6 Steps for Getting Into Psychology Graduate School

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If you want to work in the field of psychology, you’ll need to earn at least an undergraduate college-level education. While there are some jobs available to those with bachelor’s degrees, most careers in the field require a master’s degree or higher.

There are many options when it comes to graduate school and a lot of things for you to consider. You’ll need to figure out the path you want your career to take, determine what you want in a program, and meet the admissions requirements of your preferred schools. The exact steps you’ll take will depend on your goals, but in general, there are six main points to hit as you work to earn your grad school acceptance.

Start here

Step 1

Pick a Career Path or Specialty

You’ll need to make some decisions about what you want the focus of your career to be before you apply to school. There are many specialties within psychology but not every school will offer all of them. Some paths you could take with an advanced degree include:

It can help to volunteer in a few different settings to get a feel for the specialty you’d like to pursue. You might even be able to find full-time employment if you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, working under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Either way, gaining more experience can help you narrow down your options and plan ahead for your career.

Step 2

Choose a Degree

Your second step should be choosing the exact level of degree you need. There are three primary paths you can take in psychology grad school—pursuing a master’s, a specialist, or a doctoral degree. The degree you ultimately earn will depend on your goals, but keep in mind that if you plan to become a legally licensed psychologist, a doctoral degree is almost always needed.

Master’s degrees

You can choose to pursue either a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology. One might focus more on conducting research and the other working with patients, but both options will prepare you to take the first steps in your career. Those with a master’s can work as psychological assistants or associates, or in related fields like substance abuse counseling or social services. Unlike other licensed psychologists who need a doctoral degree, school psychologists may only need a master’s.

Specialist degrees

Specialist degrees sit between the master’s and doctoral degrees and are typically designed for school psychology. The most common option is the Education Specialist (EdS) degree, which often takes at least three years compared to the two years it usually takes for a master’s.

Doctoral degrees

Psychology students who wish to get licensed and practice independently will want to work toward earning their doctoral degree. While there are a few different options, in most cases you’ll choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. PhDs focus more heavily on research and methodology, while PsyD degrees emphasize the practical application of psychological knowledge.

You might also have the option to pursue a dual degree, which lets you simultaneously earn your master’s and doctorate at an accelerated rate. This can be an especially good option for those who wish to work in a more highly specialized area. For example, if you want to work specifically with issues affecting females, you might get a master’s in women’s studies before earning a PhD in clinical psychology.

Step 3

Find the Right Grad School Program

Once you know what specialty and type of degree you want, it’s time to start looking into programs. With over 1,500 available across the United States, this process can seem overwhelming. Of course, the program you choose should fit your individual needs and goals, but you can use the following list of things to consider to help guide you along the way.

Look for Accreditation

It’s important to make sure that the program you’re considering is accredited. Accreditation verifies that the education you’ll receive meets the quality standards set forth in the field. Attending a non-accredited school could mean you won’t qualify for federal financial aid and often that you won’t be allowed to earn your licensure.

So, how do you know if a program is accredited? In the United States, the easiest way is to check with the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA keeps an up-to-date database of accreditation status for psychology programs, as well as for residencies and internships.

Online vs. in-classroom programs

Deciding whether to attend school online or in the classroom is another important step. There’s no difference in the education you’ll receive, so the choice depends on your lifestyle and learning needs. Students who have commitments such as a full-time job or young children at home might find that an online program is the perfect fit. Conversely, some students learn better in a more structured and traditional classroom environment, with daily interactions with their professors and peers.

Keep in mind that even if you do choose an online option, you won’t be entirely behind a computer. While your classroom courses can be taken online, any lab work, clinical internships, or other hands-on experience will need to happen in person.

