You've decided what you want to do with your career in psychology, and you've picked some graduate programs that are a good fit. Now, let's talk about how to get in.
These are just my opinion. I recommend you speak with several advisors, professors, and professionals to get a well-rounded idea about how to get into a program.
Networking With Faculty
One of the most important first pieces of advice I can give is to get to know faculty at your college or university. Go to their office hours or make an appointment. Professors are busy, so don't make it just a chit-chat session, but go in with some specific things you want to talk about.
Ask them about their research, but only if it truly interests you. Faculty can tell when someone is just fishing for a letter of recommendation, and so if you don't really have research interests, then don't come across as disingenuous. Ask them about how they ended up where they are, how they got interested in their specialty, where they got experience as an undergraduate, what their day-to-day experience is like, and so on.
These conversations serve several purposes. They help you understand how the field works, what options are available, and also build a relationship with a person who may know of internship or volunteer opportunities, and who may be willing to write you a letter of recommendation.
Finding Clinical Experience
Getting experience in clinical psychology can be a challenge because so much of the field relies on licenses, and there are ethical considerations such as confidentiality. Thus, you may need to think outside the box when looking for ways that you can get experience, especially if you want to pursue a clinical degree.
Try to find work or volunteer experience with clinical populations, for example. You may find a job or volunteer position supervising people with special needs, tutoring delinquent juveniles, helping with substance abuse recovery groups, working in a homeless shelter, and many other areas where you are likely to be exposed to mental health issues. Aside from the good work you do in benefiting people, this experience will look attractive on your application materials, and help you to decide whether clinical work is what you want to do for your career. Additionally, volunteer and work experience are invaluable networking opportunities, as you may build life-long relationships with potential employers or people with connections to employers. Experiences such as these also open up excellent possibilities for getting strong letters of recommendation from coworkers or supervisors.
Finding Research Experience
If you are more interested in gaining research experience to look attractive to a Ph.D. program, then you should look for opportunities at your university, probably with the faculty there. You can start in a research methods course, but it is best to eventually volunteer in a professor's research lab to help conduct studies, do literature reviews, enter data, and so on. This is also a valuable networking opportunity.
It's usually best to approach a professor from whom you've taken a course. That way, you should know a little about their personality and whether you think you'd work well with them. Do some reading on what sort of work they do in their lab, and then arrange to speak with them about volunteering. Offer even a few hours per week. Some professors have students apply to work in their lab, and require a minimum number of hours or a minimum GPA, and so on. Others have a less formal process. Many professors are fully staffed, so be prepared to ask about whether they know of other opportunities to participate in research.
The application typically consists of a Statement of Purpose, any exam scores the school requires (often the GRE), three letters of recommendation, transcripts from your undergraduate institution(s), and sometimes a writing sample to assess your skill at written communication.
Graduate school applications are typically due during the Fall semester the year before the admitted students would begin. Some are due in September, but many are not due until December. That means you need to have your schools selected near the end of your Junior year, and probably start the applications over the summer before your senior year. Start preparing to take the GRE during your Junior year, so that you can retake it if needed before the applications are due.
In my opinion, the most important part of the application is your record. There is not much you can do to make up for a low GPA, very low test scores, or a lack of any relevant work or volunteer experience, so do your best to have a strong academic record and experience by the time you apply to graduate programs. However, what may be the next-most important part of the application is your statement of purpose. This is a 1- or 2-page letter where you make the succinct case for why you are an excellent fit for the program to which you are applying.
The Statement of Purpose
The statement of purpose is also sometimes called a "letter of intent," a "personal statement," or something similar. Some schools have specific questions they want you to address in your statement, so keep track of those. Many ask that you write a statement and you choose the way to do that. I have written several statements of purpose, and I've read even more, so here are some of my tips on writing a good one. Before you finalize yours, be sure to have several people read it whose opinions you value.
1. Make It Personal
Many students fall into the trap of just writing relatively generic or cliché things in their application materials. For example, "I really want to help people," is often the crux of the personal statement for clinical program applicants. There's nothing wrong with that desire, but there's also nothing special about it. Make it more personal. Tailor that idea to your personal experience. Share a story, or give some context to why you want to help people.
"I am applying to your program because I really want to help people as a therapist. I know that it can do people a lot of good, and I feel that I can be a good resource for them. My friends often tell me what a good listener I am, and I think that I can use that skill with others, too."
"I am very close with my grandfather, who is now 93 years old. He has been an enormous strength to me throughout my life, and now, as he ages he finds himself facing loss of friends and loved ones. He is left to make hard changes as he loses his physical and mental abilities, and needs more constant care. Now that he is the one in need, I find that I can be a strength to him. My experiences with my grandfather have sparked a deep passion to help others like my grandfather as they enter the later stages of their lives. This is why I wish to pursue a clinical degree specializing in geropsychology at your institution."
