoral program, so ensuring the program is a good fit for you is crucial. The program will also be invested in determining which students would be successful, with both sides using the interview process as a key way to assess mutual fit.

The easiest way to begin this process is to create a "short" list (which might not be all that short!) of programs you are interested in and then look in detail at the program’s materials. Good questions to ask are: 

  • How many credits of coursework are required?
  • Will you complete a master’s 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?
  • What types of research are the faculty engaged in?
  • What is the training model for the program?

These general questions should help you narrow down your list and determine which programs you are most interested in (perhaps even allow you to create a ranking of programs).

Once you have a sense of which programs are the top ones of interest for you, you should invest your time in researching the faculty and determining which 2 or 3 faculty members you would most like to work with at each program. 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 strongest applicants go beyond the program materials and will conduct a literature search (using Google Scholar, PsychLit, PsychInfo, or some other psychology database) of the faculty they are interested in. Look for their most recent publications and read one or two of the most intriguing or frequently cited articles. This task 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 interests you.      

Contact Faculty Members Before Applying

Once you have researched the programs of interest and decided which faculty members at each program you are interested in working with, attempt to contact them to see if they are 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. Therefore, the type of model a program uses is an important question to ask if you get to the interview stage.

  • Some programs adhere to a strict mentoring model wherein a faculty member offers students admission into a program with whom the student is expected to work.
  • Other programs will admit students into the program without a mentor assigned.
  • And other programs adhere to a mixed model trying to match students with mentors upon admission but allowing students to switch from mentors once the student has had a chance to figure out whom they would like to work with.

For those programs that use a mentoring model where a particular faculty 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. Consequently, knowing whether a faculty member plans to take a student is essential. Of course, these things can change (and who gets a student can be a political issue within the department). But, send a brief introductory email to a faculty member you would like to work with inquiring if they are accepting students the following 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 (which is not an encouraged approach).

Remember that less is more when you send this introductory email. You don’t need to go into a long and detailed description of who you are and what you would like to do in graduate school. Interests change, and faculty can become inundated with these inquiry emails. Nevertheless, 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 accept students in the Fall is a good idea. Don’t fret if the faculty member does not reply but take this as a sign that you might also need to select one or two other faculty members you might be interested in working with, just in case.

Pro Tip: Do not send the same email to every single faculty member in a department as a way to “hedge your bets.” It becomes apparent when a blanket email is sent to multiple faculty members and faculty talk, so this type of inquiry should be avoided. Only send emails to those that you are truly interested in working with. 

Spend Time on your Personal Statement

Most graduate programs require you to submit a personal statement for your application. This is an opportunity for you to tell the program why you are interested in pursuing a degree with this program.

The personal statement is a writing sample, so you must submit a well-written, grammatically correct statement. Some possible things to include in your submission are:

  • Your interests
  • Why you want to pursue the specific degree
  • Why this program interests you, and why it would be a good match for you
  • The research interests of 2 or 3 faculty members you would like to work with.
  • Mention faculty members by name and show that you have read their recent work by referencing it. Indicate that you are interested in working with them on their research. Many programs use the personal statement to determine 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)

Most often, the "elephant" is low GRE scores. If you did not do as well as you would have liked on the exam and do not believe this is a good indicator of your abilities, say so in your personal statement.

It is common for bright, motivated students to do more poorly than expected on a standardized test. If this is the case, spend a paragraph on this in your statement. Without going into lengthy detail, 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. You could also talk with those writing your letters of recommendation and ask them to consider addressing this issue in their letter.

Prepare for 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, so you have solidified your spot as one of the top applicants. The interview day is the program’s opportunity to showcase itself and meet with prospective students to determine a mutual fit.

Do your research ahead of time. Ask with whom you will meet (most programs will provide an agenda for the day). If you are not given a schedule ahead of time, show up prepared to speak with any of the clinical faculty members. Be ready to discuss your research and 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.

You will likely be able to meet with and talk to other students in the program. Make the most of this opportunity. Ask them about their experiences, such as: 

  • What they like about the program
  • What they dislike about it
  • Whom do they work with
  • Which faculty members are known for being good mentors
  • Which faculty members are known for being difficult to work with.

Current students can provide valuable information for deciding on the program and whether it fits your interests. 

The Bottom Line

Make the time to do your research, connect with the programs and professors that interest you, put together a thoughtful application and be authentic! These steps will help you create a complete picture of the graduate programs you’re applying to and help you become a top candidate! Good luck!

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