Dunn & Halonen
The Psychology
Major’s Companion

Chapter 12: How Do You Get into

Graduate Programs

in Psychology?

If you are serious about going to graduate school, you better have a fire in your belly.
~ J. William Hepler, former psychology department chair, Butler University

Chapter Objectives

Describe the caliber of undergraduate performance that facilitates favorable grad school admissions decisions.

Suggest effective application strategies.

Share models of application components (e.g., personal statement).

Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

Determine if they should pursue graduate study.

Describe which graduate degree best meets their goals (e.g., MA, PhD, PsyD).

Identify effective activities at the undergraduate level to improve their graduate applications.

Know the components of a typical graduate school application.

Measuring Up: Do You Have the Fire?

What Graduate School Requires






How do your own personal characteristics fit with what graduate school requires?

STRONG Arguments to Go

I would like to become a scientific researcher or a professional in the discipline.

I hope to contribute to the discipline through research, practice, or a combination of both.

I want to educate people about basic and applied psychological science.

I want to dedicate myself to promoting psychological well-being and to ameliorating distress.

I enjoy research, writing, publishing, and giving professional talks.

I am deeply curious about the human condition.

WEAK Arguments to Go

I earned good grades in psychology during college so I probably should become a psychologist.

I don’t really want a “real” job.

I want to be addressed as “doctor” or “professor.”

I don’t know what else to do now that I have my undergraduate degree.

I don’t want a 12-month job—I want to be a college professor and have my summers off.

I’ve always been a student and I’m pretty good at it—why stop now?

Initiating the Application

You need a comprehensive strategy.

Start to prepare once you make the decision.

Dedicate time in the junior year to intensive application research.

Apply in the fall of senior year.

Factors to Consider

How selective is the program?

How much does it cost?

Who will you work with?

Where is the program located?

How well do the program’s students fare in the job market after graduation?

What Courses Impress?


Core areas: neuroscience, developmental, cognition, and sociocultural

An applied course (e.g., health, I/O, environmental)

An integrating capstone experience

TIP: Take rigorous courses to build skills; avoid “filler” classes.

Selecting a Specialization

Identify the areas that you find most fascinating.

Conduct an Internet search on the most appealing areas.

Examine APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology, which is organized by

Area of study


What Admission Criteria Are Most Important?


Letters of recommendation

College GPA

Personal goal statement


Research experience

Graduate Record Exam scores

Extracurricular activities

The Research Advantage

Traditional graduate programs in psychology produce scientists and scientific research.

Undergraduate research experience

teaches diverse problem-solving methods

provides hands-on experience

enhances teamwork, writing, and speaking skills

contributes to the progress of the science

Communicating Research


Poster presentations

Visual summary of research findings

Informal talking

Oral presentations

15-20 minutes

5-minute Q&A


Research conferences

Regional psychology conferences

Scholars’ Day

TIP: All conferences have fees for participating or will require membership.

Securing a Research Spot

Apply to be part of a research team as early as you can.

Look for advertised opportunities.

Approach faculty who share your interests.

Ask for referrals if you get turned down.

What Do Research Assistants Do?

Perform library and database searches

Participate in planning and operations meetings

Work as part of a research team

Run data-collection sessions

Enter data into a spreadsheet and perform statistical analyses

Write research summaries

Conducting Your Own Research

Programs differ but may offer independent research activities in different forms:

Senior thesis

Honors thesis

Capstone research

Directed study

Summer research fellowships

Strategic Applications (1 of 3)

Compare your qualifications with program thresholds.

Include a “reach” school if you can assemble a strong rationale regarding why your qualifications fall a little short.

Include a “safety” school to enhance your best chance to get in somewhere.

Strategic Applications (2 of 3)

Seek a position with a specific faculty member whose work resonates with you and make a personal appeal.

Be conversant in the professor’s work before you make your pitch.

Strategic Applications (3 of 3)

TIP: Rejection happens.

? Have a Plan B to help you strengthen your application and then reapply.

Master’s or PhD

Go the PhD route if your qualifications are strong.

Go the master’s route if it qualifies you for the professional work you hope to do.

Apply to master’s programs if your qualifications are not as strong so you can earn a master’s to prove your fitness for graduate study.

