To Which Graduate Programs Should I Apply?

Where do I find out which schools have graduate programs and how to apply?

The book Graduate Study in Psychology is available from the American Psychological Association, on-line. This book is an invaluable reference that describes each graduate program and provides information on financial support, application procedures, size of the department, and faculty/student ratio. A copy is available in the psychology department and in the reference section of the main library (BF77.G73). Career Services has additional books.

Is it harder to select graduate programs than it was to pick undergraduate colleges?

Both much more difficult and much more important. Undergraduate programs are fairly standard and schools can be rated in terms of size, faculty, and academic level of students. The picture is different with graduate programs. A major university might have an excellent department in history with a fine doctoral program and a much weaker psychology department. Complicating the picture even further is that a psychology department might have a top quality doctoral program in social psychology but poor programs in developmental.

How do I choose which schools to consider?

In early fall, discuss your interests and plans with faculty members. Also see how well you meet the admission requirements and the average test scores and grades for entering students. The choice of schools depends on the particular program you want. Geographical considerations (including surf, snow, or city life) should be secondary to the quality of the program. A good program will keep you too busy to venture far from campus.

The reputation of a school is difficult to measure and is not necessarily the same for the graduate and undergraduate levels. The APA Graduate Study in Psychology book and advice from faculty in the area to which you are applying are particularly important in selecting schools. Individual graduate program catalogues give detailed information on particular programs.

Should I rule out schools with average grades or test scores that are higher than mine?

Remember, the average does not mean the minimum. Your chances of acceptance certainly are better when you are at the average or above. However, you can balance being below average on either measure by being extra impressive in other areas. Be sure to point out in the application essay if you have special attributes or if there are special circumstances to be taken into account. If you are below rigid cutoffs, you might get admitted as an unclassified student and then change to regular status after a successful semester or two and receive credit for the courses taken.

To how many schools and to which ones should I apply?

Very few is risky and very many will be a great burden to you and the people writing recommendations. Your first task is to find all the schools that appear to be a good fit to your needs and interests. Then narrow this initial group to the smaller number of schools to which you will finally apply. A total of five, ten, or more schools is typical and could include a very good "long shot" school, several good schools, and a few lower-rated but nevertheless acceptable schools. You should also look at M.A. programs, particularly those with later deadlines.

What should I look at to narrow down the list of schools?

After reducing the list to about 12, look more closely at the programs. Check the catalog for each school to see what courses they offer and the emphasis of the department. Look at the individual program you plan to apply to social, cognition, or whatever. What are the specific courses and training opportunities? Are these features what you had in mind?

Look at the faculty's reputation and interests. Spend time in the library to find out about the faculty. Are any doing particularly exciting work? Use PsychLit and Psychological Abstracts to see what they are publishing. You might refer to this information in the application cover letter to show that you had taken the time to investigate the program.

How do I find out more?

You can get catalogs and information about applications on-line.  In their catalogs the schools will point out their important advantages and resources. Look for these features in the other programs and narrow down your list of good prospects. Pay particular attention to the course-work and other requirements of the program. Also look at the teaching and research interests of the faculty. Contact those faculty whose research interests you to see if they will be accepting students into their labs and explain why you are interested in working with them.

What financial support should I look for?

Many or even most students in doctoral programs in psychology and other academic areas receive some financial support. Full support (sufficient to cover tuition and provide a small salary) is the norm after the first year. In general, medical, law, and business schools provide much less support, but they balance the cost with the expectation of higher incomes later.

Assistantships, involving part-time teaching or research, are the most common form of support. There are also clinical assistantship positions in hospitals and clinics associated with the department. Less common are scholarships that provide funds without requiring part-time work. Another form of support often linked to assistantships is the tuition waiver or a partial waiver in the form of charging out-of-state students in-state tuition. Waivers are a major help even if it is a bookkeeping procedure for the university rather than a transfer of real money.

The descriptive material from the school should indicate what proportion of students receive full or partial financial support. If you have questions, do not hesitate to call the program office.

How do I narrow down the list to a reasonable number of schools?

It is a good idea to apply to a range of schools in terms of admission criteria and specific programs. If you take the October GRE you could defer a decision on the final list until after GRE scores arrive in November. The registration fee for many schools is painful, but should not deter you from making a good selection.

Bring the short list (with your reasons for being interested in each school) to a faculty member for review. Investigate any additional schools that are recommended.