Graduate School Planning

Applying to Graduate School in Psychology: A guide for psychology majors at the University of New Hampshire

The following guidelines are designed to give you some basic information about the nature of graduate study and the process of preparing for and applying to graduate school in psychology. In such a limited amount of space it would be impossible to describe all of the many subtle points and specific details involved in the entire procedure. For this we strongly recommend that you talk with the department's Academic Counselor or your faculty advisor to determine the best approach for you. Use the following information as a stepping off point so that you will be better prepared to ask questions and pursue additional information based on your own particular background, needs, and interests.

Graduate School in Psychology is a commitment of one to six years to the study of advanced psychology in order to qualify for professional and specialized work in Psychology, in either the practice of psychotherapy, advanced research in psychology, teaching, or a variety of applied areas.

Programs leading to the following degrees are available:

M.Ed. Master of Education
M.S. Master of Science
M.S.W. Master of Social Work
Ed.D. Doctor of Education
Ph.D. Doctor of Philosophy
Psy.D. Doctor of Psychology

Programs of study may be in areas like the following: educational psychology, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, counseling, experimental psychology, industrial psychology, community psychology, marriage and family, etc.

The American Psychological Association recommends that if you are "bright, have initiative, and are willing to work hard..." then you are probably graduate student material. (Graduate Study in Psychology and Associated Fields, APA, 1986 p. xi)

The most important question you need to ask yourself before beginning the process of preparing for graduate school is: "Why am I going to graduate school?" Many students have a vague notion that they "plan to go to graduate school," some, in response to the "rumors" they hear that "you can't get a job in psychology with only a B.A. degree." To a large extent this "rumor" is true. Psychology is a "profession" founded on a body of knowledge developed through scientific inquiry. Just as in the practice of other "professions," such as law or medicine, it is expected that the practice of "professional psychology" such as teaching, research, and psychotherapy will be conducted by individuals with specialized training. According to the APA guide Graduate Study in Psychology: "If you want a career in psychology that goes beyond the supervised research assistant level, you should continue your studies. The master's degree (MA or MS) is essentially the degree for the supervised practice of psychology." (1986, p. xi)

Many students "plan to go to graduate school" without any consideration of what it takes to get into graduate school. A student who inquires about graduate programs in his/her senior year with a 2.5 grade point average may not be a suitable candidate for a graduate program. In too many cases that same student has "planned" to go to graduate school for some time, but has not taken the time to learn the criteria for getting into graduate school.

One way to assess your motivation and potential for graduate school is to examine how you spent your spare time in your junior and/or senior year. If the answer does NOT include research or applied experience in that order of importance, then you may wish to think more seriously about how you want to spend the 1-6 years following your undergraduate degree. Many students are now publishing in professional journals and/or presenting papers at professional conferences while they are still undergraduates. If that sounds too frightening (or boring) to even think about, better consider preparing for the job market.

In selecting graduate programs, you may be forced to consider the type of program you can get into, in addition to the type of program you prefer. Keep in mind that if you really want a Ph.D. but can only qualify for a master's program, this will not guarantee eventual admission to a Ph.D. program. Nevertheless, you should choose your master's program carefully, with the thought of an eventual Ph.D. in mind. With sufficient aptitude, motivation and perseverance, you should eventually be able to obtain the degree you prefer.

When assessing your potential for graduate study, consider the criteria that are used in most graduate admissions decisions: grade point average, graduate record examination scores, letters of recommendation, research and/or applied experience. Is your record strong in these areas? If not, can you make significant improvements before you apply? Some programs consider your last two years' grade point average and/or look for significant improvement during the undergraduate career. Therefore, even if you had a poor start in college you could exhibit graduate school potential by the time you are ready to apply. Refer to the APA guide Graduate Study in Psychology, which is published biannually. The Psychology Department has a copy which can be borrowed, or you can order a copy for yourself with order blanks available in the Psychology Department office. This important reference book will provide you with information on the admissions criteria for most programs in the United States and Canada, in addition to details on program requirements, types of degrees offered, etc. Anyone seriously considering graduate school should review this publication thoroughly.

