Graduate Application Guide for Psychology Students

by

Updated June 13, 2024

check mark Edited by
check mark Reviewed by

Our Integrity Network

Psychology.org is committed to delivering content that is objective and actionable. To that end, we have built a network of industry professionals across higher education to review our content and ensure we are providing the most helpful information to our readers.

Drawing on their firsthand industry expertise, our Integrity Network members serve as an additional step in our editing process, helping us confirm our content is accurate and up to date. These contributors:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Integrity Network members typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for Psychology.org as a side project. All Integrity Network members are paid members of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Explore our full list of Integrity Network members.

Discover psychology graduate school requirements. Learn how to apply and what to include in your application packet.

Psychology.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Credit: Eva-Katalin | E+ | Getty Images

Applying to graduate school can seem like a daunting process. With undergraduate studies complete, candidates must navigate paperwork, tests, and graduate school applications. Make a list of 10-12 schools you wish to apply to based on factors such as your desired concentration, cost, location, format, and accreditation.

Once you know the targets, it makes it easy to focus on the application process. This resource demystifies the process of getting into graduate schools for psychology, breaking it down into several relatively easy steps. Discover how to apply to graduate school, common requirements, how to develop a polished application packet, and what to expect during the application process in this helpful guide.

Popular Online Psychology Master's Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Psychology Graduate School Application Requirements

Schools attach academic prerequisites to their psychology grad school requirements to ensure incoming students have a knowledge background that will support their academic success. Prerequisites vary by school and program but generally include foundational college coursework in:

  • Introductory to intermediate psychology topics
  • Research methods
  • Statistical analysis

You can complete these academic requirements through your undergraduate program or by taking standalone courses in these areas at an accredited degree-granting institution. In some cases, schools may offer otherwise qualified psychology applicants the opportunity to complete prerequisite course sequences before their graduate program's launch date.

Some graduate programs require or prefer that applicants hold undergraduate degrees in psychology. However, many accept non-psychology majors who satisfy all program eligibility guidelines.

Not all undergraduate majors transfer well to psychology, though. Readily transferable bachelor's degrees include criminal justice, criminology, education, health sciences, and social work.

Schools review your college transcripts to identify your performance across various courses. They typically pay particular interest to the last 60 credits of your undergraduate degree. These credits comprise your junior and senior years when you take upper-level courses in psychology or another major. Generally, psychology graduate schools require at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA.

While many graduate schools in psychology will not consider a student with a GPA lower than 3.0, competitive GRE scores may override a low GPA. Find out the expectations of each school and try to exceed them, or provide supplemental evidence of your readiness for graduate school.

"Supplementing transcripts with strong letters of recommendation and personal statements can help buffer potential low GPA issues. Work or internship opportunities can also help leverage any potential issues with lower grades," Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D. said.

If you attended more than one college, present your transcripts to each graduate school unless they say otherwise. You can order transcripts in person, online, or in writing. Graduate schools usually require official transcripts and will not accept unofficial 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.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) allows test-takers to designate up to four recipients of your GRE general test and subject test scores 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 $35 for each additional recipient.

The selection committee will review your resume to measure your accomplishments since you left college, and they will look for any experience in psychology that might bolster your chance of admittance.

A strong resume may make 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 lack experience or have an employment gap, remember that skills from other professions can transfer. 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 make a difference to a selection committee.

Admissions committees review information from piles of applicants before they make a decision. You can use your personal statement or essay to help you stand out. Some people confuse the difference between a statement of purpose and an essay.

  • 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 other materials in the package cannot. Submitting an optional essay shows the admissions committee your commitment to the program because you took the extra step.

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 reader's attention. Highlight your strengths, give specific examples of coursework or research, and briefly discuss your relationships with faculty mentors. Keep the essay to the established length. Use as many credible resources as possible to complete a winning essay.

