Tips About Graduate School




Many ISU psychology majors go to graduate school. If you think that you may be interested in continuing your education beyond the bachelor's degree, your will need to start collecting information early. Do not wait until your senior year! The earlier you start, the better your chances of gaining admission to graduate school.

This section will help students explore, prepare for, gain acceptance to, and succeed in their graduate education. It contains a time table for applying to graduate school, a sample letter for requesting information from graduate programs, tips on preparing for and taking the GRE, and advice on how to prepare the personal statement that is a required part of most graduate school applications. It also includes descriptions of 15 areas of graduate school specialization.

What kind of graduate degree should I pursue? The major decisions a student must make about graduate school are whether to apply to a master's (1-2 years beyond the bachelor's) or a doctoral program (4 or more years beyond the bachelors'), and in what area.

For example, a student who wants to teach in a university and/or conduct research generally needs a Ph.D. in psychology. A person who wants to practice clinical psychology needs a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. in psychology. A person who wants to work in the public school system as a psychologist may seek a Ph.D. in school psychology. A person who wants to work in many areas of human services may seek a master's degree in one of the areas of counseling. Students with high ability but a weak academic background might apply to a master's program in general experimental psychology to demonstrate that they can handle graduate level work. In addition, they might take a year off to work as a full time research assistant, or to work in the mental health field.




  • Begin attending Psychology Department functions, and request a free copy of APA's Careers in Psychology booklet.


  • Begin the process of determining your specific interests in psychology (e.g., clinical, cognitive or industrial) and the type of employment you will eventually seek.
  • Begin taking at least one more math, science, writing, and speech course than is required by the college.
  • Find out the research interests of the psychology faculty, contact those whose research interests you, and volunteer to assist them with their research.
  • Join 'Psychological Society' (see Student Organizations section of the web site) and begin participating in Departmental activities.
  • Talk to the faculty member who coordinates the 'Field Experience in Psychology' course (PSY 484) about gaining practical experience in the area of psychology in which you are most interested.


  • Talk to faculty members about graduate schools and programs that they recommend.
  • Contact a graduate of the psychology department who has been to graduate school and ask him/her to give you advice about preparing for graduate school.
  • Order a copy of Graduate Programs in Psychology from APA. Take a look at all the books published by APA that can assist you in preparing for graduate school.
  • Narrow your choices of graduate programs (from your study of Graduate Programs in Psychology and discussions with faculty members), and research websites/email programs for about 20-50 schools. 
  • Prepare a folder for each school. Record specific deadlines and requirements (e.g., number of letters of recommendation) from the information you receive.
  • If not already doing so, become involved in a research project with a faculty member. Choose a topic in which you are very interested and resolve to write an APA style paper on this topic that is of sufficient quality to strengthen your graduate school applications.
  • Pick up information in the Registrar's Office about the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and register to take it during the October of your senior year.
  • Ask at least three faculty members if they are willing and able to write you strong letters of recommendation.
  • Write a complete resume.
  • If invited, join Psi Chi, the Psychology Honor society.


The Summer Before Senior Year

  • Visit your top graduate school choices.
  • Prepare a letter for each of the faculty members who will be writing you a letter of recommendation. This letter should include a copy of your transcript and your cumulative GPA in psychology and all other courses.

September to November of Senior Year

  • Give your letters to your faculty recommenders accompanied by stamped envelopes addressed (typed, not hand-written) to the schools to which their letters will go.
  • Consult the Financial Aid office about assistance in graduate school.
  • Obtain your transcript from the Registrar's office and check it for errors.
  • Prepare drafts of any personal statements requested by graduate schools and have faculty read them and make suggestions. Prepare the final copies in your most professional manner.
  • Take the GRE.

December of Senior Year

  • Request that your GRE scores and your college transcript be sent to your chosen graduate schools.

Over Winter Break of Senior Year

  • Mail application forms. Be sure they are typed and proof-read carefully.
  • Make a copy of each application and record its address and mailing date. File this information for each school in its respective folder.

January to March of Senior Year

  • Arrange interviews, if appropriate, with your top choice graduate schools by phone, go for the interviews, and record the strengths and weaknesses of each school.
  • Write thank you notes to each faculty member and graduate student with whom you interviewed. Include copies of any research papers that you think would help to strengthen your application.

April to May of Senior Year

  • Replies from graduate school should begin to arrive. Call schools to check the status of your application if they have not replied by April 15.
  • Decide which school you will attend and inform all schools of your decision.


The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is required by virtually every graduate program in psychology. It consists of two separate three hour tests:

  1. The General Test, composed of sections measuring verbal, quantitative, and analytical abilities, and
  2. a Subject Test that measures understanding of basic psychological principles and facts.

Most graduate programs require only the General Test, and the verbal and mathematical scores of the General Test are commonly viewed as most important. Consult APA's Graduate Programs in Psychology to determine the specific requirements of individual programs.

