Graduate Application Guide for Psychology Students

| Psychology.org Staff Modified on April 6, 2022

Graduate Application Guide for Psychology Students

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Getting into graduate school can seem like a daunting process that never ends. With undergraduate studies complete, students now need to navigate a minefield of paperwork, tests, and graduate-school applications. Unlike some other fields, psychology harbors a variety of concentrations, and prospective students need to select one. Concentrations include clinical, cognitive, industrial/organizational, and forensic psychology. A competitive candidate must do their research, a skill all individuals seeking to enter graduate schools for psychology must master.

Get acquainted with the schools and professors specializing in the area of psychology you wish to pursue. Make a list of 10 or 12 schools to which you wish to apply based on your area of interest, and other factors such as geography and tuition. Once you know the targets, it makes it easy to focus on the application process itself. This resource demystifies the process to get into graduate schools for psychology, breaking it down to several relatively easy elements. Prospective students learn how to apply to graduate school through an examination of what kind of entrance test scores schools want to see, how to develop a polished application packet, and what to expect during the application process.

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Psychology Graduate Program Prerequisites

Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology to Earn a Psychology Graduate Degree?

A bachelor's degree in psychology makes it easier to transition to a graduate program in psychology given the student's familiarity with the subject. Some graduate schools do give preference to students with a bachelor's degree in psychology. But many others allow non-psychology students to take prerequisite psychology courses that will give exposure to necessary foundational theories, research methods, and psychology statistics. Naturally, some undergraduate degrees facilitate an easier transition to a graduate program in psychology than others; a student with a bachelor's degree in sociology studies human nature and the inherent psychological theories this entails. Conversely, a math major has the mathematical skills necessary for the research aspect of psychology, but may not have requisite knowledge of psychological science itself.

The only way to address these knowledge gaps is to identify what requirements each psychology department expects from graduate applicants. Research graduate schools that enroll students with a non-psychology degree. Find out the breadth of supplemental, upper-level psychology classes they require and if you must complete these before application. Most graduate schools in psychology remain part of a wide university with an undergraduate program in which you can enroll to complete those required courses. If not, enroll at another college offering the prerequisite courses needed for application to a graduate psychology program. The graduate school may even apply a limited number of those credits to your master's degree. Make sure the program you choose to take prerequisite classes holds accreditation from one of six regional accrediting agencies in the nation. Without that designation, your credits will not be accepted by a regionally accredited institution—the gold standard in higher education.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Psychology Graduate Program?

Many students enter master's programs in psychology with at least a year or two of work experience in psychology in a capacity such as research assistant. The necessity of this level of experience depends entirely on the department and professors and their lab. Some professors in your particular area of expertise want research assistants as part of the graduate program, and may want them broken in. Others will not require work experience because of the nature of the program.

Use your research skills to contact the psychology department and, in particular, the professors who focus on your specialization to determine if they accept new students, and what they seek in new graduate students for work in the labs. Faculty members generally list their acceptance status on their profiles. If the professor you wish to work with requires some level of work experience and you don’t have it, other skills may compensate for the deficit. For instance, if you worked in a corporate environment for a couple years, you may bring some skill sets of interest to a psychology professor specializing in industrial/organizational psychology. A prospective forensic psychology student with work experience in the justice system holds firsthand knowledge that may interest a professor specializing in forensic psychology.

Do I Have to Take the GRE to Apply to a Graduate Psychology Program?

The GRE remains the standardised test that graduate schools in psychology require for admission. The GRE General Test covers verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. These sections measure students' aptitude to succeed in today's competitive graduate schools. The GRE Subject Tests also test knowledge and skills in six subjects, including psychology. This specialized psychology test requires the test-taker have prior knowledge of the subject through undergraduate studies or other extensive experience.

Students take the GRE, administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), in paper- or computer-delivered format. While some graduate schools no longer require the GRE or substitute other skills and qualifications for the test, most master's programs in psychology require it. Test-takers pay $205 for the GRE General Test and $150 for the GRE Subject Tests. ETS delivers the paper version GRE three times a year and the computer test year round at established locations.

GRE Waiver

In some instances, students receive a test waiver from the graduate program to which they apply. Consider finding schools that offer a waiver to reduce the stress involved with applying for graduate programs in psychology. A waiver may also help those applying late in the application season. ETS reports the scores back to students in two weeks, but it takes weeks and probably months to adequately prepare for the GRE.

In general, schools that require the GRE only offer waivers to students with high GPAs, those with extensive work experience, or applicants with advanced degrees. Students with lower GPAs than required for entry into a graduate school in psychology can use a strong GRE score to bolster their application. Contact each school to find out the waiver process involved.

Breakdown of GRE Scores

After you complete the GRE, expect to get the results in 10-15 days. Your score report outlines your personal details, including your name, address, date of birth, major, and test dates. The test report outlines your GRE test score and an associated percentile rank. The GRE breaks down into a verbal reasoning section scored on a 130–170 scale; a quantitative reasoning section scored on a 130–170 scale; and an analytical writing section scored on a zero to six scale. ETS scores the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning sections based on how many questions the test taker correctly answers. A trained ETS reader scores the essay for the analytical writing section.

