Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Applying to graduate school can be a little overwhelming. Not only are there a lot of steps, but also it is usually a time of uncertainty. You are about to make a pretty large life commitment, but it is usually uncertain whether and where you’ll be accepted and what your life is going to look like. Plus, applying to graduate school can take a lot of time and many applicants usually have a lot of other things going on in their lives at the time – usually either trying to finish their undergraduate degree or working full time, in addition to other personal things. So, if you are feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone.
This post is designed to offer a little clarity in the general process, particularly for psychology programs. However, each department/program is slightly different, so make sure you are paying attention to the specific requirements. For most PhD programs, you apply in the Fall semester (UTEP’s application deadline is December 1st), interviews and acceptances happen in the Spring, and then you start the following Fall. Masters programs usually have somewhat later deadlines. The timeline suggestions here apply to the PhD programs with which I am familiar. But again, everything varies based on program, so adjust the recommendations accordingly!
Where to Apply
Once you have decided you want to go to graduate school, the next step is identifying possible programs that you are interested in. Before you start this process, you should have a general idea about what type of research you want to be doing, which will help you identify programs in the area. But, the process of identifying relevant programs can still take a lot of time. However, this step is really important, and you should spend quite a bit of time identifying programs that will help you achieve your goals. There are many different ways to identify programs, including:
Talking to your professors or people in the field about programs they have attended or recommend.
Looking at the websites for the main groups in your field. Looking through the APA divisions can help, but also talking to people about what exists. For example, if you are interested in Legal Psychology, the American Psychology-Law Society Student Committee has good resources about programs.
Looking at the affiliation of the authors of the articles that you have found interesting (both their current affiliation and possibly the school that they attended for their PhD which can be identified on their CV).
Usually I recommend students write down any possible programs as they are doing this research. So, you might end up with a pretty long list of possible programs. Don’t worry – you won’t be applying to all of them. Once you have a long list, the next step is narrowing it down. This part of the process will also be pretty personal. Here are the steps I recommend though:
Look at each program’s website to make sure it fits what you are interested in generally. Look at the faculty in the program. If you read their bio you can usually see what their interests are. I also recommend looking at their CVs to see what research they are doing currently (i.e., the last 5 years). Eliminate any programs that do not have faculty who are currently doing research that you are interested in. Usually it is good to have at least two faculty you want to work with, but not always.
Think about where you would want to live. You should be expecting to leave your current location, and I encourage you to be open to many different locations. But if there are certain locations that you would NEVER be able to live in even if it is the perfect program for whatever reason, you probably should rule it off the list.
If you are interested in clinical programs, make sure that the school meets the accreditation standards that you need for the career you are interested in.
If you are interested in MA programs, you might not be working with a particular mentor. Instead, it is more important to review information about the program broadly. Some things to consider are whether the program is full-time or part-time, cost (because you will likely be paying out-of-pocket), length, requirements for completion, program specialization, location, possibly rank (when applicable), and your fit with the admissions requirements.
I recommend starting this process as early as possible. At least the spring or summer before you apply (so over a year before you plan on starting). Sometimes MA program deadlines have a slightly later deadline, so you might have a little more time. But starting to investigate programs early will allow you time to make an informed, well-considered decision.
If you are applying to a PhD program, once you have decided on a shortened list of schools, you should start reaching out to the professors that you are interested in working with. Usually this is done with an email. Your email should be professional and polite. Address the email using a formal salutation and addressing the potential mentor by either Doctor, Dr., or Professor. Start the email by introducing yourself, including information about what degree you hold/are working on and where you got it, and what research you have done. You should attach a resume or CV and tell them that if they want to see more of what you’ve done, it is included in the attachment.
After you’ve introduced yourself, you’ll want to talk about research fit between you and the potential mentor. This part of the email should be specific to each person you’re contacting. You want to make sure you have done enough research on the person to identify what part of their research you are interested in. Usually, it works best if you show some enthusiasm for a particular line of their research. Then emphasize how the research you want to do overlaps. It is nice if you have a general question related to the topic that you would be interested in researching in order to show that you have been thinking about it. Here you can also ask for more information about what projects they are currently working on, and say you would be willing to have a phone or video call if it is easier for them.
