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Preparing for Graduate School

Students planning to apply to graduate programs in psychology should strive for academic excellence in their college careers and use their time as an undergraduate to acquire important experiences and credentials.

Academic Excellence

Graduate programs in psychology are competitive. Generally, a cumulative grade point average (GPA) above 3.0 will be required for entrance into Master’s Degree Programs and a GPA in the area of 3.5 or above will be required for Ph.D. programs. But programs vary and students should research the expected GPA requirements of specific programs before they apply.

Research Experience and Conference Participation

Whether you are interested in a career in psychological research or a career in applied psychology, graduate programs will want to see that you have acquired research experience as an undergraduate. Most graduate programs in clinical, school, industrial, forensic and other areas of applied psychology expect students to follow the scientist-practitioner model. In other words, they want students to understand the science of psychology and to be able to conduct research, as well as put the science into practice. In addition to courses work in the core areas of psychological science, graduate schools want students who have experience conducting, reporting and presenting research. To get this experience, students should take one or more of the Research Lab courses offered in the department and look for other opportunities to acquire research experience as well. Original research and research projects that culminate in presentations at student or professional conferences are particularly valued. The Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference and BSU’s Student Achievement Day conference are student conferences that are held in April each year. Psychology students interested in applying to graduate schools are strongly encouraged to get involved in a research project and prepare presentations on their work for these conferences in their junior and senior years.   

Human Service Work Experience

Work experience is important for students interested in careers in applied psychology where they can expect to be work closely with people. Jobs that require close interaction with children, people with mental illness, the poor and others with special needs can be demanding and require well developed emotional maturity and interpersonal skills. Graduate schools often prefer applicants who have demonstrated that they can work successfully in employment settings that provide services to people with special needs. Getting a letter of recommendation from a supervisor who has seen you work in these settings can be particularly important. Undergraduate students can acquire this kind of experience while they are in college in several ways. Many students work as volunteers or paid workers in group homes, nursing homes, child care services and other human service agencies. The BSU Psychology Department also offers the opportunity for students to complete internships in a wide range of settings locally, and throughout the state. These internships are usually completed in the student’s senior year. The Preinternship Seminar (PSY 4879) is a required prerequisite and usually taken the semester before the internship begins.

Letters of Recommendation

Graduate schools typically ask for three letters of recommendation from their applicants. These are usually letters from college professors who know the student very well. If the graduate program is in an applied area, like clinical psychology, it may also include a forth letter from a supervisor who has observed the student’s work in a human services setting, serving children or people with special needs.

To get good letters of recommendation, students must work to develop good relationships with their professors throughout their college careers. Professors cannot write good letters of recommendation for students they do not know. Get to know your professors by coming to class, participating in class, meeting regularly with your advisor, and participating in department activities, such as Psychology Club, research labs, and teaching assistantships.

Ask for letters of recommendation from your professors when you are ready to apply to graduate schools and already have the application materials for the schools. Each graduate school will have their own forms and instructions for how letters of recommendation are to be written and submitted. Give the professors who will write your letters these instructions and materials and be clear about when they are due. Some professors will want you also give them a brief statement of your goals and relevant experiences, or other information. Contact each professor and ask what they will need. Contact your professors several weeks before the letters are due to give everyone enough time.

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Most graduate programs in Psychology will require applicants to submit scores for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The GRE is much like the ACT that most students take in high school before they apply to college. Generally, if you did very well on the ACT you will do well on the GRE. But it helps to study and prepare before you take the test.

The GRE includes required sections on general abilities that include math, verbal and analytical skills. There are also optional tests in selected topic areas, such as Psychology. While the Psychology test may be important, the most important scores come from the sections on the general test. As with GPA, required scores vary and students should research the GRE requirements of specific programs before they apply.  

The mathematical content of the GRE is mostly composed of problems in basic mathematics, algebra and geometry. It is very helpful to review these subjects before you take the test and to use the study and preparation resources that are available.  The assessment of verbal and analytical skills is harder to prepare for. It is also very helpful to use the available study resources to understand and practice answering the types of problems that are on the test, but the relevant knowledge and skills cannot be quickly acquired. To prepare for this section, students should work on their verbal and reasoning skills throughout their college experience by developing their vocabulary, reading and critical thinking skills.

The GRE Psychology Test covers a broad range of topics, including history, theory and methods in the areas of Learning & Cognition, Lifespan Development, Statistics, Research Methods, Psychophysiology and Perception, Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Personality Theory. Students who complete the Psychology major at BSU are usually well prepared for this test. Additionally, reviewing an Introductory Psychology text and taking a History and Systems course before taking the test can improve your scores.

Expect to take the test about a year or more before you plan to go to graduate school. This will give you time to take the test, and retake it if necessary, and then get your scores to your schools with your applications.

If you are not satisfied with your GRE scores, study more and take the test again. Students usually score higher the second time they take the test and schools usually look at the highest scores.

To learn more about preparing and registering for the GRE, visit the website of the test publisher, ETS or the BSU Test Center.

Finding a Graduate Program that Fits You

In addition to high grades, GRE test scores, letters of recommendation and experience, one of the most important factors in gaining acceptance to graduate schools is the fit between the student and the program. Many variables can come into play to determine a good fit, including your personal goals and interests as well as grades and test scores. The American Psychological Association publishes a guide to graduate programs in psychology that describes programs in detail. A copy of the guide, Graduate Study in Psychology, is always on reserve in the BSU library. It can also be purchased from the American Psychological Association. Often programs have detailed descriptions and information for applicants on their websites as well.  Study this information carefully before applying and apply to programs that match your qualifications and interests. Then, when you submit your application, organize your materials, especially your personal statement, to show how you would fit into the program. For more tips on how to prepare your application, see your advisor and visit this website from the APA on the Don'ts of Grad School Applications.

Apply to a range of schools and be persistent. Acceptance into graduate school can be highly competitive. Many doctoral programs will accept fewer than 10 students a year and get several hundred applications for those spots. Even the best students can expect some rejections.

Some programs are more competitive than others. Programs at large research universities, like the University of Minnesota, and PH.D programs in Clinical Psychology are particularly competitive. If you are interested in a competitive program, consider applying to some less competitive programs as well, including Master’s degree programs.

In addition to good qualifications and demonstrating a good fit with a program, the key to getting into graduate school is persistence. Even if you are highly qualified, you can never assume that you to get into a particular school. Look at programs all across the country and apply to several places, as much as five or more.  The more programs you look at and the more you apply to, the more likely you are to find one that is right for you and get accepted. If you do not get in, but have the right qualifications, try again the next year. In the meantime, pick up some more experience that could make you a stronger candidate.

When to Apply to Graduate Schools

Most graduate programs only accept students at the start of the Fall Semester. Applications for doctoral programs are usually due the previous fall or winter, some as early as November, others as late as February.  Due dates for Master’s degree programs are usually a little later, between February and March. Acceptance letters usually go out by March or April, so by the end of April students will usually know if they will be starting a program the following fall.

With this schedule, planning ahead is important. Students should plan on working on graduate school applications at least a year before they hope to start graduate school. For example, if you wanted to start a graduate program in the fall of 2018, you should start collecting application materials early in the fall of 2017.