Graduate School Applications


When should I apply to graduate schools?

Send in the final applications well before the deadline to leave time for corrections or to locate missing items of the application. Some programs have þrolling admissionsþ with no set deadline, but (all things equal) earlier applications stand a better chance for both admissions and for financial support.

The application deadlines for Ph.D. programs are usually from early to late January. A number of others have late deadlines to accommodate students rejected by other (more selective) programs. However, the most competitive schools can have deadlines as early as mid-December.

Many schools have applicants assemble the entire application package (forms, letters of recommendation, transcript, etc.) and send it only when complete. This makes it easier on the schools but it is more work for the applicant. If you are applying to many programs, make a chart for each school listing: application deadline, essay topics, transcripts, recommendation letters needed, and test scores. Then check off each completed item. TOP

What do admissions committees look at?

The main factors are grades (overall and in key psychology courses), test scores, letters of recommendation, relevant experience, and the letter of intent. Nearly every applicant has good to excellent overall grades (after all, they did graduate from college). Additional evidence of motivation and the appropriate ability (that would be visible in research or working in a volunteer setting) is very important in helping you to stand out from the crowd. Letters of recommendation are the main sources of such information. TOP

Who should I ask to write letters of recommendation?

Early in the fall semester, meet with each appropriate faculty member (most or all from Psychology) and with your supervisors of applied or clinical work. Request that they write the letters and briefly discuss your interests and plans. Faculty members who know you from small classes and as advisors in research projects can write the most valuable letters. Do not bother with letters from professionally irrelevant people such as family friends, clergy, and prominent business or political figures.

A good way to ask someone to write a letter while giving some leeway is to ask, "Do you know me well enough to give me a good letter of recommendation?" TOP

What is the procedure for dealing with recommendations?

Discuss your plans with the letter writer. The more information you provide, the easier it will be to write a letter that specifically addresses your interests and plans and best supports your application. In any case, give each writer a summary of your overall and psychology G.P.A., test scores, courses taken, relevant research and applied experiences, interests, and career goals. Include your resume and a copy the latest draft of your cover essay. For each school, indicate the specific program you are applying for and how that program fits into your long-range career plans. Provide a list of your schools and deadlines, note whether the letter will be picked up by you or mailed directly to the school. Ideally, provide the address list electronically along with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes where appropriate. The more organized, the better!

Be sure to give faculty plenty of time to write their letters before the Christmas break. TOP

What should go into the cover letter (letter of intent)?

There are three main points to cover: 1) why you want graduate training, 2) why you hope to attend that particular graduate program, and 3) a summary of your training, relevant experience including specific research or clinical-counseling experience as well as statistical and computer skills. The letter also shows your writing skills, so devote adequate time to the task. Be brief and avoid irrelevant biography details. Be specific in describing your interests and relevant experience. Ask a willing professor to check the letter for content and coherence.

Here is your chance to look good and to compensate for or explain weaknesses in grades, scores, or work experience. Admissions officers have to read innumerable essays, so meet them halfway: write clearly and concisely, be interesting, and give the reader a feeling for you as an individual. Make it clear that your decision to pursue the graduate degree is an appropriate and well considered one. Relate your interests to the specific program and faculty at that school (showing that you were interested enough to do library research).

Be sure to explain important special considerations (such as reasons for a bad semester, valuable volunteer jobs). Many people find it difficult to brag, but excessive modesty will not be effective here. Do not expect anyone to read between the lines to guess what you mean. Good essays may enhance your chances of acceptance, poorly written essays will hurt.

Because it is so difficult to write the essay and then read it objectively, be sure to have someone else check it over. A faculty member would be the best choice to notice where you skimped on important information or gave too much emphasis to irrelevant matters.

Some application forms request biographical information. How should I fill these out?

You should clearly and specifically describe those interests and motivations that relate to your graduate school plans. Avoid bringing up personal material that is not relevant. Fully describe any research or applied experience and indicate how it was valuable and is evidence of your interest and motivation. TOP

How long will it take to complete the applications?

