Getting Into A Psychology Graduate Program

I wrote the following How-To in order to help my fellow undergraduates understand the process of applying to Graduate School (specifically in psychology).  It’s good information to have, considering that a concise (under 40 pages) How-To doesn’t really exist (as far as I could find).  Hopefully this can help you or someone you know.  And if you don’t plan on going to graduate school, now you can know a bit more about the process.  For some detailed ranting of mine on it, you can read that entry in the “My Stories” section later in the book.

Getting into a graduate program in psychology is a time-intensive task.  Most of my friends were unaware of when they should be doing things, when to expect to hear from organizations, and when to begin to panic (err… I mean think seriously about working a bit faster on the application process).  Because of this, I’ve put together this section to allow you some piece of mind (or to prevent your mind from falling to pieces).

Your Last Summer as An Undergraduate

During your last summer as an undergraduate, you want to begin rolling around the idea of graduate school.  Sure, you just finished your junior year (or 4th year… or 5th year…) but you can’t begin to start thinking about graduate school early enough.  Here are some good time frames:
•    May: Take a look at your previous grades in psych courses and decide what you’ve done well in.  If you’re deciding on what area of psych you want to pursue graduate study in, this will help you narrow the field down to what you’re good in.
•    June: Start preparing for the dreaded GRE.  The GRE is, in my opinion, one long excruciating trick question.  A trick question that many graduate schools place HUGE amounts of emphasis on.  Buying books or taking a GRE prep class is a great idea.  Studying with friends (When done properly and without giggling over the word bacchanalia  can also be extremely helpful.
•    July: Plan on taking the GRE for the first time in late July or early August.  Visit www.gre.org or call 1-800-GRE-CALL (DO NOT CALL 1-800-CALL-GRE…).  You may schedule at any test center for pretty much any time of the day you’d like. I recommend calling at least 3 weeks in advance.  The cost for the General test is $130, and the subject test (which you’ll take later) is around $115.
•    August: Plan to fall flat for a week or so after you first take the GRE (If you’re one of the lucky ones who only take it once and gets a great score, congratulations!).  Then get back on your feet and schedule your second attempt for mid-September.  You want to be done with this GRE crap by September 30 at the latest.

Fall of your Senior Year

gradschoolarticle-1Fall of your senior year will be your busiest time as far as the application process goes.  It can be VERY intimidating and stressful.  Planning early is the KEY to success!
September: Finish up all the GRE junk this month and make sure you register early for the Psychology Subject test. If you would want to take GRE again, schedule it for Mid October or Mid November.  Remember – you’ll have a psych GRE to take as well, and you don’t want to neglect your classes this semester with GRE studying.  Some graduate programs do not require the subject test, but most do.  To be on the safe side, plan on taking in November, so that you’ll have your results by mid-December.  In September, you should be looking at schools and deciding which ones you want to apply to.  Most students apply to 6 – 10 schools.  I played it conservative and only applied to 5.  It kept me sweating throughout the spring as I only had 5 rolls of the roulette wheel of life!

Also, remember to be diligent about due dates for applications.  Most are Jan. 1, some are Dec 1 however!

October: Download or acquire all the admissions materials you’ll need for your schools.  I suggest getting a file folder for each school to keep everything organized.

o    Make a list of each school and what applications materials they want.

o    Prepare and distribute packets of materials to your recommendation letter writers.

o    Acquire envelopes / postage for your applications.
o    Tailor personal statements to the individual program.  DO NOT use a blanket personal statement.  Keeping the same statement and changing it is fine, just not sending the exact same thing.
o    Study for that Psychology GRE in November!

November: Take the Psych GRE and then take a sigh of relief.  If you needed to take the GRE another time, this is also the month to do it.  Then buckle down and study for your classes this fall semester (remember those?).  Finish the semester with a good set of grades and proceed to December.

December: Put your final touches on your applications and mail them out.  If you haven’t requested score reports from ETS (your GRE scores) then do that early in the month. Shoot to have everything out by Dec. 10 as most programs have a Jan. 1 deadline.

