By Goal Auzeen Saedi
University of Notre Dame
“Is graduate study for you?” “A Ph.D. or a Psy.D.?” “Who should you ask to be a recommender?” It was only four years ago that I read countless similar questions as I pored over graduate school preparation books and materials. I contemplated whether or not the “tiered” approach of applying to safety and wish-list schools made any sense, considering my energy would be split among 20 school applications rather than the 5 or so I had in mind. I also thought about how much contact with my future advisor would be appropriate, attempting to achieve the balance between seeming professionally interested and obsessively desperate.
Ultimately, I followed some of the advice I read and did the exact opposite of other tips. Having been accepted into several graduate programs, I offer what advice I found useful, as well as other tidbits I discovered on my own. I hope perhaps some of what I have to share is of some help.
As soon as you realize graduate study in psychology is your goal, begin joining research teams, looking for ways to publish and present at conferences. You can also easily see the types of students your top-choice school admits by reading their graduate students’ vitas. Departmental websites often provide these, and they can become a wonderful resource for getting a feel for undergraduates admitted. Furthermore, you can even find out about grant programs and other opportunities that may have slipped past your radar. However, remember that you can become your greatest competition. If you keep worrying about what others do and compare yourself to others too much, it can become an impediment. Keep your eyes on the road, on the goal ahead, and you’ll make it.
Make your education about you
Numerous resources exist to guide you on how to prepare for graduate school, from the types of classes to take to what extra skills to obtain prior to applying. While the fundamentals of psychology and a well-rounded education are essential to apply to any program, at some point, you must draw the line. Between recommendations to take extra statistics courses and or courses on computer programming, your course schedule may start to look daunting. You may even feel that you must pick up an extra major or minor to become a more “impressive” applicant. However, there are other ways to explore your passion for psychology. To start, allow your education to define who you are. Choose courses that inform and extend your interests while still covering the basics. Additionally, summer programs in political science and economics can allow you dabble in other fields and find connections between psychology and other disciplines while broadening your horizons.
One is the loneliest number
Applying to graduate school can often be a draining and taxing process. Often, finding someone who is going through the same process can help you immensely. While you don’t have to share every essay detail, merely having someone there with you can be a wonderful support. Faculty and general advisors may also be a fantastic source for just sharing your thoughts and anxieties. The process takes much patience and can make students vulnerable as they are deciding their fate for the next 4-5+ years, so the more support, the better.
The GREs aren’t everything
Really, it’s true: the GREs aren’t the single factor deciding your graduate school fate. This does not mean that you can walk out with a combined score of 500, but it does mean that scoring near the average isn’t the end of the world. High GPAs, grades in advanced math courses, and other criteria can make up for a lower GRE score. There are schools that compute indexes using your GRE scores and GPA as a cutoff. But really, do you want to be attending an institution that places so much emphasis on numbers rather than on other personal qualities that cannot be quantitatively measured?
One of the most disheartening things I read over and over again was how small the likelihood was of gaining admission into graduate school. Being admitted into Ivy League programs and other well-respected institutions was even harder. and, of course, clinical and counseling programs are nearly impossible to enter. Therefore, applying to over a dozen schools would greatly enhance your odds of admittance.
Knowing exactly where I wished to go, and not having the patience to fake interest in school #15, I stuck with 5 schools. I panicked over a spelling mistake on one Ivy League application, but I was still admitted to the school, providing some assurance that all is not lost on small mistakes, however hard we strive to avoid them.
The bottom line is: Ignore the naysayers. They will always exist, and while I am not advocating blind optimism, remember that hard work can get you very far. Thus, if you’ve always dreamed of attending a school, don’t for a minute think they are out of your league if you have done all that you possibly could to be the best applicant possible. There are no “dream” schools.
Remember the big picture
Finally, when drowning in stacks of applications, it always helps to stand back and ask yourself why you are doing this. Are you looking towards a graduate degree because it looks impressive? Or are you embarking upon this journey because is it your calling and what you are drawn to in life?