Notice that the first statement was broad and gave very little sense of the writer's personality. The second statement is relatable - you can feel the sincerity, and empathize with the drive. You get a better sense of who this applicant is.
Think a lot about why you really want to pursue a degree. If it's just so you can be called "doctor," that's going to come across in your materials. If it's just because you're not sure what to do after your undergraduate program, that will come across also. There's probably some reason deep down that you want to continue, and it may even be somewhat noble. Try to find it, and then express it in your letter.
2. Don't Make It Too Personal
This is a bit tricky. A lot of students can start to divulge too much information in their statements of purpose. You want it to reveal some about you, but you don't want to open up so much that it starts to get inappropriate or where you appear to be oversharing. For example, you may wish to be a therapist because you attended therapy and it was very helpful to you. That's a great reason, but how you word that can portray a different image to the admissions board, so use care here.
Maybe Too Personal:
"I have been in and out of therapy for most of my life, dealing with major depression, as has my mother. I have had some terrible therapists, and I have had some great ones. I really want to use my personal experience and motivation to help others to be successful in their therapy."
A Nicer Balance:
"I, too, have had therapeutic experiences in my life, and in the times when I needed a strong person to lean on, I found out what really worked for me. My own experiences offer a strong foundation for me upon which to build my own clinical skills to help others going through difficult challenges."
The first example probably went too far by giving a specific diagnosis, and the diagnosis of a close family member. This could be interpreted as the writer having difficulty with the idea of confidentiality, and possibly boundary issues. If they are willing to share their mother's diagnosis with strangers, what else might slip out in other places? Additionally, the fact that they have seen multiple therapists might be interpreted as having a chronic issue that might interfere with the writer's ability to complete a program. That may not be a risk the admissions people want to take on.
The second statement is better in that it divulges similar information, but in a broader way so that it can be harder to interpret negatively. It focuses on growth and how the experience drives the writer, which are positives.
I once read a draft of a personal statement that a student was planning to submit. She divulged in the letter a time where she felt extremely overwhelmed with her school obligations, but overcame the challenges. While that may be interpreted as an example of rising above obstacles, it also suggests that the writer has been overwhelmed by school and may be again. Even if that's true, you can write about it in a more abstract and positive light. I recommend running your statement by people you trust to be objective, but especially run it by professors, because they have experience with this sort of thing.
3. Talk Yourself Up, to a Point
This statement of purpose is your chance to convince the admissions committee that you are a competent and ambitious person who can excel in a variety of areas. Talk about your accomplishments both academically, in employment, and any other relevant areas. Be straightforward about your strengths and achievements, but don't oversell it. That's sort of a fine balance. You want to appear confident in your abilities, but not arrogant. Try to set a tone of gratitude for good experiences, and connect it to building toward the future.
"While working with the youth group, I was awarded the Gary Hopkins trophy, which is a symbol of hard work and dedication, and awarded to only one leader each year. I was thrilled to receive this recognition for my work, and was grateful to be considered. I continually strive to do my very best in whatever tasks I take on, so that was especially rewarding for me to have others notice."
Verging on Arrogant:
"I was awarded the Gary Hopkins trophy when I was a youth group leader over the summer, because I worked harder than any of the other leaders, and the youth of my group beat all of the others in competitions. This is who I am. I do not back down, and I do not back off."
The first example acknowledges the honor, while still coming across as humble about it. The statement suggests that the person is not chasing recognition, but is internally motivated to work hard. The second statement leans toward the opposite. This writer appears conceited and needlessly competitive, comparing his or herself to others.
Again, pay close attention to the tone of your statement, and have trusted sources read them for this sort of tone also.
4. Demonstrate That You Know About the Program
Think from the admissions board's point of view. They are looking for students who know what they're getting into, and who are prepared to succeed in it. It's very expensive, inconvenient, and looks bad for a graduate program to have students drop out or fail to complete it. Graduate school is a big investment in time and money, so it's really important that students are committed to the program. You can demonstrate that by showing you know a lot about the program. Cite the program's strengths, mention specific faculty whose work you admire and why, and talk about the benefits of the location. Keep it relatively brief to save space for other things, but make it clear that you've really researched the program.
Along these lines, you can add phrases and words that help to convey your dedication to the program.
An Informed Applicant:
"I believe that I am an excellent fit for the psychology program at your university. In researching similar programs, I was impressed by the opportunities for research the program offers even while maintaining the clinical focus. I believe that research experience is a vital step toward building competent psychologists, and I have put much thought into avenues that interest me. Given my ties to geropsychology, I hope to find opportunity to work with either Professor Jones or Professor Yamawaki, whose research has clear geropsychology implications. I would enjoy the opportunity to speak with them about mutual interests."