The spring of your Senior Year
gradschoolarticle-2Ah, the last semester of your undergraduate life (hopefully).  Here are some date ranges to look forward to:
•    Jan 20 – Feb 10: Most schools that like to get programs started early will be contacting you for interviews or (  ) sending out rejection letters
•    Feb 20: Later schools usually get in the game around now.
•    March: Look to hear from those early schools around mid-month.  It’s a funny thing.  For early February, you don’t want to hear anything because it’s mostly rejections as first-round elimination.  Then you want to hear things, and then as you approach the end of March, second-round elimination occurs and you again are reluctant to open your mailbox.
•    April 15: This seems to be a magic number for graduate programs.  This is usually the deadline that they’ll want a response back from you so they can offer to their second choice candidates.  This means they’ll have to get you some word by mid to late march.

May of your Senior Year
So you have your B.A. in hand and should know what your future holds.  Kick back and relax.  Throw a party for yourself.  If you didn’t get into graduate school this year, start planning again and know that with the practice you had last year, you’ll surly get in this time! (Still throw yourself a party)

The Inside Story: GRE
Don’t get me started on the GRE.  I hate it.  I loath it.  I find ABOMINATE it.  To put it succinctly… it’s annoying.

The GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, is administered through Prometric test centers around the country.  Developed and maintained by ETS (Educational Testing Service), it is supposed to be a good indicator of how a person will do in graduate study by measuring their verbal, analytic, and quantitative skills.  In my opinion, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t.

The Test
gradschoolarticle-3The GRE is made up of 3 parts: an analytic writing portion, a verbal portion, and a quantitative portion.  In practice, you’ll also find your test to have one additional section of verbal or quantitative.  This additional section is where ETS uses you as a guinea pig, testing out new questions and seeing how you do.  The kicker? You don’t usually know what section is the test section, and which are the real deals.  Some books teach you how to supposedly find the test section, but you don’t want to take a chance and blow it do you?  The first time I took the test, it didn’t tell me which section was the experimental test section, the second time it did.  What did I do the second time on the experimental section? Blew it off! Who wants to give ETS more of their time when there is a test score anxiously waiting to be seen?  Speaking of which…

Scoring
What’s a “good” score on the GRE?  This is probably the question that most eluded me when I was studying for it.  In this world, no one wants to commit to exact figures, but I’ll try to give you a good estimate.

Each portion of the test is rated on a scale of 200 – 900, just like the SAT, with the exception of the analytic writing.  Writing is scored in half-steps from 1 to 6 (i.e. 4.5, 5, 5.5, 6).

So what’s good? 550 is usually the agreed MINIMAL score on the verbal and quant.  You want scores above 600.  Schools take the best scores normally out of all the times you take the exam. So if you take it twice and score higher on verbal the second time but lower on quant, they’ll take your highest verbal and highest quant.

So Jon – what was your scores?  I will admit my scores for the sake of your continued knowledge.  The first time I took the GRE, I scored 550 on quant, 570 on verbal, and 4.5 on analytical writing.  The second time I took it, I scored 550 on verbal, 610 on quant, and 5.0 on analytical writing.  The latter scores just got me by, and I really should have taken it again.  Consider my last scores your bare minimum.

That being said, I have friends who scored lower and have been interviewed.  It all depends on the program you’re applying to and how much weight they put on the GRE.  There are graduate program directories out there (see your local book store) that give each program’s ranking of qualifications.  Ones that place GRE scores below letters of recommendation and GPA generally are more accepting of lower scores.

One caveat to bring to your attention: Schools know which other programs you’ve applied to by looking at where your GRE scores were sent to (They get this information when they get your scores).  If you are applying to different kinds of programs, especially ones at different ends of the spectrum in psych (i.e. experimental and clinical) they may have some questions to ask or be very critical of your application as they may view you as undecided.  I don’t know if requesting score reports individually for each school (instead of using the 4 blanks on the GRE score request form) would avoid this problem or not.

The Subject Test
The Psychology subject test is given in a paper and pencil format, not like the computer based general test.  While this may be easier on some, it means it’s only offered 3 – 4 times a year.  If you register too late, you don’t get a seat.  See my timeline for more advice on this.