Consider the option of waiting one or more years before you apply, particularly if you need to develop credentials in the area of work experience. Because many students decide on this course of action, some further details of delayed application tactics may be helpful:

Even if you do decide to wait for at least one year before applying to graduate school, you should take the GRE's (Graduate Record Exams) and other required exams while you are still in school or directly following graduation. Exam scores are typically valid for 3-5 years and you are likely to score higher while in an active intellectual environment.  Make sure that you prepare for the GRE's! There are workshops and resources available at UNH to help you. Check The Center for Academic Resources (CFAR) website for more information: 
Center For Academic Resources (CFAR)

Although test scores are usually valid for a number of years, letters of recommendation are usually good for only one year. Thus, if you intend to wait at least one year, you should let your referees know that you will be asking for a letter of recommendation later on. When it comes time to request those letters, be sure to include enough information with your request so that your referees will be able to write intelligent letters. Let your referees know what you have been doing since graduation, particularly details about any relevant experiences. In addition, because your undergraduate file is probably no longer easily accessible you should include a copy of your transcript and any academic details, such as conference presentations, publications, independent study projects, etc., that have bearing on your application. Don't assume that your referees will remember small or even major details about you unless they know you extremely well. In most cases it is safe to assume that you remember your teachers better than they remember you.

One final note on delayed graduate applications: Remember that more will be expected of you in the way of relevant work/research experience if you have been out of school for a number of years. Even if your academic record was quite good, simply working in an unrelated field while you think about applying to graduate school at a later date will not improve your credentials. Your level of motivation for graduate study may well be judged on the extent and quality of your relevant activities after graduation.

If you decide to apply to graduate school during your senior year, follow the calendar in the next section and these tips:

1. Pay close attention to deadline dates. Make sure that all of your application materials are received in time. Make sure that you schedule your GRE's with enough lead time so that your scores will be received by the stated application deadline. (Reporting of paper and pencil exam scores takes 6-8 weeks! Computer-based exam scores take 2-3 weeks.)

2. "NEATNESS COUNTS" Take the application form very seriously and provide answers that are both correct and neat. In a concise form, point out special features about your background that may not be apparent from a perusal of your materials, such as the nature of independent study work, your grade point average for your last two years, etc. Don't expect an admissions committee to "figure out" what your most positive attributes are, especially when they may have 300 other files to review!

3. While truthfulness concerning your interests and career plans is expected, remember that if your interests do not match the program emphasis you could be rejected for this reason alone, regardless of your other attributes. Make sure you have accurate information about the orientation of the programs to which you are applying and the areas of specialization they offer.

4. The biographical statement requested in most applications is important. It is a good idea to stick to the information, format, and length requested. Write a rough draft, put it away for a few days and reread it. Ask a professor or a friend whose opinion you respect to read it and offer constructive criticism, and be prepared to rewrite and rewrite. Keep in mind that for programs that do not require interviews, your biographical statement is your interview. Be straightforward, concise, and objective. Avoid lengthy tangential details of personal history. Unless something truly noteworthy happened in your life before college, it is probably not necessary to go back further than your freshman year.

5. Letters of recommendation are extremely important. Be sure to get permission to use someone's name as a referee beforehand. Try to use people who know you well and think highly of you, preferably psychology faculty, although faculty in related departments, or supervisors of related internships or work experience are good choices as well.

Be sure that you take at least some of your psychology coursework with full time faculty. While part time or graduate student instructors may be among your favorites, the credentials and reputations of your referees will be taken into consideration. Faculty are more likely to have “contacts” in other programs which may prove very useful to you. Give your referees plenty of time, provide them with the necessary forms, stamped envelopes, etc. and if possible include a statement about yourself including your academic background, your goals and objectives, etc.

Most recommendation forms include a waiver of rights clause. By signing the waiver you are giving up your right to see the letter of recommendation, now or in the future. When in doubt, sign the waiver. If you are too concerned about what someone might say about you to feel comfortable signing the waiver, this is a good sign that you need to ask someone else to write in your behalf. A letter that a student will not see sometimes carries more weight than a letter that is known to be accessible to the student. Assuming that any person who does not feel positively enough about you to write a supportive letter would excuse themselves from the obligation, the weight that the letter is given is more important than the "thrill" you might get from reading it.

Remember that faculty are human too! You may feel very positively toward an instructor but there could be something about you that bothers them. If you consistently turned work in late or missed class frequently, your referee may be influenced by these matters. If a referee excuses him/herself from writing a letter for you with some irrelevant excuse, take the hint. He or she may be suggesting that you would be better off asking someone else. If by the end of your junior year you do not know any full time faculty well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation, get moving! You need to work with someone now, even if it means sacrificing some of your summer earnings to "volunteer" in someone's lab. Letters of recommendation are much too important to treat casually.