PhD Realities

The 10-year completion rate (2008) was only 65%.

Some programs limit time in program to 10 years.

Only apply to programs for which you would honestly go in cities where you can imagine living.

Factor in the reasonable debt load you can sustain.

Applying is expensive. Target the number of applications you can afford.

The Clinical Paths (1 of 2)

PhD Programs

The Boulder Model

Traditional science-oriented degree emerging in 1949

Highly selective

University based

Lower debt load at graduation

PsyD Programs

The Vail Model

Innovative practice-focused degree emerging in 1973

Less selective

Less likely to be university based

Higher debt load at graduation

The Clinical Paths (2 of 2)

TIP: When choosing from among clinical programs, examine how successful the program is.

Is it maintaining accreditation?

Are its graduates getting internship placements?

A Word on Grades & GRE

Minimum qualifying GPA ? 3.0

GRE tests verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytic writing and may require Psychology Subject Test.

Programs vary in the minimums they specify for both for GPA and GRE.

TIP: Consult specific program requirements to help you decide.

Supply These Data to Your Recommenders

Addresses and due dates of all letters needed

A list of prospective employers

Your curriculum vitae or résumé

Specifics about the course experiences you had with your professor (grades, meaningful interactions)

Personal statement or goals

Unofficial copy of your transcript

A copy of GRE and Psychology Subject Test scores

Any required recommendation forms

Preaddressed envelopes with stamps (if the process hasn’t yet gone digital)

Helpful Strategies for Recommendation Letters

Waive your right to see confidential letters to encourage candor from your recommenders (some faculty will voluntarily give you a copy of what they have written).

Follow up with programs to make sure your letters have arrived with sufficient lead time to help you recover if a letter is missing.

Writing a Personal Statement

The Personal Statement = Applicant Statement = Autobiographical Statement = Letter of Intent

Whatever it is called, it is the most personal aspect of the application.

Basics of the Personal Statement

Introduce yourself

Explain why you are interested in psychology

Share background information

Provide a writing sample

Other Issues You Might Address

Academic interest areas

Academic achievements

Your interest in the specific program

Specific research and teaching experiences

Relevant internship and volunteer experiences

Objectives of study

Career plans

Target faculty with whom you would like to work

Specific competencies (e.g., statistics, foreign language)

Relevant personal material

Tips for Strong Letters of Intent

Don’t exceed allotted limits. Avoid discussing items that are listed elsewhere in the application.

Get feedback from multiple allies on your clarity, persuasiveness, grammar.

Revise, revise, revise until the statement communicates exactly what you want to say about your love of and future in psychology.

Be prepared to modify it for each application.

Tips for Clinical Applications

Avoid extended discussions of your own mental health struggles.

? It sends up “red flags” about your intentions.

If your mental health journey is critical to share,

Be brief

Emphasize positive outcomes of the struggle

What’s a Curriculum Vitae?

A “CV” is like an academically oriented résumé containing

Jobs related to psychology

Research interests and current projects

Interests in teaching

Professional publications (listed in APA style)

Conference presentations


Putting It Together

Don’t fall victim to the planning fallacy.

Provide a cushion that allows last-minute corrections.

Be sure to respond accurately to what each school requires because each may be different.

Make yourself available for a face-to-face interview if at all possible.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Look at your credentials:
Did you apply to schools with standards that were too high?

Look at your GRE scores:
Did they exceed required minimums?

Evaluate your research experience:
Volunteer for more if you can.

Did you apply to both master’s and PhD programs?
Try for both next time.

Ask for a trusted professor’s professional review:
What could be improved for next time?


The path to graduate school requires tenacity (staying power). Persistence can pay off in the end.

Discussion Questions

What specific reasons do you have for attending graduate school in psychology?

Will you pursue doctoral- or master’s-level training? Why?

Is there a specific area of psychology that interests you? Within that area, are there particular topics you might like to study as a graduate student?

Have you had any research experience? If you have, what did you like and not like about doing research? If you haven’t, do you plan to obtain some research experience? How?

If you were to write a personal statement right now to explain your motivation to study psychology at the graduate level, what would you say? Why?