The caveat on the subject test that they hesitate to tell you is how it’s scored.  It is still on the 200 – 900 score range, but skipped questions hurt you less than wrong questions.  Here is how they compute your score:

Number of Questions you got Right – ¼ of the questions you got wrong.  Notice that skipped questions don’t get in the raw score equation at all.  This means if you can’t eliminate any choices from the 5 given, skip it – it’s not worth the wrong question.  However, if you can eliminate 1 or more, try to get it right!  If you’re confused on this, ask the proctor to talk about it before she gives out the exam.

You can find more about the subject test at http://ftp.ets.org/pub/gre/Psychology.pdf

Letters of Recommendation
gradschoolarticle-4_183x240When I took Professional & Career Issues in Psychology, Dr. Subich mentioned that we’d be wise to get to know faculty because during the application process for grad school, we’d need three letter-writers to recommend us.  I was sure glad I heeded her advice in the next two years, forming friendships with a few professors that were more than happy to write me a letter.  If you haven’t done this, it’s not too late, but it certainly does help.

There are three basic steps to getting a professor to write you a letter of recommendation:

1.    Selection and Request
While it may be tempting to ask your boss or friendly co-worker to write you a letter, most programs want letters from people in the field, namely psychology professors or practicing psychologists.  Selecting good letter-writers is important.  You want to find people that know you well enough to write a well-informed and thoughtful letter.  A letter that states “Bob was a great student, always did well on tests, and didn’t smell bad” may be complimentary, but it doesn’t give the admissions committee much to go on.  Once you’ve found the three people you’d like to vouch for you, be tactful in how you approach.  Drop by their office or set up an appointment. Tell them that you really appreciate all they’ve done for you in the past, and that you’d be honored if they would write you a letter.  Most professors, assuming they feel they know you well enough, will oblige you.
2.    The Materials
The Most important step is the materials you need to get to your letter writers.  It is considered good form to get those materials to them by early October so they have ample time to write.  Here is what should be inside your packet of materials:

o   Envelopes, stamped and addressed, to each program you are applying to.
o    Any forms that schools may require are sent with letters of recommendation.  Each school usually has its own form, or doesn’t require one.  Unfortunately, there is no blanket form.
o    Your personal statement, to give your letter writers something to write about.  Of course our professors never forget who we are or all the deep dark secrets we’ve confided in them… they just need a bit of a reminder to jog their memory.
o    Your GPA and GRE scores (if available) are also of great help.  If you’re working on research, it’s not a bad idea to put your advisor’s name and email in the packet so each letter writer can contact them if they’d like.

3.    The Follow-up
Now most of my letter-writers are saintly people who took the time to put a lot of effort into their letters, I’m sure.  However, they are just people, and we’re on a deadline here!  Around early December, check in with your letter writers and mention to them that you’re sending in your application.  They’ll get the hint to make sure there’s has gotten in too.  Many professors get bogged down with letter requests near the end of the semester and rush through them.  Make sure they have already had time to work on yours well in advance.
{mospagebreak title=Your Personal Statement & The Importance of Research & Senior Honors Projects}
Many programs require the applicant to submit a personal statement of some sort.  This statement can be very important to the overall impression you send to schools.  Here are some general tips:
•    Tailor each personal statement to the individual institution you are applying to.  Trying to use a blanket statement can cause problems you’d never expect.

o    Example: When I applied to The University of Toledo, a behavioral sciences / cognitive program, my personal statement had 1 line in it that read:
“In addition to research in cognitive processing, I also have an interest in workplace productivity and organizational structures.”
This line proved to be problematic.  Preceding this line was a lot of Cognitive information ; however Toledo’s admissions committee called me to ask if I specifically had my heart set on I/O psych.  I assured them that I did not, however when later looking back on it, I’m really glad that I didn’t miss that call!  They may have just as easily assumed I was only interested in I/O and dropped me like a rock.

•    Be mindful of space limits each school imposes on the statements.  Some schools want 2 pages, some want a half a page.  Create one ‘base’ personal statement that you’ll customize and look for things you could cut out if you needed to save space.
•    Have your personal statement read over by a faculty member.  My faculty member was quite fond of using a red pen to bring to light any possible problem he saw.  This was a bit discouraging to see, but in the end, a great asset.  This further underscores the importance of making connections with faculty.
•    Read other’s personal statements to get ideas, search online for tips, and above all, present yourself professionally.  In many ways, this is where a perspective school will get their fuel for interview questions.