Ask questions about the program

There are many important things to consider as you research and compare programs. Before making your final choice, make sure you know (and like) the answers to the following questions:

  • Is this program accredited?
  • Does the program offer the specialty and type of degree I want?
  • What are the credentials of the faculty?
  • Does this program have a fieldwork requirement?
  • How large are the class sizes?
  • How much interaction will I get with faculty and other students?
  • Does this program offer career placement or assistance?
  • What kind of jobs do graduates find?
  • What percentage of graduates pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology?
  • Is the tuition affordable for me?
  • Are there any financial aid options associated with this program?
Step 4

Meet or Exceed the Admission Requirements

Once you’ve narrowed down your preferred schools, you’ll need to make sure you meet their admission requirements. Different programs require different things, but there are generally some standard benchmarks to meet:

  • A solid GPA: GPA requirements vary, but most programs look for at least a 3.0, if not closer to a 3.5.
  • Good scores on the GRE: Some programs don’t ask you to submit scores on the GRE, but many of them do. According to the Educational Testing Service, those in the social and behavioral sciences earn average scores of around 153 on Verbal Reasoning, 151 on Quantitative Reasoning, and a 3.9 on Analytical Writing. Aspiring grad students might also need to take the GRE Subject Test specifically for psychology. As of 2018, the average total score was 618.
  • An essay: Most schools will ask you to submit an essay along with your application. This will likely be about your professional aspirations or past experiences in the field. For competitive schools, you’ll want to aim to be within the 75th percentile on your score.
  • An in-person interview: You’ll meet with an admissions representative to answer questions about your life, educational, and professional experiences. This is also a time when you can ask questions to see if the program meets your needs.
  • Letters of recommendation: Your school will likely ask for at least two letters of recommendation. These will need to be from people who can speak to your ability to succeed in the program such as your undergraduate professors or work supervisors.

Other requirements will vary depending on the program, as well as your educational background. For example, if your bachelor’s degree wasn’t in psychology, you might need to take a semester or two of undergrad prerequisites such as statistics, biology, and social sciences.

Step 5

Make Your Application Stand Out

Along with meeting or exceeding the standard requirements, there are other things you can do to make your application stand out. Volunteering in the mental health field will not only give you valuable experience that can help you determine the specialty you want to pursue, but it will also look good on your application. What’s more, volunteer positions are an ideal place to network with other professionals in the field and make connections that can earn you strong letters of recommendation.

You’ll stand out especially, experts say, if you get some research experience and write a compelling statement of purpose. Work in a lab setting to prove that you understand research methodology and documentation will show commitment and give you a deeper academic experience. But because this is ultimately a field in which you’ll be working with and helping people, it will also help to draft an engaging story detailing your passion for psychology. Describing what drew you to this area of study in a college essay-style statement of purpose—which can be a stand-alone document or part of your essay—will demonstrate next-level dedication to the field.

As simple as it sounds, cover the basics. Get started on your applications early so you’ll have plenty of time to get your application materials together and have advance notice of any supplemental materials a school may require.

Step 6

Plan to Pay for School

Of course, getting into the program of your choice is just a part of the process. You also need to figure out how to pay for it. Thankfully, there are plenty of options to help you fund your education, including loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships, and work-study programs. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will determine any need-based assistance you qualify for.

Once you know what you’ll receive from the government, you can supplement that aid in other ways. There are countless scholarships, grants, and fellowships available through psychology associations and private organizations. Those who are pursuing their doctoral degrees might also receive full or part tuition remission for assisting with research or teaching. If you’re working while going to school, your employer might offer contributions to your education.

If you’ve exhausted your options for free financial aid, loans can help fill in the gaps. If you do end up needing loans, keep in mind that federal assistance often has advantages to loans from private banks, including potentially lower and fixed interest rates and the possibility for loan forgiveness.  

Student loan forgiveness

You may qualify for student loan forgiveness through the government if you meet certain criteria.

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, psychologists could have some of all of their remaining loans erased if work full-time in a government or nonprofit agency and have made at least 120 qualifying repayments.
  • National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program: Psychologists and counselors are eligible to receive up to $50,000 for two years of service in a location considered a shortage area. There’s also the change to amend the two-year contract to receive up to $100,000 for 5 years of service.