Finally, you’ll want to ask if they are planning on accepting students. Sometimes it will say on their website that they are accepting students for the round. If you see that, it is usually better to say something like “I saw on your website that you are planning on accepting students this round, but I just wanted to confirm. Are you planning on accepting students this year?” This shows that you paid attention to their website, but also gives you more accurate information (in case something has changed) and gives them a direct question to respond to.
Hopefully you’ll get a response saying that they are planning on accepting students and are happy to talk to you more. If this is the case, you should ask them some important questions that will help you decide whether you want to apply to the program. Some things you might consider asking about are:
Projects they are currently working on – sometimes the work people are publishing does not match the topics they are currently researching (since they are publishing data that has already been collected, and the new projects are in early phases). It is good to make sure their new research interests you.
What type of mentor they are. Some mentors are very involved and hands-on, so you will have to be used to them being involved in all parts of the projects; others are not involved and hands-off, so you have to be very self-motivated. You’ll want to make sure they match your level of self-motivation.
What type of research their students do. Sometimes the lab all works on the same project, so you have to be very collaborative. Other labs have students work on their individual projects, so you have to be independent. Also labs vary in how much freedom students have in asking their own research questions as opposed to being given a question from the mentor.
What their publishing plans are and how students earn authorship.
Types of jobs people get upon graduating.
Ultimately, some of the questions might have to be saved for later in an interview process. But you want to get a feel for the mentor and the program. Applications can be expensive (see below), so you want to make sure it will likely be a good fit before you apply. If you think it might be, you can also consider reaching out to the graduate students in the lab to confirm some of the information about mentorship and research. Note that any contact with graduate students should also be respectful and professional.
If the mentor says they are not accepting students, you should take the program off your list so you don’t waste your resources applying when you won’t be accepted. If the mentor says they are not sure, then you’ll have to decide whether or not you want to take the risk. Some mentors do not know if they’ll be able to accept students until much later in the process.
Sometimes, you might get a response that basically says the mentor cannot talk to you and the information is on the website. This might be a little off-putting, but some universities have policies that prevent mentors from communicating with the students prior to interviews. If it is a technicality (and not just a rude response), you probably should not rule out the program entirely. But, ultimately you’ll have to judge whether you are still interested in the program.
In my experience, August or September is a good time to start reaching out to potential mentors. You want to make contact before applications are due, but you also do not want to email too early. Often, faculty might not know early whether or not they will be able/need to take students, plus some will have other priorities over the summer. However, if you are receiving different advice from someone in your field, I encourage you to follow that advice.
Once you have contacted potential advisors, you should narrow down your list of schools. You should only be applying to programs that you would actually consider attending. The number of schools you decide to apply to is a personal decision that will involve several factors, including cost (discussed below). Generally, you should consider applying to a minimum of 3 programs. As with colleges, it might be good to have one where you’re pretty confident you’ll be accepted, one where you think you should get in, and one that is more of a reach. However, unlike college, graduate school is all based on fit – just because a program is in a school that you don’t think has a very prestigious reputation, do not expect you will get in. Some reputations might surprise you within the specific domain. In that sense, if you are a better fit at your reach program, you might get in there but not into the program you thought was a sure-thing.
The timing of the application process varies by program and area. For example, legal psychology PhD programs tend to have deadlines around November/December (UTEP’s deadline is December 1st). I’ve been told other areas, such as neuropsychology, tend to have earlier deadlines. And often MA programs have later deadlines. I encourage you to make a spreadsheet or table with the important information for each program you are applying to, including deadlines. You do not want to miss out on the program you are really interested in because your application is late! And note, if there are rolling deadlines, typically the earlier you submit, the better your chances.
