Early Preparation for Graduate School

If you’re considering furthering your education with a Master’s or Doctorate in psychology, it’s good to plan ahead.

Talk to faculty.

Visit with some faculty members during their office hours to ask for advice and honest feedback. You don’t have to know the professor or be taking a class with them. Your professors are knowledgeable about this process because they’ve lived it (some more recently than others!).

Identify the types of programs to which you intend to apply.

You should begin investigating and identifying programs to which you may apply long before you plan to apply. A good time to begin this is the summer before your junior year.

One excellent source for beginning to investigate graduate programs is the American Psychological Association's Graduate Study in Psychology. This source is published yearly and lists most of the psychology graduate programs in the United States by state. Admission criteria and various statistics for the programs are listed along with program websites and contact information.

Graduate program websites are another good source of information. They will usually have links to specific research labs, where research is being conducted by faculty members and students. Updated contact information for particular graduate programs can usually be found on their websites.

To begin to identify programs you will need to first need to address several questions:

Are you willing and able to move away from South Texas?

This has an obvious impact on where you can apply. If you are not geographically restricted to South Texas, there are many programs to consider.

Within which subfield(s) of psychology do you want to pursue graduate studies?

There are graduate programs within the many subfields of psychology. Students who intend to seek careers in mental health settings will apply to clinical or counseling psychology programs. Other options include Industrial/organizational psychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology and health psychology. Individuals who pursue these areas of graduate study will prepare for careers that involve research and/or teaching.

Which degree are you seeking?

You can apply to terminal master's level programs (programs that end with a master's degree) or programs that will lead up to a Ph.D. If you applying to clinical doctoral programs you can consider Ph.D. programs or Psy.D. programs.

A Ph.D. program will have a heavy emphasis on research; however, Clinical Ph.D. students will also study the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and other clinical skills. A Clinical Psy.D. program will place a greater emphasis on clinical training and the practice of clinical psychology.

Ph.D. programs usually take between 5-7 years to complete. A student in a Ph.D. program will conduct research with a faculty mentor and earn a Master's degree and defend a Master's thesis en route to their dissertation research and defense. Admission to clinical doctoral programs is very competitive. The APA's Graduate Study in Psychology provides admission statistics for many graduate programs.

Master's levels programs are typically designed to be completed in two years. Master's programs may or may not require students to conduct research and defend a master's thesis. Terminal master's programs are competitive, but they are usually not as difficult to get into as Ph.D. track programs.

Apply to a range of programs.

To improve your chances of being admitted to a graduate program, it is advisable to apply to a range of programs. Applying to a large number of programs can be expensive, but to maximize your chances of acceptance, you should identify a reasonable number of graduate programs that vary in terms of their selectivity. Taking your academic record, research experience, and GRE scores into account, decide which programs you have a decent chance of getting into and focus on those, but if your record merits it, consider sending applications to top-notch programs as well. If possible, also identify some less selective schools that you wouldn't mind attending.

Prepare for the Graduate Record Examination in advance.

Most graduate programs will require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test. This is a test that is intended to predict performance in graduate school, and it is used by many selection committees in their admission decisions. To maximize your chance of doing well on the GRE, you should familiarize yourself with the test and begin preparing for it well in advance of taking it. The GRE is not the sort of test you should take without preparation, so develop a battle plan for how you will prepare for it.

The GRE has three major sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. First, familiarize yourself with each section and the question types. To do well, you will need to develop or maintain excellent verbal and quantitative skills. A university is a good place to do this, but there are also various prep books, computer programs, and apps for smartphones and tablets that can also aid you in this process. Most importantly, take your mathematics and literature classes seriously; the math, vocabulary, and writing skills that you develop will be very important on test day.

It is advisable to take the GRE General test in the summer after your junior year. This will give you some time to retake it and allow you to focus on your applications during your senior year.

Depending on where you intend to apply, you may also need to take the GRE Subject Test in Psychology. The GRE Subject Test has three major sections: experimental, social, and other, which are intended to measure your knowledge of psychology. The content spans much of psychology as an academic discipline.

To prepare for the subject test, you should review a good introductory textbook and retain the knowledge you acquired in your psychology coursework. There are also prep materials that are available for the subject test.

This psychology subject test is offered three times a year (in October, November, and April), so be sure to take it well before the deadlines for applications that require it. University Testing Services administers the GRE at UTRGV. Edinburg Testing Services is located at the UTRGV Community Engagement and Student Success Building, Rm 1.101, in Edinburg at 1407 E. Freddy Gonzalez Drive. Call (956) 665-7570 or (956) 665-7523. The Brownsville Testing Services is located in Resaca Village 1601 E Price Rd. Suite E.

For more information about the GRE, including question examples and registration information, visit the GRE website.

Make Excellent Grades.

Keep your grades as high as possible. To have a good chance of getting into graduate programs, you should demonstrate that you are an excellent student by earning very good grades. This is easier said than done, but earning high grades can make you a competitive candidate.

Apply, belong, and participate.

Apply for memberships in psychological societies and groups such as Psi Chi and SWPA. Belonging to societies will often open the doors to other opportunities (e.g., scholarships, and research conferences) that you otherwise may not have known about.

Seek out research experience.

It may not be explicitly stated, but most graduate programs in psychology will expect you to have research experience. Volunteer as a research assistant or enroll in research seminars that allow you to become involved in research projects that are being conducted by faculty members. It is also possible to work with a faculty sponsor on an independent research project of your own. However, don't expect your professors to approach you with these opportunities. Take the initiative and seek out research experience.

Get strong letters of recommendation.

Graduate school applications will usually require 3 letters of recommendation. To get excellent letters, you should not only stand out as an excellent student in class, you should also work with faculty members on research projects. The strongest and most credible letters of recommendation tend to come from professors with whom you have worked closely on a project.

You should ask for letters at least two weeks in advance and provide your personal statement, vita or resume. If the letters are to be sent by postal mail, you may want to ask for the letter a month in advance.

Provide your letter writers with friendly reminders as the deadline approaches. Occasionally, professors can be forgetful, so don't be shy about reminding them about your letter as the deadline approaches.

Tailor your personal statements.

Personal statements will be required in your graduate school applications. If you have worked on research and/or applied your psychological knowledge in a work or internship setting, you should have plenty to say about yourself.

Your personal statements should be tailored to the programs to which you will apply. Investigate the programs and professors at those programs to find out what short of research they conduct. Your interests should fit with the interests of the professors in the program. Make sure your fit with the program is made clear in your personal statement.

Be sure to proofread your statement and receive feedback from a professor on a draft of your personal statement. A personal statement that with grammatical errors or that is otherwise poorly written will reflect poorly on your academic abilities.

If you are applying to work with a specific lab or mentor, contact them to verify that they are accepting students.

Graduate students often work closely with a faculty mentor. Many graduate applications will ask you to specify the name or names of the faculty that you would like to work with. If this is the case for the place you are applying, you should contact your desired mentor in advance to verify that they are accepting students. You can also use this as an importunity to make a good first impression.

Have a backup plan.

Graduate programs in psychology tend to be very selective, so an important piece of advice is to have a backup plan. Identify career paths that you will pursue in the event you are not admitted or you decide not to attend graduate school. While completing your undergraduate degree, consider taking an internship as a way to gain experience and potentially open up avenues for future employment.

The links below provide additional advice and useful information for applying to graduate school.