According to the ETS, between July 2017 and June 2020, the mean GRE scores for test takers in the social and behavioral sciences for verbal reasoning reached 153; for Quantitative Reasoning, 152; and for analytical writing, 3.9. A 25th percentile score puts you at about 145 on verbal reasoning and a 147 on quantitative reasoning. Shoot for a score in at least the 50th percentile, or 75th percentile, which is approximately 157 on verbal reasoning and a 160 on quantitative reasoning. A score in the 75th percentile means you score higher than most test takers. The psychology subject test consists of 205 questions drawn from coursework students take in undergraduate psychology programs in areas such as cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychology. The ETS provides interpretative information for the subjects tests, which differs from the general test.

How do I determine if my score competes well against other applicants? Each school collects its own average GRE scores by program. Go to each school's official Web site and do research to see how you compare to other applicants. The admission requirement and FAQ pages stand as good places to begin your inquiry. If you do not hit the target, it does not mean you do not qualify for graduate school. Other factors come into play such as your performance at the undergraduate level, work experience, and other information in the admissions packet such as your essay.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2020 – 2021
Scaled ScoreVerbal Reasoning %Quantitative Reasoning %
1709996
1608570
1504435
140127
130--

Source: ETS

Psychology Graduate School Application Requirements

Transcripts

As you begin to apply to graduate school, know that schools look at the whole person in the decision-making process. This begins with an assessment of an applicant's academic performance using school transcripts. Schools will review your college transcripts to identify coursework you took, grades you received, and your overall pattern of performance. They pay particular interest to the last 60 credits of your undergraduate degree. This comprises your junior and senior years when you take upper-level courses in psychology or another major. Generally, graduate schools in psychology want to see an average 3.0 cumulative GPA.

While many graduate schools in psychology will not consider a student with less than a 3.0 GPA, competitive GRE scores override a lower GPA. Find out the expectations of each school and try to exceed them or provide supplemental evidence of your readiness for graduate school. If you attended more than one college, present all of your transcripts to each graduate school unless they say otherwise. You can order transcripts in person, online, or in writing. Graduate schools generally want official transcripts. Some schools provide them for free. Start the ordering process early to avoid any delays that could hamper your progression through the application process.

Test Scores

ETS allows test takers to designate up to four recipients of your GRE general test and/or subject test scores. The organization provides this service as part of your test fee. You submit the request at the center when taking the computer version or at the time of registration for the paper version. You pay $27 for each additional recipient.

Resume

The selection committee for graduate students at each institution appraises all aspects of their educational and professional life. They review your resume to measure your accomplishments since you left college, and they look for any experience in psychology that might bolster your chance of admittance.

A strong resume makes up for lackluster academic performance or poor GRE test scores. Some programs require specific experience, depending on the needs of the professors and department. Emphasize the most relevant and recent work experience applicable to psychology. If you do not boast experience or you have an employment gap, remember that skills from other professions can transfer over. Your research and data analytics skills as a marketing associate matter to a professor seeking a research assistant.

Those with no experience should find volunteer work, community service, or internships applicable to responsibilities in their area of psychology. High-impact volunteerism over the summer could likewise make the difference to a selection committee. Psychology majors need a desire to help others and an ability to juggle work, family, and community.

Essays and Personal Statements

Admissions committees review information from piles of applicants before they make a decision. Your job remains to stand out in the crowded field, a task facilitated by a personal statement or essay. Some people get confused about the difference between a statement of purpose and an essay or personal statement. A statement of purpose answers specific questions about why you chose psychology, your interest in the particular program, your proposed plan of study, and your short-term and long-term career goals. An essay outlines your experience and qualifications in the field, as well as how you fit in the program.

Always submit an essay even if it's optional; essays allow you to personalize your application in a way that other materials in the package cannot. Think about the essay as a marketing tool. Before you start writing, think about the main takeaways. Why should they choose me? Why do I fit into this department? What will I accomplish with this degree from this department? In your preliminary notes, structure the essay with a dynamic and coherent theme or narrative, and begin the essay with a hook that grabs the attention of the reader. Highlight your strengths, give specific examples of coursework or research, and succinctly discuss your relationships with faculty mentors. Keep the essay to the established length. Use as many credible resources as you can find to complete a winning essay.

Case Study Analysis

As you study how to apply for graduate school, consider that schools may require you to craft a case-study analysis as part of their application. First, follow their guidelines. The case study may focus on a real or imagined individual, group, or event. Alternately, they may focus on a particular research area or topic. The graduate school may require that you provide a background history and present a diagnosis using the relevant Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. In the second part of the analysis, you will outline the needed intervention. This case study provides the admissions officer with some insight into you and your expertise. It highlights what you know, your analytical skills, and where you fit within the particular program.