A Less-Informed Applicant:
"I am applying to your university because of its prestige in the psychology field. I like the diversity that the university offers, and appreciate the broad experiences of so many faculty."
The first statement makes clear that the writer has put thought into the school selection. The second statement could be made about 99% of all psychology programs, so it does not clearly demonstrate that the writer put any thought into this specific program.
5. Sell Yourself to the Program.
One of the most common weaknesses I find in statements of purpose is that the applicant talks up the advantages of the program, and how it will serve the applicant's career aims so well. That's not bad, but I find it is much more effective to describe how you will be an asset to the university. That is, think not what the program can do for you, but what you can bring to the program.
A Student Who's Buying the Program:
"The program's internship offerings are right in line with what I want to do in my career, and I will really benefit from the small ratio of students to faculty. The flexible class hours will help as I manage a work schedule and family obligations. I would really like to work with Dr. Smith, as I think I could learn a lot from her."
A Student Who's Selling to the Program:
"I bring with me a long record of academic excellence, and dedication to the field of psychology. As I'm sure my recommenders will state, I am dependable and amicable as a student and collaborator. I am confident that I will be an excellent asset to the program, and that Dr. Smith and I would work well together."
The first statement tells the reader what a good program it is for students, but the reader already knows all of that. The program is not looking to serve you, the applicant. The program is looking for the most promising students who come prepared to excel in this field. Your statement should not feel like you are saying, "Here's what you can do for me." It should convince the reader that you are the person they want at their school. The second statement demonstrates desirable characteristics, and takes on a tone of collaboration rather than wants.
If the admissions committee is sufficiently impressed by your application materials, the next step is to invite you for an interview. This may be over-the-phone or in-person. The interview takes on a different tone than the application materials, because you have less time to formulate your answers to questions, you may not anticipate what sorts of things they will ask, and you are evaluated on far more than just your responses. You'll need to portray an image of confidence, warmth, personality, professionalism, and stability, among others. Especially if it is a clinical program, you will need to radiate characteristics of a good therapist, such as genuineness, openness, attentive listening, nonjudgment, and so on.
The key to the interview is practice! Anticipate the kinds of questions you may be asked, and practice answering them out loud. Make a list of questions you would ask an applicant (see some examples below), search the internet for questions that are commonly asked, and then find a quiet place to carry out a mock interview. Give your responses out loud, practicing key words, tone, length, and pace of your responses. You might want to also invite a friend to play the part of the interviewer in a role play. This practice may feel silly, but you'll notice how much easier the answers come after you've said the words already a dozen times.
Unless told otherwise, wear professional attire. Plan on wearing a suit, skirt, or whatever you might wear to a job interview. Try to avoid clothing that is overly flashy or distracting. For example, a tie with cartoon characters, revealing clothing, or clothes that display brand names may send messages that you don't intend. Avoid wearing pins or other jewelry that might suggest political affiliations, socioeconomic status (e.g., large diamonds or lots of jewelry), or other things. You want the focus of the interview to be on you rather than what you are wearing. Think about the area and the professors with whom you will meet. Think about things like whether you want to wear nose piercings or conceal tattoos you have. Naturally, these things should not matter in whether you get admitted to the program, but they may have subtle, even unconscious, influences on the interviewers' perceptions of you.
The interview usually is a series of interviews and events over a day or two. It can be exhausting as you feel like you are always being evaluated each minute of it. Do your best to maintain energy and a positive attitude, because you are being evaluated at every moment.
Give a firm handshake, but not uncomfortably firm. Sit up straight, stand tall, walk like you have somewhere to be. If you are following a guide on a tour of campus or something, walk next to them (not ahead, not behind). Make eye contact when people are speaking to you, but do not maintain eye contact too long. Look away while thinking for a moment, jot down notes if you like, etc. But looking people in the eye lets them know you are attending to what they are saying. Nod, give verbalizations that portray you hear and understand them: "Uh huh...yes...I see," and so on. Smile.
Have an Arsenal of Answers
When they get to the questions, it's important to look as if you've put a lot of thought into the program and attending school (and hopefully you have), so it's best to not have long pauses to collect your thoughts. This is where the practice comes in. When you speak, be realistically enthusiastic (psychologists, perhaps especially, can see straight through pretense), speak so you can be heard, speak with some confidence, and speak at a good, steady pace.
Here are a few questions you might expect, but be sure to ask around and do some internet searches for others:
"Why do you think this particular school or program is the right fit for you?"
"Why do you want to pursue this degree/this specialization?"
"Are you prepared to commit 6 years or more to a program?"
"Are you prepared to cover the costs of this program?"
"What characteristics do you think make a good clinician/researcher/professor?"
"What sort of mentoring style works best for you?"
"What would you like to do after graduation?"
"This program is quite demanding. What sorts of things do you do to keep your stress down or manageable?"