The Importance of Research & Senior Honors Projects

gradschoolarticle-5_320x240When I was accepted to UA as an undergraduate, I immediately applied to the honors program.  This program allowed me many benefits (priority registration, a faculty mentor) and required (comparatively) very little commitment from me to remain in it.  I needed to keep above a 3.4 GPA and take 3 colloquium classes over 4 years.  The big requirement was a senior honors project.  This project, while deceptively appearing to be just another requirement, has actually been one of the best experiences I’ve had at UA.  It’s also allowed me a great way to get my ‘foot in the door’ with graduate programs.

Throughout my undergrad years, I participated and assisted in research with graduate students.  This gave me some good real-world research experience; however it did not give me much to talk about during an interview for graduate school.  My senior honors project, however, did.  Because I had to research for the project, write proposals and collect data, I knew a lot about the subject of the project.  In every interview I was in, the question always came up: “So tell me about your research interests”.  There was no better way to show that I had actual research interests than to talk about my senior honors project.  My interviewers enjoyed hearing about it and asking questions.  For the programs I was applying to, this real-world research was a big key to getting in.
Appendix A
Jon Westfall’s Personal Statement

Personal Statement of Goals and Purpose

During an early week in September, I sat in a vacant classroom and waited for class to begin.  Because I’m chronically early, I was there about 30 minutes before class and was in search of something to pass the time.  On a desk next to mine, I saw a bulletin from the Continuing Education department, listing the current offering of classes.  As I browsed through the bulletin, I noticed the wide variety of computer classes.  Suddenly, I had an idea – it was bold, and a bit intimidating for an 18 year old, but it just might work.
In the previous summer, I had spent time fulfilling a personal goal.  Having completed high school, I set my mind to the goal of completing the requirements to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).  After completing the seven computer-based tests that I needed, I achieved my goal just under 2 months after I started – a feat normally accomplished in 6 – 8 months.  Fresh from this accomplishment, I noticed quite a few computer courses in the bulletin that focused on the material I had just finished.  The university had been subcontracting the courses’ instruction out to a company, and I knew that if the program was offered in-house, it would provide a lower total cost of ownership.  With that in mind, I emailed the director of Continuing Education and pitched my idea to him: Let me bring the courses in house, as the instructor, and lower the total cost.  A month later, I found myself a part-time faculty member at The University of Akron, and at age 18, I was instructing people up to three times my own age – all because of a bold idea that most people would have thought ludicrous.
In many ways, the story above is an example of my life.  In the past 20 years, I have set many goals that others would have thought inaccessible for someone my age.  As I seek admission into graduate study in psychology, I am ready to pursue new goals.
Principally, my goal in graduate study is to further my knowledge and ability to contribute to the field of psychology, and ultimately the quality of life for all people.  I recognize I must do this by earning the respect of my peers by striving for excellence in my studies and research.  I am currently conducting University Honors Program thesis research on training content variability and the effectiveness of skill learning, a research interest that may well extend into my graduate school years and beyond.  This area is of interest to me because it is at the intersection of basic (i.e., the functional distinction between implicit and explicit learning/memory systems) and applied research (i.e., how to design training environments that best promote effective learning in the workplace). Because my interests include learning and memory, I hope to develop research that studies systems of memory and seeks out ways to increase memory accuracy and retrieval time.  In addition to research in cognitive processing, I also have an interest in workplace productivity and organizational structures. Because of research I am currently completing, on memory and content-variability, I hope to enter graduate study with some research interests established, and to pursue those interests in my years at the graduate level.
I believe that my work in graduate school will meet my goals, and I would be honored to have the chance to do so at your institution.
Appendix B: Graduate School Application Checklist

Instructions: For each school, fill out the following form.  Mark an X in the “Required” field if that program requires that item (i.e. not all programs require psych GRE scores, etc..).  Then fill in any details specific to that program.  The date that portion is due, and finally once you’ve sent it in, check the “completed” box.

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