More information, including where you can take the GRE, can be found at:


Students often ask if it is possible to study for the GRE. The answer is YES! There are two major reasons for this emphatic response, one dealing with knowledge enhancement and the other with anxiety reduction. There are several published study guides for the GRE (the one published by Barrons is highly recommended). These guides contain sample tests and are designed primarily to prepare a student to take the quantitative and verbal sections of the General Test. Students who intend to go to graduate school should purchase a GRE study guide in their junior year and spend a number of serious hours studying it during the subsequent summer. Re-reading lecture notes from psychology classes and reviewing a copy of a recently published general psychology (PSY 101) textbook are the best ways to prepare for the GRE Subject Test in psychology.

Even if a student does not learn anything new while studying for the GRE (which is highly unlikely), the process of becoming familiar with the type of material to be tested and the format of the test itself will reduce test anxiety and increase test-taking speed. In their chapter from 'Is Psychology the Major for You?,' Lunneborg and Wilson (1987) make the following points about the importance of the GRE and the attitude that students should develop toward it:

"How important is the GRE? Very important, but it is only one of several criteria evaluated. One's attitude toward the GRE should be acknowledging its importance, studying hard for it, doing as well as possible, and then following through with an application strategy consistent with one's test scores. Poorer-than-expected test scores may mean toning down one's list of prospective graduate programs. In addition, the GRE should be viewed as a one-time endeavor. Even though the test can be retaken, all scores are reported, and the first scores are generally considered as the most valid. There is a 50-50 chance for getting a poorer second score; most students we have known did not do significantly better on a second try" (p. 92).


Another test required by approximately 25% of graduate programs is the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) which consists of 100 analogies administered in 50 minutes. A free booklet describing the MAT can be obtained from the Psychological Corporation, 304 East 85th Street, New York, NY 10017.


Most graduate schools require a personal statement as a part of your application. This statement is often centered around your interest in psychology, your personal background, the reasons you are applying to that particular graduate program, and your career and personable objectives. Although a well-written personal statement will not overcome poor grades or low GRE scores, a poor one will surely hurt your chances of acceptance. Fretz and Stang (1988) cite the following example:

"Take the case of the student with a competitive grade point average and good references who was not accepted to any of the 11 programs he applied for. One cannot be sure, but the biographical statement included with his applications is the suspected reason. First, it was poorly typed, with many smears and crossed-out words. The spelling and grammar were both appalling. Finally, the content left much to be desired. It was far too long--about 15 pages--and went into detail about this person's philosophy of life (which was far from the establishment viewpoint). It also stressed emotional agonies and turning points in his life. Hoping to cure the world of all its evils, this person tried to indicate how a Ph.D. in psychology was necessary to fulfill that end. In short, it was an overstated, ill-conceived essay that may have be been received so badly that it overshadowed his other attributes and data" (p. 45).


Plan and produce your personal statement as carefully as you would a crucial term paper. The following tips (quotes taken from Fretz and Stang, 1988) will help you produce a personal statement that is impressive and effective:

  1. Word-process your personal statement. It will require a series of drafts, and the inconvenience of rewriting each draft with a conventional typewriter can make you willing to settle for a less-than-perfect final product.
  2. Before you begin your statement for each school, read as much about their program as possible so that you can tailor your statement to the program and convince the admissions committee that you will fit their program like a glove. "Each year many applicants will write, for example, that they want to attend the counseling psychology program at University X because they want to learn how to counsel emotionally handicapped children--even though the program specifies in its brochure that is does not provide training for work with young children. The selection committee immediately rejects those candidates."
  3. Prepare an outline of the topics you want to cover (e.g., professional objectives and personal background) and list supporting material under each main topic. Write a rough draft in which you transform your outline into prose. Set it aside and read it a week later. If it still sounds good, go to the next stage. If not, rewrite it until it sounds right.
  4. Check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization carefully. Nothing detracts from the contents of a statement more than these types of errors. Avoid slang words that make you sound uneducated, and overly elaborate words or stilted language that will make you appear pompous or pretentious.
  5. Ask two of your professors to read your first rough draft and make suggestions. Incorporate these suggestions into your second rough draft. Ask for another reading and set of suggestions, and then prepare your final statement.
  6. Your final statement should be as brief as possible -- two or three double-spaced pages are sufficient. Stick to the points requested by each program, and avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions. If your statement sounds egocentric or boring, those who read it will assume you are egocentric or boring.
  7. Do not feel bad if you do not have a great deal of experience in psychology to write about; no one who is about to graduate from college does! Do explain your relevant experiences (e.g., Co-op jobs or research projects), but do not try to turn them into events of cosmic proportion. "Be honest, sincere, and objective--that is the only way to impress the evaluators that you are a person who is already taking a mature approach to life."


Graduate school can be a traumatic experience. Many graduate students spend their time complaining about the heavy work load, the uncaring attitudes of faculty, and the constant pressure of being evaluated. These students quickly begin to devalue their graduate education, deny its relevance, and develop strategies that help them to "beat the system" (i.e., merely satisfying degree requirements without engaging in any actual learning). Graduate school for these people is an unpleasant experience to be endured, survived, and forgotten as quickly as possible. What a shame!

