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Applying to Graduate School for Psychology

Many students are interested in eventually getting a PhD. The MA is not a necessary stepping stone to a PhD; many students go directly from college to graduate school. But if you have not been a student for a long time, or were not a psychology major, direct admission to a PhD program is not feasible. Even so, getting an MA is not the only route to a PhD program. Your goal is to put together a package that shows you are serious about academic work in psychology and are likely to do well at it. A mixture of courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels can help you demonstrate solid evidence of scholarly and research ability.

What will count in your favor when applying to graduate schools:

  • A broad undergraduate background in psychology. Even if you want to enter a clinical program, you should make sure you have courses in a variety of areas, including fields like physiological psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology and cognitive psychology, as well as more clinically oriented fields like personality and psychopathology. It is essential to have statistics and experimental psychology. The higher your grades the better off you are - obviously!
  • High GRE scores. The verbal, quantitative and analytic areas are usually more important than the subject area.
  • Detailed and positive letters of recommendation from faculty. The more academically oriented the letters the better. Do not solicit letters from friends, family, coworkers or a therapist; do not solicit letters from faculty who cannot talk about your scholarly or research ability. If you have been out of school for a while, that is a good reason to take a course, be an active participant, and do well, so that your instructor will want to write you a letter and will be able to write you one with substance. See also: research experience.
  • A strong statement of interests. Your statement should not be personal; it should be intellectual. You should discuss problems and concepts that have interested you, and show how you have thought about them, being as specific as possible. The admissions committee is trying to determine how sophisticated your thinking is. The statement should be typed and have no errors of spelling, grammar or punctuation.
  • Research experience. Volunteering to work 10-15 hours per week in a faculty laboratory for one or more semesters is an excellent way to get research experience. Doing an independent research project is another. Many faculty are willing to sponsor students in projects, depending on the student's background and interests and the instructor's current projects. Research experience will give you a deeper and richer understanding of a particular area in psychology, provide you with research skills, give you good material to talk about in your statement, and make it more likely that a faculty member will get to know you well. (Even clinical programs want evidence that students can handle research projects, since the PhD always involves a significant research project.) Research experience will also allow you to find out how much you like research. Some students discover that they love research, while others learn that research is not for them.
  • Experience in a mental health setting. If you are interested in a clinical program, be sure to get some experience in a setting dealing with mental health problems.


Virginia Valian
Department of Psychology, Hunter College, CUNY