A final note about letters: often instructors, particularly in the field of psychology, are sought out by students experiencing emotional crisis. If you have bared your soul to an instructor you may wish to think carefully about asking that person for a letter of recommendation, particularly if you have revealed things about yourself that you would not want a graduate admissions committee to know. A referee may not be able to be as objective about your revelations as you hope, particularly if he/she believes that you have some unresolved issues that may surface in graduate school.

The following calendar is meant as a general guideline; when the time comes, check on specific deadlines.

From the beginning... 

As early in your undergraduate career as possible develop contacts with faculty through coursework, work study jobs, etc. Once you declare psychology be sure to spend some time in the department outside of class time. Volunteer to help with research, even if it means mundane clerical tasks at first. Once you prove yourself to be a reliable, effective worker you will be given more "important" work. This experience will be invaluable not only toward excellent recommendations but also for the exposure to professional scientific work. Since the department has an honors program and an undergraduate research conference and the University has an undergraduate research funding program, consider applying to as many of these as you can. In other words make the most of what the department/university offers.

Fall Semester Junior Year 

Obtain review materials for the graduate record examinations (available on-line and in bookstores) and the advanced test in psychology, and start to prepare for the GRE's. (For the advanced test in psychology review a good introductory textbook, a text on history and theory, and other areas where your academic preparation is limited.) Review the APA guide Graduate Study in Psychology to begin to narrow your focus on types of programs and areas of interest.

Spring Semester Junior Year 

Think about who could write letters of recommendation for you. Maintain contacts with your faculty advisor and your instructors so that they will be better able to write on your behalf. Your initiative in this area is critical if you are to have contacts appropriate for letters of recommendation. Continue to prepare for the GRE's and consider taking them before fall semester begins. (If the programs to which you are applying have early application deadlines, i.e. November 1 or earlier, you will have limited time to take the exams more than once.)

September Senior Year 

Review specific programs and send for application materials. If you have not already done so, ask faculty if they will write recommendation letters for you. Provide them with the materials suggested in the previous section. Register for the GRE's. Most graduate programs consider your highest GRE scores, regardless of the number of times the exams are repeated. Often the practice effect alone will boost your scores. Some programs require completion of the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). If you have not yet narrowed down your choice(s) of graduate program(s) you should play it safe and register for the MAT's at this time as well. Lack of any required exam score can eliminate you from consideration.

Be sure that all of your materials are submitted by the specified deadline. If there is no specified deadline, complete your application as soon as you can, aiming for February 1 for September admission. Any time after March 1st you should begin to hear about acceptances or rejections. If you don't hear by this time, it could be that you are in a "hold" category and may receive acceptance at a later date. If you have not heard anything definite by April 15, you should call the department and ask to speak to a member of the graduate admissions committee.

Once you have narrowed down the programs to which you will apply, be an "intelligent" applicant: particularly for your preferred institutions, go to the program's website and read about some of the recent research of the faculty with whom you would most like to work. When writing your application be specific about people you wish to work with. You may even wish to write brief letters to those people individually. Your familiarity with the research of relevant faculty in your preferred programs will give a more positive impression of your motivation and independence.

The following information is relevant both for career and graduate school preparation in the field of psychology. As such it is presented in fairly general terms. For more specific information designed according to your individual needs and goals, consult your advisor. In addition, for specific guidelines on particular graduate programs consult the APA guide Graduate Study in Psychology.

The following was reported in THE PSYCHOLOGY MAJOR: Training and Employment Strategies from a 1975 survey of faculty and career advisors:

"...students interested in maximizing their employment opportunities need to take two or more courses in at least one of the following areas: economics, business administration, personnel administration, marketing, consumer education, journalism, speech, communications, English composition, biological and ecological sciences, math or statistics, computer science, sociology, and social work."

It was also reported that study in these areas should show an accumulation of progressively more advanced skills, i.e., progression from lower to higher level courses, and avoidance of overlapping course content. Thus it should be obvious that taking UNH 401 in every discipline will not add up to an impressive set of academic credentials. If you are choosing your courses by avoidance criteria instead of criteria designed to provide you with a meaningful program, you need to change your method or your goals.