"Tell me about a time you faced a challenge with a student/professor/coworker (etc.), and how you overcame it."
"Tell me about your research/teaching/clinical experience."
"What sorts of ideas do you have at this point about a thesis/dissertation?"
"What sort of population would you like to specialize in working with?"
Regardless of the questions you're asked, speak with some enthusiasm and clarity, and work to come across as a good fit for the program. Again, practice! Try not to ramble, but be sure to fully address the question. I'll give a few examples that I've encountered to give you a sense of what the interviewer is assessing:
Interviewing an Applicant
I once interviewed an applicant to a doctoral program, and I asked, "What is it about this institution that interests you?" The response was something to the effect of "Well, I really want to get a doctoral degree, and so I tried to apply to a lot of places."
I learned some interesting things about the applicant from that response. First, it was clear that there was nothing special about the institution that struck them, and that we were not at the top of their list of schools. It led me to wonder whether the applicant had been careful in selecting the program, or if they had used a "shotgun" approach in just applying to any school in the area. That quickly put this applicant lower on the priority list, compared to an applicant who could cite specific things about the program that make it unique or desirable or a good fit for them.
As an Interviewee
When I was interviewing for graduate school the first time, I was excited to get a phone interview at a prestigious university. I felt that the interview was going really well until the interviewer asked "If you had a million dollars to put toward any research project you wanted to design, what might you do?" That was a fair question, especially for an institution with a heavy research emphasis. I, however, had never really been particularly interested in research, and so I hadn't thought about that before. I ended up pausing for what seemed like a long time, and then gave some vague answer about an area about which I didn't really know much. That probably weakened my position as an applicant because that school would have been a better fit for an applicant who had some passion about research, whereas I just sort of saw it as a part of the process toward a doctorate. Needless to say, I did not get accepted into that program at that time.
Have Some Thoughtful Questions Ready
In most interviews, there is some balance of trying to tell whether you would be a good student to admit, and also a bit of trying to impress you about what the program has to offer. Schools have a lot of motivation to attract and recruit excellent students to the program, so they may do their fair share of showing off. They should give you an opportunity to ask some questions. It's a good idea to have some thoughtful questions ready to go. If you have no questions, that may come across as less motivated or uninterested. There are plenty of good questions to ask, though, so have a few ready. For example,
"How does the mentor selection process work here?"
"What opportunities are there to teach while enrolled in the program?"
"What sort of electives are available?"
"How does one generally select the dissertation committee?"
"How are students involved in decisions about policies and changes in the program and curriculum?"
"What is the relationship quality between students and professors - is it collaborative, or is there a clear difference in power?"
"What do you wish you had known about this university before you started working/attending here?"
"What advice would you give a first-year graduate student coming to this program?"
An important skill for the interview is in doing small talk. This is things that are just in passing or brief conversation as you are being led to the next interviewer, chatting with an administrative assistant while waiting to meet with the administrator, or being led on a tour of the department by other graduate students, and so on. This is a place where some of your personality can really come through. If you have a good sense of humor, make some light jokes. Learn about the people there: do they have family, are they from the area, why did they decide to attend or work for the university, and so on.
I feel compelled to also make some statements about remaining uncontroversial at this point. I have sat in on a few interviews where students or job applicants started to show some concerning areas of their personality during just a few minutes of small talk, and that really changed the tone of the interview for me.
For example, when I was a graduate student, we were all invited to an informal 30-minute meeting with applicants for a professor position in the department. One particular applicant sticks out in my mind, because within about 10 minutes of being there, she clearly disparaged three demographic groups with which I identified. In her mind, she probably made assumptions about the people with whom she was meeting, and thought that we were all alike in those opinions. Her comments were likely intended to demonstrate how alike us she was, and yet she very quickly alienated me. I left the interview with the impression that she was not a tactful person, that she did not truly understand diversity, and that if her opinions of these groups was strong enough that she would openly announce them in front of a room of strangers, many of her future students would feel the same way I did. For those reasons, in part, I endorsed a different candidate.
As another example, I interviewed a student who was applying to a graduate program. Her paperwork was in excellent shape, and she seemed a strong candidate. When I asked her why she wanted to attend the program, her response took an odd tone in that she perceived persecution from other universities. Certainly, that may be the case, but it struck me as an odd way to answer to the question: rather than cite her fit for the program, and the strengths of the university, she took a stance of defense and externalizing control. I found myself wondering how that might be an issue when she and a professor have a disagreement, or a client makes a comment that is less than tactful. There was a subtle sense of pessimism from the student that was off-putting and concerning, and may have been a surface sign of other personality traits that would make it difficult for her to succeed in a program that is full of challenges. A candidate like this won't necessarily be rejected, but you can understand how preference may be given to another applicant who gave responses that did not portray such concerns.