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 need to focus on a real or imagined individual, group, or event. Alternatively, they may need to 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. You will outline the needed intervention in the second part of the analysis. This case study provides the admissions officer insight into you and your expertise. It highlights what you know, your analytical skills, and where you fit within the particular program.

You'll request two to four letters of recommendation from former advisors, professors, research mentors, volunteer supervisors, 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, or employers who have worked closely with you and can identify your strengths and weaknesses. Do not approach a person with whom you were not cordial or would not provide a glowing reference. Tepid references stand out and can reflect poorly on you.

Once they agree, provide them with a packet of your application materials (i.e., personal statement, r�sum�, and points that deserve inclusion) for their reference. Schools want to hear about your research experience, presentations you have given, your scholarship, and your overall performance as a student.

You may ask them to speak to certain aspects of your work of particular interest to the program to which you plan to apply. At your request, they may also address weaknesses if they follow up with strengths that override them. Check in with your letter-writers a couple of weeks before the application deadline to maintain a line of contact.

English proficiency tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), measure the test-taker's English language skills in 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.

The TOEFL, delivered online, tests reading and listening skills when test-takers answer questions after reading sample passages and listening 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.

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.

Schools may require you to submit to a background check for participation in internships, practicums, and other fieldwork, especially when working with children, the legal system, or any level of government. Schools may review driving records, criminal or court records, sex offender lists, and state licensure records. Some states may require fingerprinting. Make sure to explain any anomalies in your application.

How Do You Apply to Graduate School?

Begin the application as early as possible. Timelines may vary based on when you plan to start classes, but here's a sample of what to do if you start classes in the fall.

  • May (about seven months before the deadline): Start researching schools.
  • May (about seven months before the deadline): Take the free GRE practice test. The results show where you stand and whether a GRE prep course is necessary.
  • June (about six months before the deadline): Sign up for the GRE so that you leave enough time to study
  • July (about five months before the deadline): Contact and request information from the schools and programs that interest you.
  • Aug. (about four months before the deadline): Begin your personal statement or essay.
  • Aug. or early Sept. (about four months before the deadline): Take the GRE.
  • Sept. (about three months before the deadline): Familiarize yourself with the professors with whom you wish to work.
  • Sept.: Request official transcripts by October.
  • Late Nov. or Dec. (about a couple of weeks before the deadline): Submit all of your application materials. Applications cost $50-$100, on average.

Research whether your school's admissions office offers waivers for applications. After sending your materials, you should receive confirmation from the school that your application is now under review.

Given that application guidelines vary by school, carefully review each school's requirements. Some applicants choose a college admissions service company many schools sign up for to simplify the process. While CommonApp serves undergraduates, Liaison International's GradCAS is 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 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 4-8 weeks. Schools with rolling admissions allow you to secure a spot when all other deadlines and options have been unsuccessful.

Rounds Admissions

Schools that issue admissions offers in rounds divide their application cycles into multiple periods. While application periods vary, they function within relatively tight schedules with firm opening and closing dates.

One notable variant is that schools divide their annual admission cycle into early and regular decision windows. If you apply during an early decision window, you may have an advantage since all available slots will be open, but you will likely need to commit to attending the school if accepted.

Admission rounds have other benefits and drawbacks. Fortunately, you can buy time to improve your application by targeting a later window. Later rounds may also attract fewer applicants, reducing your competition depending on the number of available slots.

However, if you apply during later windows, you may have to commit to a later program start date. Some schools also open a set number of program slots for the year, filling that fixed number across all successive windows. Fewer spots may be available in later windows, impacting your application's outcome.

Degree and Work Experience Requirements for Psychology Graduate Programs

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 because students are already familiar with psychology. Yet, most programs do not require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in psychology as long as they complete prerequisite psychology and research courses.

Some graduate schools prefer students with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Many others allow non-psychology students to take prerequisite psychology courses that will give exposure to foundational theories, research methods, and psychology statistics.