There are several ways to accomplish the objective of obtaining advanced skills. A second major, a minor, or a concentration of courses in another discipline is one method of developing additional credentials. But there is also another, often overlooked method. It is typically the case that students complete their general education requirements (particularly in the sciences for Liberal Arts students) with a selection of the lowest level (i.e., whatever the current student grapevine labels as "gut") courses available in several disciplines without any regard for cohesiveness or a meaningful combination of content areas. In order to maximize academic credentials, however, the student can use those requirements to obtain solid backgrounds in other disciplines or to enhance their major coursework with additional breadth, skills, etc. Thus if you expect to apply to graduate school in experimental psychology, for example, you may be well advised to take computer science, chemistry, human anatomy and physiology, calculus, or other general education courses that are useful for your particular area of specialization. Without these courses you may find yourself trying to make up for these gaps in your preparation by taking MORE undergraduate courses while you are in graduate school. The message is obvious to the extent you are able to focus your career plans, your choices at the undergraduate level can allow you to spend your time in graduate school more wisely and efficiently.

Within psychology there is fairly singular agreement concerning the course work that is most important in establishing good academic credentials: statistics courses, methodology courses (both supervised and independent research experience), and in the area of research, computer programming, electronics, and mathematics are considered important preparations. In applied programs (clinical, counseling) relevant experience is often an additional key factor in final graduate admissions decisions. Notice that for graduate study in any area, including clinical and counseling psychology, there is a significant emphasis on preparation in the area of statistics and research methods. Graduate programs of any emphasis prefer students with solid foundations in the scientific areas of psychology. It is in graduate school that your coursework in your area of specialization is most meaningful.

"Too many students erroneously assume that a heavy concentration in psychology...will be an impressive credential for graduate school. In fact, beyond basic courses in introductory psychology, experimental psychology, and statistics, graduate programs fail to agree on which courses should be taken in psychology" (Fretz and Stang, 1980, p. 19).

There is, perhaps, more general agreement on the categories of skills that are the most widely sought by graduate programs. They are in the areas of quantitative reasoning, verbal communication, writing and computer skills. You should be selecting coursework appropriate to the enhancement of these skills.

Internships and Volunteer work

One of the many advantages of internships or volunteer work is that it can provide the student with the opportunity to ask "Would I really like to have a job doing this kind of work?" In addition to your assigned responsibilities, it is very important to observe and ask questions:
what are other people doing in the organization and what is their academic background? You may think that you want a master's degree in psychology for counseling, but observe that most of the individuals who are doing the type of work you want to do have MSW's (master's in social work). You may believe that you want to work with children, but find that it isn't as interesting or rewarding as you thought it would be. In any case, relevant experience is both an important source of information for you and an important addition to your background. Remember that even in voluntary positions reliability and dependability are vital. Your application to graduate school should include a letter of recommendation from someone who has supervised your work.

BE REALISTIC. Apply to programs that offer you a reasonable chance of acceptance; apply to as many programs as you can, and include programs that you would attend if your first few choices result in rejections. You should also consider the following factors when selecting graduate programs:

  1. Reputation of the school and accreditation status. (APA accreditation is applicable to Psychology programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology.)
  2. Size of the library and availability of research and other support facilities, such as computers.
  3. The programs offered and the nature of the program requirements.
  4. Quality of the faculty and their areas of interest.
  5. Cost of the program, and the availability of assistance.
  6. Location of the campus.*
  7. Special admissions procedures and criteria available for members of minority groups.

*While geographic location is a secondary consideration in some respects, YOU need to think about whether or not you can spend the next 1-6 years of your life in these locations. With more academic work than you have ever faced before, holidays and semester breaks may be spent in the library. For many students graduate school represents the first major break from "home." Too often, geographic location becomes an important factor only when it is too late.

  • American Psychological Association Graduate Study in Psychology, Washington, D.C., Author, 2009.
  • American Psychological Association Getting In. A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology, 1993.
  • American Psychology Association Careers in psychology, Washington, D.C., Author, 1978.
  • Fretz, B. R. & Stang, D. J. Preparing for graduate study in psychology: Not for seniors only. Washington, D.C., APA, 1980.
  • Super, D. E. & Super, C. M. Opportunities in psychology. Lincolnwood, Illinois, VGM Career Horizons, 1982.
  • Ware, M. E., and Millard, R. J. Handbook on Student Development: Advising, Career Development and Field Placement. Hillsdale, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1987.
  • Woods, Paul J. (Ed.) The psychology major: Training and employment strategies. Washington, D.C.: APA, 1979.