Choosing A Graduate Program
Graduate programs share characteristics, but differ in many ways. The choice of a graduate school will shape your career, and partially determine which sorts of experiences you get. Therefore, you should plan on spending a lot of time reading about programs and then narrowing down the ones to which you will apply. I've compiled some advice for you below.
Again, remember that this is just my advice. I recommend you speak with several professors and professionals you trust to get their perspectives, also.
Choosing a Graduate Program
It's not absolutely necessary to know exactly what you want to do before choosing to go to graduate school, but you must at least have decided on some of the major themes you want in your career. Once you have a pretty good idea of the type of work you want to do in psychology, it's time to start looking into graduate schools.
Graduate programs share characteristics, but differ in many ways. The choice of a graduate school will shape your career, and partially determine which sorts of experiences you get. Therefore, you should plan on spending a lot of time reading about programs and then narrowing down the ones to which you will apply.
Some things to consider about a psychology graduate program are its accreditation (APA or not), reputation, cost, availability of scholarships and assistanceships, research expectations, opportunities for clinical practice (if you are pursuing a license-eligible degree), retention rate, required courses (e.g., how heavy on statistics), style of faculty mentorship, internship-matching success rate (for license-eligible degrees), and others. I'll address just a few of these.
Because there are so many criteria by which to narrow down your choice of schools, you should decide what things are most important to you. If you are geographically limited to one state or one county, for example, then you'll need to be more flexible with what the program offers. If you are not limited to any area, then you can perhaps be more rigid about what the programs offer.
What may be an important first consideration are the minimum requirements to get into the program. These are usually posted on the program's website, and may include a minimum GPA, a minimum psychology course GPA, a minimum GRE score, certain courses taken as an undergraduate, and so on. Keep careful track of those, because if you do not meet the minimum requirements, don't spend valuable time applying to that school.
I have found that it is best to find a school that is the right "fit." Fitting a program means not only that the program seems like it would benefit you, but that you would also be a student who can thrive in the program. Graduate admissions boards look for students who are likely to complete their program and then go on to have successful careers. They look for signs that a student is committed to the program, and that the student has a track record of success. Being a good fit for the program means that your interests closely align with the program's curriculum. For example, if you have some experience or interest with aging psychology (geropsychology), then it may not make sense to try and tailor yourself to seem attractive to a school that does not specifically have some aging psychology focus or faculty who do such work. It's probably a better use of time to find programs that emphasize aging psychology, so that your interests help convince admissions boards that it is the right fit.
I'll use my own experience as an example. As an senior in college, I was unsure what I wanted to do with psychology, but I knew that I liked it. I took a year off to work, and I ended up working at a residential facility for adult men with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. Still, my research experience in my undergraduate program was limited and mostly had to do with cross-cultural manifestations of emotion. When it came time to apply to graduate programs, I thought that I could tailor my experience to just about any place. I mostly chose programs in places that I would like to live, or schools that had good reputations, but I did not choose programs that emphasized areas with which I had experience. On my applications, I imagine that it came across like I was willing to study any specialization as long as they would admit me, and that was probably a weakness.
I did get accepted to a master's program, and when it came time to apply to a doctoral program, I had a much better idea what to do. By the end of my master's studies, I had more extensive research and clinical experience with substance abuse, and I also had clinical experience in corrections environments. So this time, I chose 5 schools that had a clear focus on substance abuse, and 5 schools with a clear forensic psychology focus. This time, my applications came across much better in that I seemed less "open to whatever" and more committed to a certain area of study. I could also more easily demonstrate with my record why I would be a good fit.
In virtually all graduate programs, you will work closely with one or more faculty members. Some programs ask you to indicate on your application materials with which faculty you would like to work, and then if you are accepted into the program, that faculty member is your mentor throughout your time in the program. That person will probably supervise your research (probably in a Ph.D. program), and may even serve as a clinical supervisor (in clinical or counseling programs and Psy.D. programs). In some programs, you get accepted into the program and then you informally reach out to faculty to chair a dissertation, or whatever else. If the way that works is important to you, then find out what is the practice at the institution you're considering.
The style of mentoring may make a huge difference in your graduate experience. Some mentors have very structured styles; they may have a project already planned for your thesis or dissertation, and they probably have weekly meetings to check in on your progress. Others are more hands-off; they may expect you to come up with research ideas, and to reach out to them if you need some direction. Some mentors are strict in deadlines, and push you to achieve, or ask you to lead a team of research assistants, etc. Others expect you to be self-motivated, to come up with your own research ideas, and to reach out to them if you need guidance. It's not usually clear the style of mentor that person is until you've worked with them for a few weeks or months, so be careful about that. Many times, when a graduate student drops out of a program, it has something to do with a poor match between mentor and mentee. You can switch faculty members, but this is usually a bit of a hassle, so try to make a good choice at the beginning.
You may wish to ask the mentor what their style is. Most professors who have been doing their work for a while have good insight into what sort of mentor style they have, and will be straightforward with you about what they expect of a good graduate student. Still, that's no guarantee that they know how they are.
Consider contacting a current graduate student in that program, perhaps even one working with the faculty member you have in mind. They are usually willing to share their insights into the experience of the program. Often, their contact information is available on the program's webpage, or you may also reach out to the faculty member and ask for a lab member's information. If you get in to interview at the program and have an opportunity to speak with graduate students, ask them about the faculty members they would recommend or avoid.