Much longer than you would believe. Each school has a its own application; however, for many schools it is now possible to apply online, which greatly streamlines the process. Still, even if you can apply online, for most schools, you have some materials to gather (check for fees, official transcripts in sealed envelopes, and letters of recommendation in signed, sealed envelopes) that will need to be mailed all in a single, large envelope. This means that a delayed letter of recommendation will hold up the entire application, so keeping after the letter writers is often necessary. If time is critical, it may help to send a prepaid express mail envelope to the writers. Finally, double check each package, then mail it using first-class or next-day express. TOP

Is there anything special to watch out for when filling out the applications?

Graduate programs are professional programs, and here is your chance to show that you are up to their standards. Neatness, good writing on essays, and careful proofreading throughout are very important. Follow all directions exactly and complete all sections of the forms. Include a copy of your GRE scores just in case the official notice from E.T.S. is delayed. TOP

How can I check that the application has arrived and is complete?

Call the department to which you sent the application and ask if your file is complete. Your major concern is that transcripts and letters of recommendation that were sent separately from the application were united with your file. Follow up on any missing materials. Many schools also offer online tracking databases or email notification when your materials have been received. TOP

Is it important to visit the schools you have applied to?

Yes. If the school is close, visit even before your application is in. If the school is far, wait and see if your application succeeds. Try to visit before accepting (unless you are down to only one school anyway). Prepare for the visit by reading about courses and requirements in the catalogue. Locate and read recent publications of people in your area of interest (start with Psychological Abstracts). When there, you should speak to a few faculty members, but the main purpose is to speak to the graduate students (who will be willing to tell you everything). Perhaps more so than the faculty, the other students provide intellectual stimulation and moral support. If you cannot visit, phone the department, have the secretary connect you to the graduate student lounge, and quiz whoever picks up the phone.

Are the graduate students working hard but enthusiastic and eager to discuss the great research they are doing? Or are they apathetic, feeling mistreated and exploited? Are the faculty supportive and friendly? Does the program emphasize cooperation or competition? Are research projects forced on them or can they follow their own ideas? You have to sense the vibrations of the place, but trust your own reactions. TOP

How soon should I hear from programs after they make their admission decisions?

Admission committees rank applicants and divide them into three groups (Great, Acceptable, and Unacceptable). Letters go out immediately to the Great and Unacceptable groups. The Acceptable group in held in reserve because the top applicants are likely to be accepted by several programs and turn down the offer. Then they start with the top of the Acceptable group. This means that if you do not hear from a program, you have not been rejected and are on the backup list. If the program is your top choice and you are under pressure from other programs for a decision, call to find out where you are on the wait list. TOP

What should I do when I get a letter of acceptance?

Rejoice quickly and consider slowly. If you are accepted by two or more schools, and one is clearly preferable to the rest, immediately tell the others saying you are no longer interested; they have waiting lists of applicants. Stall on the remaining school until you hear from all programs to which you have applied. Make sure that the terms of financial support (grants, jobs, etc.) are perfectly clear. It is highly improper to accept a given school and change your mind when a better offer comes in. Do not allow one program to rush you into accepting if you are still waiting to hear from a more desirable school. Seek advice from your advisor.

Be aware of one other factor: upon receiving a letter of rejection (even from a low priority program), you will probably notice that you are much more depressed by the news than you would have anticipated. This is because you not only did not get admitted, you were rejected. Miserable feelings associated with not being loved are normal; these will be effectively washed away by acceptance. TOP

What can I do if every school turns me down?

Get moving quickly. Consult with faculty members concerning M.A. programs that have late deadlines for application. Bear in mind that some schools that you did not initially consider would be very acceptable. Call to find out if openings are still available. If possible, visit the school with your application in hand or soon after sending it. In your cover letter honestly discuss the factors that might have caused problems with admissions. Expect most financial aid funds and assistantships to be already allocated, so plan accordingly and be sure to ask about non-departmental jobs. Also consider applying again to these schools the following fall, after working for a year to gain valuable experience and, perhaps, retaking the GRE. You will (at least) be showing determination. TOP