Letters of Recommendation

You request two to four letters of recommendations from former advisors, professors, research mentors, and/or employers. These are busy people with great responsibilities. Begin this process as soon as you have a list of schools to which you plan to apply. Think months in advance and not weeks. Schools want to hear from respected faculty, advisors, and/or employers who have worked or work closely with you, referees who know your strengths and your weaknesses. Do not approach a person with whom you were not cordial or would not provide a glowing reference. Tepid references stand out and reflect poorly on you.

Once they agree, provide them with a packet of your application materials (i.e., personal statement, résumé, and points that deserve inclusion) for their reference. Schools want to hear about your research experience, presentations you have given, your scholarship, and/or your overall performance as a student. You may certainly ask referees to speak to certain aspects of your work of particular interest to the program to which you plan to apply. On your request, they may also address weaknesses as long as they follow that up with strengths that override them. Check in with your referees a couple weeks before the application deadline to ensure that you haven't gotten lost in the pile.

English Proficiency Tests

English proficiency tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), measure the test-taker's language skills; in particular, listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Around the world, TOEFL remains the most widely used academic English-proficiency test. Schools generally request foreigners complete the test if English is not their first language. Two lesser known tests — the International English Language Testing System and Test of English for International Communication — also test students and workers' English language proficiency. The TOEFL, delivered online, tests reading and listening skills when test-takers answer questions after they read sample passages and listen to lectures and conversations. The TOEFL also tests speaking and writing skills when test-takers vocally respond or express an opinion about a particular topic, and write a piece based on a topic they read or heard.

Background Check

Schools may require you to submit to a background check for participation in internships, practicums, and other fieldwork, especially when working with minors; forensics; or in governmental positions at the local, state, and federal level. Schools may review driving records, criminal or court records, sex-offenders lists, and state licensure records. Some states may require fingerprinting. Make sure to mention any anomalies in your application.

How Do You Apply to Graduate School?

Begin the application as early as possible. Start researching schools in May and take the free GRE practice test. The results show you where you stand and whether a GRE prep course might prove necessary. Sign up for the GRE in June so that you leave enough time to study before taking the test in August or early September. Contact and request information from the schools and programs that interest you in July. In August, begin your essay or personal statement.

In September, familiarize yourself with the professors with whom you wish to work with. Also, request official transcripts by October. In late November or December, submit all of your application materials. This should cost between $50 and $100 on average. Research whether your school's admissions office offers waivers for applications. Given that application guidelines vary by school, carefully review each school's requirements. After sending your materials, you should receive some kind of confirmation from the school that your application is now under review.

Some applicants choose a college admissions service company that many schools sign up for to simplify the process. While CommonApp serves undergraduates, Liaison International's GradCAS stands as the leader in graduate admissions services. Through GradCAS, students use a single application to apply to multiple graduate schools for psychology.

Rolling Admissions

Schools with rolling admissions give you a large window of opportunity to submit your materials. This window ranges from a few months to all year. During rolling admissions, schools and departments review applications as they receive them. The advantages for the applicant include stress reduction, since you decide your own readiness level and timeline. The earlier you apply, the greater your chances for acceptance. The fewer applicants competing for the same spot increases your odds. Expect to receive a response in four to eight weeks.

Schools with rolling admissions provide you with an opportunity to secure a spot when all other deadlines and options have proved unsuccessful. Make a note of which schools have rolling admissions deadlines and which ones keep admission open year round.

Rounds Admissions

Remember that every school establishes its own admission timeline, deadlines, and number of rounds. Three rounds tends to be the norm, and schools tend to take the largest fraction of students during the first round. The first round also tends to include the smallest share of applications, increasing your odds if you choose to apply early.

The second round holds the largest share of applicants and gives you more time to prepare. Avoid round three unless you possess a nontraditional background that stands out among the stragglers. Unless you possess stellar GRE scores and your application looks flawless, this round spells trouble because the committee now ranks you against everyone else, including students in the first two rounds. Additionally, fewer openings remain for the year. Fortunately, psychology graduate schools generally use the rolling admissions process.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

With your next to flawless applications making their way through the admissions process, the anticipation goes into overdrive and the anxiety simmers. Many graduate applicants sit in this application purgatory waiting for results that seem to take forever. There's little to do now but adopt a positive attitude that even if you get a rejection, you sent out several other applications. In the meantime, the letter confirming receipt of your application materials should include information on how to check your application status online when the time seems right. When you receive the acceptance or rejection letter depends on when you apply. Typically, if you apply in the fall, you receive an answer by April.

Once you've received your acceptance letter, the financial aid envelope with details of how to pay for your education should not be too far away. If you're one of the lucky ones holding acceptance letters to multiple schools, make campus visits if you haven't already. Meet with professors, talk to students in the program, look at your surroundings. This could be your new home for at least two years — make sure you love it. The financial aid you receive also factors into the decision-making process. If there are outstanding "first choice" schools you'd like to hear from before you make a decision, write a letter to the"second choice" schools requesting a decision-deadline extension if necessary.

If you receive rejection letters, take heart. Learn from your mistakes. There's nothing wrong with a polite phone call or email to each department to find out how you can make a stronger application. Take the GRE again. Get feedback about your application materials from knowledgeable and impartial people. Use all feedback you receive to make yourself a stronger applicant.

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