Preparing, Applying, & Gaining Admission into Grad School

Melissa Demir
Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts

I distinctly remember the day when the members of my research lab met to speak to the undergraduates about graduate school and post-graduate job opportunities. The night before the meeting, I scribbled down a list of questions that had been circulating in my mind since my first college-level psychology course. For example, what is the difference between a master's degree in psychology or counseling, a doctorate in clinical psychology, and a master of social work degree? Do most students take time off after completing their undergraduate education in order to gain requisite clinical or research experience? Since then I have gained a deeper understanding of more than just what it takes to gain admission into graduate school: I have found what I am seeking in my professional life, and am confident that the graduate program I eventually chose is the ideal fit for me.

I knew I wanted to major in psychology since I was in the eighth grade. As an adolescent I was fascinated by the capacity of the human brain, and by the complexity of the biological and psychological factors that can produce abnormal behavior. My parents instilled in me early the value of education, and I believe this influenced my decision to pursue a graduate education. Applying to several different programs while completing my studies, working, and conducting research in our lab was challenging at times; it was also a valuable introspective process. I hope that my story and suggestions are helpful for those who choose to embark on a similar journey.

One of the most important pieces of advice given to me by my mentor and lab-mates was to begin preparing for the graduate admission process early. The Psychology GRE exam is only offered three times a year, and I was taking courses that I wanted fresh in my mind during the spring semester of my junior year. Thus, I decided taking the test in April would be the most beneficial. I purchased How to Crack the Psychology GRE and began studying. Based on my timeframe, I split up my weeks by chapters of the book: week one I studied the history of psychology, and by week ten I was focusing on DSM classifications. Given my understanding of the serial position effect, I made sure to save the most difficult chapters and the ones requiring the most concentration until the very end.

Finally, I took the practice exam at the end of the book and the practice exam given by ETS two weeks prior to the actual exam. My three months of studying five times a week for an average of 30 – 45 minutes each contributed to my relaxed feeling when I took the exam. However, there were a handful of social psychology questions that I had not read about in my test prep materials or in my textbook, and I was unfamiliar with some of the terms they used. I believe that these questions dealt with more recent research, so I suggest spending additional time studying social psychology and reading germane present-day findings.

After completing the Psychology GRE, I made sure to engage in some positive reinforcement by going out to dinner with friends and relaxing for the next two weeks. Pleased with my first test study book, I picked up a copy of How to Crack the GRE and began dividing the chapters in a similar manner. I signed up to take a GRE prep course, and registered with doctordicitionary.com to receive their word of the day. I researched the big-name test prep companies, but decided to go with a highly recommended teacher at a local community center instead. After his six-week course, I felt much more prepared, but knew that I needed to hone my math skills. Like many people, I have somehow become conditioned to feeling anxious at the sight of formulas – the lateral surface area for cylinders, for instance, makes my heart race. After receiving weekly tutoring sessions from my calculus professor, however, I felt much more prepared.

My favorite studying method for the verbal subtest was utilizing synonym chains. First, write down a word like "verbose." Next, go through the dictionary and find its synonyms such as "loquacious" and "voluble." Each week I attempted to memorize one sheet of paper, which included about nine stem words and five synonyms for each stem. For a few months, words became my life and I am pleased to report that my vocabulary has increased significantly. I have not been able to make myself discontinue the automatic emails from doctordictionary.com, so their emails are still the first thing I read every morning.

My GRE exam was on October 10 at 8:30AM. My mentor reiterated the day before the exam that no one ever feels entirely confident about taking the test. There will always be vocabulary words that are unfamiliar and intimidating. The computer adaptive approach used by the GRE increases the difficulty of the questions based on your performance. For this reason, it is essential to think positively while taking the exam and to accept the GRE for what it is: just a test. During the last session of my GRE prep course, my teacher mentioned something he had read, which I found quite appropriate: "The numbers on your tombstone will not be QUANT 640 and VERBAL 660."

The last tip is the most important not only in achieving success in the graduate school application process, but also in finding your "calling." I have been guided by my mentor, Dr. Susan Orsillo (an incredible clinical psychologist), and her group of graduate students. I quickly found that this was my niche and for the past two years I have worked as a research assistant in her lab. My experience was interesting and rewarding because I was able to clinically observe and apply what I had learned in the classroom. Currently, I am acting as the senior RA; I providing oversight for the other RAs in the lab and coordinate research tasks.

Since gaining admission and matriculating into the graduate school of my choice, I have made sure to enjoy every minute of my remaining senior year. I am aware of the copious amounts of reading awaiting my arrival as a graduate student. As I mentioned previously, it is important to feel rested and relaxed before beginning the next step of my life. I wish you the best in identifying the program of your choice and in applying for graduate school.