Once you determine the deadlines of all of the programs you are planning on applying to, it is time to get your materials together. In your spreadsheet, you should make note of all of the elements required for submission, but typically the following things are required:
Entrance Exams. Different schools have different requirements for entrance exams. In Psychology, you usually have to take the GRE, and sometimes the GRE Subject Test in Psychology. I recommend looking into what tests are required for the programs you are interested in before taking the exams. Especially since COVID and increasing research on how certain groups are disadvantaged by standardized tests, more schools are no longer requiring entrance exams (or they provide a waiver), but you should check with the individual program.
If you know you are going to have to take an entrance exam, I recommend starting as early as possible. What worked for me was getting a book and doing a practice test. Once you gauge how you do on the exam, you can decide if you need to sign up for a class or if you can train yourself through books or other online resources. It also depends on how self-motivated you are, how you learn, and your financial situation. The earlier you take the exam, the more opportunities you generally have to retake it if necessary. We have an additional post with tips for preparing for the GRE that you should check out if you are interested.
Personal Statements. Most programs require some sort of personal statement. There are many websites and instructions out there about how to write a good personal statement, so I am not going to expand on that too much. However, you should note that, generally, personal statements should be specific to each program. Some parts can be repeated, but you should have a portion on your research that relates it to the advisor(s) with whom you are applying to work. You should specify 1-2 mentors you are applying for. You should also make sure you proofread your statement – I have gotten several statements where the applicant said the wrong school name, which is a big concern and also identifies a lack of attention to detail.
Letters of Recommendation. Usually, you need about 3 letters of recommendation. You want to make sure that at least two of the letters are from people who know you well in a professional way. Generally a research advisor is a good person to ask. If you have a boss or a teacher with whom you’ve interacted closely, those are other good candidates. If someone is hesitant to write you a letter, try to ask someone else. If you’ve only been in a large course with a professor and never come to their office hours or interacted with them personally, their letter of recommendation is probably not going to be as strong. I have more information about letters of recommendation in a separate blog.
This is also an opportunity to explain away some of your problem areas. So, if you do not do well on standardized tests or if you had a poor GPA your freshman year, your letter writer can help reduce the fears associated with that.
CV/Resume. You should also put together a resume (1 page) or a CV (can be longer) with your experience. If you do not have a lot of publications or grants, a resume might be preferable so you can explain your experiences. Do not pad this document, but make sure you include relevant things and focus on skills that are transferable. If you have done research in a different field or had jobs outside of academia, any descriptions you provide should focus on the general skills rather than the specific facts.
Transcripts. When applying to graduate school, you’ll also have to submit transcripts. This can take time and might cost you money. It might be good to get started on this process early so you make sure that the transcript is submitted in time. Some programs will not consider you without a transcript submitted by the deadline. You do not want that to be the reason you are not accepted. Make sure you know whether you need to submit an official transcript or if you can submit an unofficial one. Unofficial transcripts usually can be submitted immediately and free.
Cost of Applying
Applying to graduate school can be an expensive process. Not only do you have to pay for any entrance examinations (plus training courses), but you usually have to pay an application fee for each school, possibly a fee for submitting transcripts, and you might have to pay to travel to interviews. If finances are tight for you, you should look into available resources. For example, the GRE sometimes has a fee waiver. Different programs will also permit you to submit an application fee waiver under certain circumstances. There might be scholarships available in your state, especially if you fall into different categories (e.g., underrepresented groups, first generation college student). If you are aware of resources and are willing to share, I would encourage you to comment on this post for others who are looking!
This process can definitely be overwhelming, but it can also be done. As you can see, there are many steps. The best advice I can give is to do research on the programs, ask questions when necessary, and stay organized. The better organized you are, the less likely you will be to miss deadlines or forget to submit required information. There's also some information on Psych Research Lists that might be helpful in your process. Good luck!
Note: The opinions here are entirely my own and do not represent UTEP or anyone else. I would like to thank the students in the Legal Decision Lab for their suggestions.