Some undergraduate degrees facilitate an easier transition to a graduate program in psychology than others. "Maximizing your undergraduate experiences with internships or specialized learning opportunities can prepare you for graduate school and help you stand out as an applicant. Seeking work or research opportunities in the field can also strengthen your application," said Pietrucha.

Students with a bachelor's degree in sociology study human nature and the inherent psychological theories this entails. Conversely, math majors have the mathematical skills necessary for the research aspect of psychology but may not have the requisite knowledge of psychological science.

What Should Applicants with a Non-Psychology Bachelor's Degree Do?

The only way to address these knowledge gaps is to identify what 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 applying.

Most graduate schools in psychology remain part of a 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.

Ensure the program you choose to take prerequisite classes holds institutional accreditation. Without that designation, your credits will not be accepted by other accredited schools.

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 a research assistant. The necessity of this level of experience depends entirely on the department requirements, the professors, and their labs.

Some professors in your area of expertise want research assistants as part of the graduate program and may want them to have knowledge and experience. Others will not require work experience because of the nature of the program.

Use your research skills to contact the psychology department, particularly the professors focusing on your specialization. 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 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 of 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 is the standardized test most graduate psychology schools 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 cover knowledge and skills in six subjects, including psychology. This specialized psychology test requires the test-taker to 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 $231.30 for the GRE General Test and $150 for the GRE Subject Tests. ETS delivers the paper version of the GRE three times yearly and the computer test year-round at established locations.

GRE Waiver

Students may receive test waivers from their prospective graduate programs. Finding schools that offer waivers can reduce the stress of applying for graduate psychology programs. 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 or months to adequately prepare for the GRE.

In general, schools that require the GRE only offer waivers to students with high GPAs, extensive work experience, or advanced degrees. Applicants with lower GPAs than required for entry can use a strong GRE score to bolster their applications. Contact each school to learn about their waiver process.

Breakdown of GRE Scores

Shoot for a score in the 50th-75th percentile. A score in the 75th percentile means you score higher than most test-takers. A score in the 75th percentile means you score higher than most test-takers. Based on GRE score percentiles from 2019-2022, test-takers in at least the 75th percentile scored at least:

Find out more about verbal and quantitative reasoning scores below.

GRE Score Percentiles from 2019-2022
Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Quantitative Reasoning Percentile
170 99 94
160 84 61
150 41 30
140 10 6
130 - -
Source: ETS

The psychology subject test comprises 205 questions from undergraduate coursework in cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychology. The ETS provides interpretative information for the subject tests, which differs from the general exam.

GRE Score Report

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:

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.

How do I determine if my score competes well against other applicants? Each school collects its own average GRE scores by program. Research admission requirements and visit the FAQ pages on each school's official website and see how you compare to other applicants. If you do not hit the target, it does not mean you do not qualify for graduate school. The graduate admissions committee considers your entire application packet, including your undergraduate GPA, work experience, and essay.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

At this stage, anticipation can go into overdrive as your anxiety simmers. Many graduate applicants sit in this application limbo, waiting for results that seem to take forever. "Be patient and stay hopeful. Admissions processes can sometimes take time and once you've submitted your application, you've done all you can do until you hear back. Try to distract yourself with fun or enjoyable things while you wait," Pietrucha said.

There's little to do now but adopt a positive attitude and know that even if you get a rejection, you're still likely waiting to hear back about 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.

The timeline for receiving an acceptance or rejection letter depends on when you apply. If you apply in the fall, you can typically receive an answer by April.

Hearing From Programs

Once you've received your acceptance letter, the financial aid envelope with details on paying for your education should be within reach. If you have been accepted to multiple schools, make sure to visit campuses, meet with professors, talk to students in the program, and look at your surroundings.

Your prospective program 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 decide, write a letter to the "second-choice" schools requesting a decision deadline extension if necessary.

If you receive rejection letters, take heart and learn from your mistakes. There's nothing wrong with a polite phone call or email to each department to determine how to 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.


Page last reviewed on May 24, 2024

Latest Posts