When I think back to all the work that went into getting into and completing graduate school in Clinical Psychology, it still gives me pause. Unfortunately, I do not think that many undergraduate students in Psychology recognize just how much work and planning goes into being ready to apply for graduate school in Clinical Psychology, particularly for a Ph.D. program in this field. I have had many undergraduates simply tell me that they are going to graduate school. In response, I always ask if they have received an acceptance letter, particularly since some programs receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of graduate student positions. If they say that they have not yet even applied, then I try to provide them with the information that they need to really be eligible to apply and hopefully be sucessful in gaining entry. Essentially, a good start toward applying to a graduate program in Clinical Psychology involves three things: scores, letters, and match.
I think that being a good student who has good scores is probably the most obvious characteristic of those undergraduate applicants who gain admission to graduate programs in Clinical Psychology. In particular, professors of graduate programs examine two different scores quite closely. First, undergraduates’ grade point averages receive scrutiny, as every program would like to admit undergraduate applicants who are high performers in the classroom. In fact, many undergraduates who gain admission to graduate programs in Clinical Psychology have the highest of grade point averages (for example, upwards of 3.6 on a 4.0 scale). Some programs may even go so far as to examine grades in specific courses, particularly those relevant to the area of study in the graduate program (such as Research Methods, Statistics, and clinically relevant courses for Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology). The second score that is of great importance for admission to graduate school in Clinical Psychology is undergraduates’ score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Although many graduate programs in Clinical Psychology indicate that a score of 1000 or better on the GRE (Verbal and Quantitative scores combined) may allow an undergraduate applicant to be considered, many undergraduates who are successful in gaining admission have scores that are significantly higher than this estimate (for example, upwards of 1200). For undergraduates who are preparing their applications for graduate programs in Clinical Psychology, it is wise to seek information regarding the average grade point average and GRE scores of a program’s last incoming class. This information will help an undergraduate applicant to determine whether or not their own application will be competitive for that program.
Second, for a competitive application to graduate school in Clinical Psychology, undergraduate applicants need to receive positive letters of recommendation from three professionals who work in the field. For those undergraduates who plan to apply to Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs, these letters should be from three professors who know the undergraduate well and for whom the undergraduate has worked. The experiences documented in these letters should generally involve research activities that the undergraduate has completed under the direction of the professor, as research experience is critical for admission to a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program. For those undergraduates who plan to apply to Master’s level programs, other doctoral level professionals working in applied settings also may be helpful. Essentially, these letters serve as a characterization of undergraduate applicants’ profiles of strengths and weaknesses. These letters also provide insight into how undergraduate applicants may respond to different kinds of academic work conditions and to supervision from professors. This information hopefully will allow undergraduate applicants to stand out in a group of potential incoming students. Given the importance of casting a positive first impression, undergraduates should ask their potential letter writers for positive letters of recommendation and provide their letter writers with the appropriate materials and amount of time to complete these letters of recommendation.
Finally, many graduate programs in Clinical Psychology use a mentorship model when selecting undergraduate applicants for admission. In other words, programs try to anticipate which professor in the program might serve as the best mentor for an undergraduate applicant should that applicant be admitted to their program. In fact, for some Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology, applications specifically state that undergraduate applicants should specify their preferences for professors with whom they would like to work should they be admitted to the program. Such mentorship decisions are generally based on the shared interests of applicants and their professors. As a result, undergraduates who plan on applying to graduate programs in Clinical Psychology should think carefully about their main area of interest (for example, child psychology, health psychology, etc.) and identify programs that have professors doing work that is of particular interest to them. The programs where these professors are working should make undergraduate applicants’ priority list. This approach may be particularly important for Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs, as professors consider carefully the potential match of the interests of undergraduate applicants to their own. In fact, professors are going to express the most interest in undergraduate applicants who would like to specialize in the area of research that those professors are studying currently. As a result, it is wise for undergraduate applicants to identify the professor who is doing work that is of most interest to them at any particular program and spell out in their application to that program exactly why that professor might be the best ‘match’ for the applicant. It is acceptable to contact professors ahead of time to determine if they plan to mentor new graduate students who will be admitted to the program. This approach also allows professors to start to become familiar with new applicants who will be applying to their program.
Although there is no guarantee for getting into graduate school in Clinical Psychology, hopefully this information will be useful in helping eager undergraduates to get closer to their goal of gaining admission to a graduate program of their choosing. Good luck!