Another group seems to thrive on their graduate education. According to Bloom and Bell (1979): "These are the few who proceed through the program with the minimum amount of difficulty and a maximum amount of quality performance. They are respected by the faculty, they receive the best financial assistance, they receive accolades, and as a group, they end up with the best employment" (p. 231). These are the graduate school superstars. But what makes them so successful? Bloom and Bell asked 40 of their colleagues (who had earned doctorates from well-known programs around the country) to describe the superstars they had known. The results were amazingly consistent and can be organized into the following five factors.

  • Visibility: The most often mentioned behavioral characteristic was visibility. Superstars were observed to be physically present in the department during and often after working hours.
  • Hard Working: The next most often mentioned quality was that they were hard working. It is important to point out that the superstars were perceived as hard working because faculty actually saw them working hard. Other students may have worked harder, but because they were working hard at home or in the library, they were not perceived to be as hard working as the superstars.
  • Reflection of Program Values: A consistently mentioned quality was the faculty's perceptions of their professional values. These values were concordant with program values of research and scholarly excellence. Superstars are engaged in ongoing research projects in addition to their MA and PhD theses. Non-superstars did research because it was a degree requirement. Superstars viewed research as an integral part of their discipline and a desirable and worthwhile activity for any professional psychologist. They were curious enough about a problem to want to see data on it. Superstars also recognized the value of having contact with broad areas of psychology, even though their own programs might be highly specialized.
  • Professor Attachment: From the time they entered graduate school, almost all superstars attached themselves to one or two faculty members with whom they continued to work during the course of their training.
  • The W Factor: The final characteristic was that superstars had the ability to make faculty feel worthwhile and rewarded. Typical faculty responses were "early on, they were easy to teach," "they picked up things quickly," "they could receive and use feedback well," "they were not constant complainers," and "they were able to grow into colleague status without taking advantage." In essence, the superstars listened, learned, grew, and produced, which in turn made the faculty member feel worthwhile and rewarded for his/her investment and chosen occupation" (p. 231)

Note that the above characteristics do not include intelligence, excellent grades, or writing ability. Perhaps these qualities are simply assumed to exist in superstars.

The lesson to be learned from these findings is that success in graduate school is due to more that just raw brain power. It is also strongly affected by dedication, hard work, loyalty, a willingness to embrace the values of a program, and the ability to make faculty feel worthwhile and rewarded.


Descutner and Thelen (1989) asked 79 faculty members from nine APA-approved clinical psychology graduate programs to describe a successful clinical psychology graduate student by rating 25 characteristics and behaviors on a 6-point scale ranging from not important (1) to very important (6). These characteristics and behaviors (and their average ratings) are listed below in decreasing order of rated importance.

Characteristic/Behavior (Rating):

  • Working hard (5.60)
  • Getting along with people (5.17)
  • Writing ability (4.83)
  • Clinical/counseling skills (4.81)
  • Doing research (4.74)
  • Handling stress (4.72)
  • Discipline (4.64)
  • Good grades (4.61)
  • High intelligence (4.53)
  • Empathy (4.48)
  • Establishing a relationship with a mentor (4.39)
  • Getting along with peers (4.00)
  • Broad knowledge of psychology (4.00)
  • Specialized knowledge in one or two areas of psychology (3.88)
  • Reflecting program values (3.78)
  • Being liked by faculty (3.69)
  • Creativity (3.67)
  • Obtaining as master's degree as quickly as possible (3.60)
  • Visibility in the department (3.45)
  • Competitiveness (3.29)
  • Relating to professors on a personal level (3.24)
  • Teaching (2.81)
  • Attractive physical appearance (2.53)
  • Serving on student committees (1.95)
  • Serving on department and university committees (1.62)

It is no surprise that faculty in clinical psychology programs place a premium value on graduate students who work hard, possess good social skills, and write well. However, a surprise does occur with the fourth and fifth items. Most students preparing for graduate education in clinical psychology assume that clinical and counseling skills will be much more valuable to them in graduate school than their ability to perform research. Not so!

Descutner and Thelen's data clearly indicate that potential clinicians should work equally as hard to develop their research skills--in courses such as experimental psychology, statistics, and research projects--as they do to develop their clinical and counseling skills.

Another interesting finding from this survey is that the ability to handle stress and display discipline are rated as more important to graduate student success than either good grades or high intelligence. Apparently graduate faculty prefer to work with emotionally stable students who can produce consistently above average work and meet deadlines, as opposed to highly intelligent, straight-A students who are personally and academically erratic, unorganized, or unpredictable. Undergraduate students who suffer from stress and who have a difficult time managing their academic and personal lives in a disciplined manner can develop the skills to overcome these deficiencies through classes or personal counseling.

Take the Unvalidated Graduate School Potential Test

Department of Psychology