Investment Potential: What Graduate Schools Look for in Applicants

 Ian McDonough

University of Chicago

So you have decided to take the leap into graduate school and want to know how best to apply. How are applicants chosen? What qualities are most desired? Most importantly, how can you stand out from the rest? Some wonder whether groups of faculty members blindly choose applicants by tossing darts on a wheel with everyone’s names on it, but this method is not quite the way it works.

To start, a group of faculty members do get together to discuss incoming applications, but there are no dart boards (at least they don’t actually aim for the applications). There are five main factors that most institutions look for when selecting graduate students: academic records, personal statement, letters of recommendation, research experience (and/or clinical experience, if you’re applying to a clinical program), and match to the program/advisor. For many students, these are the only qualities that faculty members have to choose from among a barrage of applications. In the viewpoint of faculty members, each applicant is a potential investment. The schools often pay for your education and training (usually including your tuition and a stipend), but, in return, they expect production: facilitation of research, publishing papers, acquiring additional external funding, and enhancing the reputation of the school and program. The key question then is to what extent do the five main factors (academics, statement, letters, experience, and match) predict your value as an investment?

Committee members often have some minimum level of academic scores that applicants must pass. Many students will qualify for many schools with a B+ average and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores greater than 1300. However, academic records may not be a good indicator of your investment value. Lord (2004) stated that undergraduate GPAs and GRE scores are a moderately good predictor of graduate school academic performance (correlation of r = .38). However, he also said that academic performance is not related to graduate school completion, number of published papers, or post-graduate success (correlation coefficients ranging from -.07 to .18). Thus, academic records serve mainly as a first pass, or weeding out, of applicants that have poor grades because they may not have adequate motivation or study skills to flourish in an academic environment. What about other academic scores such as the Psychology GRE? This exam tests your knowledge about all areas of psychology. In many cases, this score does not hold much weight because graduate schools will provide you the necessary expertise; they do not expect you to be experts already. In fact, submitting your Subject GRE scores is optional for many schools. I suggest taking the exam and submitting your score if you do well, but not having it should not hurt your chances. If you choose to take it, Psi Chi or other school groups may have prep sessions to help improve your score.

Another factor that committee members value is the personal statement, which serves two goals. The first goal is to provide a sample of your communication skills. Much of graduate school and post-graduate school success comes from successful communication, whether in the form of papers, presentations, teaching, or providing clinical evaluations. Can you form a cohesive argument with convincing evidence (in this case, arguing for yourself as a good candidate for the program)? The second goal is to get to know who you are as a person. What kinds of past experiences do you have? Are you excited about the program, the faculty member(s), their research, and the prospect of rigorous graduate training? The personal statement is also an avenue to explain why your academic scores, letters of recommendation, or research/clinical experience may be lacking in strength. For instance, maybe you took an uncommon route to get to where you are today and, in doing so, have less academic experience but more life experience and knowledge to contribute. Maybe there was a life-changing event that suddenly spurred your interest in psychology senior year, thus not giving you much time to acquire experience or to get to know faculty members. At the same time, however, you do not want to make your personal statement a long list of excuses. The statement should highlight what makes you interesting and what you have done, not what you have not done. It should convey to the selection committee that you are a worthwhile investment.

Letters of recommendation are a committee’s only official outside perspective as to your potential value. Is the letter coming from a graduate student, a faculty member, or some other source? Academic sources are the most highly valued because they will have the best idea of which qualities are important to emphasize. A letter specifically from a faculty member is best because they have the most authority and are a trusted source. However, the most important contribution from a letter comes from how well the writer knows you. A superficial letter from a faculty member pales in comparison to a rich letter co-authored by a graduate student and a faculty member. Ideally, you want someone to write you a letter that can detail how you would be a good investment to graduate program. Can the recommender speak well of your research, communication, and analytic skills? Does the recommender have knowledge of your motivation level? Do you think they can convey why you are special and important?

Most training programs require some type of research to be conducted while in graduate school. Research experience is the best avenue to gain the basic skills necessary to exceed in graduate school. Even in applied training programs, you will need some ability to search for, read, and critique a vast amount of research articles. Being able to conduct research, whether from archival data or from creating new experiments, is critical to your experience in graduate school. Selection committees evaluate this through the diversity of your research experience (how many labs/projects have you worked with?), the strength of your commitment to research (how long did you work in each lab?), and what skills you will bring with you to the program (did you just enter data or did you aid in conducting, designing, or writing about the study?). If you worked in different labs, is there a common thread that complements your research interests, or do you just lack focus? By integrating your varying research experiences and showing how each lab fills a gap in your research knowledge (via your curriculum vitae or personal statement), you will look like a much better investment. Especially for PhD programs, consider taking a year off and getting more experience. The primary avenue for describing research experience is through the curriculum vitae (CV), which is a resume for the academic world. CVs are often at least 11 point font and formatted in a way that is easy to read.

Lastly, committees will be looking to see if you are a good match for the program and for the specific faculty member(s) with whom you wish to work. If you do not match well, you will not last long, and their investment will be lost. The longest and most productive relationships are those with a good match. How do you know if you are a good match? Start by looking at the school’s website to get an idea of the size and type of school. Also, look at the faculty members’ lab websites to get an idea for the topics they research. Yet the best way to gauge a good match is by going to the school, meeting the faculty members and graduate students, and talking about what life as a graduate student is like in their lab and department. Then ask yourself whether that environment is one that suits you. The most practical way to interact with the faculty and students is to first exchange emails and then go to conferences to meet them in person. Doing so lets the faculty members get to know you as a person. You will no longer be a superficial name with academic scores attached to that name. They will also get an idea about your communication skills and possibly your analytical skills.

When advertising yourself to a school, try to appeal to more than one faculty member. Does your past research experience overlap with more than one faculty member’s research? Have you learned skills that may be applicable to multiple labs (e.g., neuroimaging experience or working with clinical populations)? You will have to impress at least a few faculty members because a committee chooses you, not just one person. The more faculty members that see you as a valuable investment, the more they will argue to keep your application in their “short” list and the better your chances of being chosen. Faculty members will be more likely to vouch for you if they have met you before the application process. One of the most powerful ways that I have seen to increase your chances of getting accepted is to work in the lab for which you are applying at least a year before you actually apply. This method will allow the primary faculty member of interest to really get to know you and your skills. It will also allow you to meet other faculty members in the program, help you to acquire more experience, and to possibly acquire a letter of recommendation from a faculty member in the department. Assuming you can impress the lab for which you are working, your chances are infinitely increased.


Author’s Note:

Ian M. McDonough is a PhD Candidate in the Psychology department at the University of Chicago, researching the cognitive control of episodic memory retrieval in aging using behavioral, neuroimaging, and neuropsychological measures. He has served on the APSSC RISE committee for aging research and as a reviewer for the APSSC Student Research Award and the RISE Research Award.  Ian can be reached via email at:


Lord, C. G. (2004). A guide to PhD graduate school: How they keep score in the big leagues. In J. M. Darley, M. P. Zanna, and H. L. Roediger, III (Eds), The compleat academic: A career guide (pp. 3-15). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Additional Readings:

American Psychological Association (2007). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

American Psychological Association (2009). Graduate study in psychology 2010. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Author’s Note: