• Your 7-step guide to becoming a Psychology Grad Student

It can be quite a daunting task to navigate the list of requirements you must have achieved or completed in order to be considered as a candidate for graduate programs. Committees will be making selection decisions based on many factors. They will heavily rely on official college transcripts by evaluating candidates’ GPA in many different ways. They will also examine what prerequisite classes have been completed. In addition, committee members will place much value on the amount and variety of experience candidates have acquired, whether it be applied or research experience.

GPA Requirements

It is important that you find out the minimum GPAs that are needed in order to apply to the graduate programs you are considering. You can look them up in this book. You need to make sure you meet the minimum GPAs, but you also want to be considered a good candidate, as these programs can be very competitive. Note that your GPA will be calculated unweighted, meaning that any honors courses or graduate-level classes taken during an undergraduate degree will not count extra in your GPA. Your high school GPA is meaningless at this point, but your college GPA will always be relevant, and may even be considered by those hiring in your future career.

There are a few ways your GPA may be analyzed. Committees will of course examine your overall cumulative GPA (from all college-level classes taken across all schools you have attended). This is typically automatically included on your transcripts. They will also most likely consider your GPA for all psychology courses taken. You may want to take the time to calculate this yourself for comparison purposes. Additionally, they may look at your GPA for your last 2 years of college. The reason for this is because often times, students are more focused and motivated during their junior and senior year of college, and are taking more classes in the major at this time. Students are typically not considered for graduate programs in psychology unless their psychology GPA is at least 3.0, and their overall GPA is at least 2.5. High quality institutions and doctoral programs will have stricter GPA requirements, while it is possible that some schools might be more flexible about grades.

If you have a W (withdraw) on your transcripts, how bad is it? A W is always better than an F, because it is not calculated into your GPA. Having a W on your transcripts signifies that you dropped the course more than a few weeks into the semester. This won’t be viewed negatively by selection committee members, unless you had many W’s throughout your transcripts. You wouldn’t want to appear to be a student who did not always finish the courses that he or she started. You do have the opportunity to explain any W’s in your statement of purpose, if they were for any specific and compelling reason (such as a medical problem or major change of circumstances).

What if you aren’t happy with your GPA? If you are still enrolled in your undergraduate degree program, add some easy courses to your semesters to boost your GPA. If you are on track to graduate, you may want to consider extending your graduation date and adding more courses. If you have already graduated, you can still enroll into many universities without being in a bachelor’s degree program, and may be able to add some easy courses and improve your GPA. You can also read up on how to improve your grades in your courses.

Calculating your GPA

Using your final course grades from each class, you will need to:

1) Transform each letter grade into a numerical value and multiply it by the number of units that course was worth. Note that some universities may use a slightly different scale than the one used here; it is not quite an exact science.

2) Sum up all of those values, and then divide by the number of units you have attempted (including if you have failed any classes). Do not include any pass/fail courses in your calculations.

A+ = 4.33
A   = 4.00
A-  = 3.67

B+ = 3.33
B   = 3.00
B-  = 2.67

C+ = 2.33
C   = 2.00
C-  = 1.67

D+ = 1.33
D   = 1.00
D-  = .67

F   = 0.00

How to Raise your GPA

Many graduate programs in psychology will rely heavily on GPA in making their selection decisions. Once you make the decision to attend graduate school, you will be even more motivated to receive high grades and in turn improve your GPA.

One way to improve your GPA is by enrolling in easy courses as elective classes while earning your bachelor’s degree. You will need to weigh the options between filling your units with easy classes to raise your GPA (i.e., 100-level courses) versus filling your units with classes that will be more valued by admissions committees (i.e., prerequisites or other courses relevant to your future area of study). If you have already graduated, you can often still enroll in a community college or even university, but it will be more expensive if you are not enrolled in a regular degree program.

Another way to improve your GPA is by enrolling in non-classroom courses that are not graded the same way a typical classroom course is graded. It may be easier for you to demonstrate your skills and proficiency in a different manner than is used in a traditional academic assessment-based course. For example, some universities have opportunities for students to earn units while completing student-to-student tutorials (or tutoring), assisting faculty with research, assisting faculty with teaching, and completing internships. These can be great ways to learn and gain experience, but also can be somewhat easier to earn a high grade in, in comparison to traditional lecture-based courses. The grades you earn for these courses will sometimes count toward your major, or may only count toward your elective units, but either way, they can be great opportunities to boost your GPA.

However, the best way to improve your GPA is by performing better in your regular undergraduate courses, especially those for your major. Click here for tips on doing well in your classes, and in turn, raising your GPA.

Prerequisite Classes

Each graduate program will have a list of required courses that you must have completed, typically with a grade of C or better. They usually will specify which of them are lower division and which of them must be upper division courses. Even if you are applying to the same type of program at a few different schools, each program may have different prerequisite courses, so pay attention to the differences.

While each individual program has its own list of prerequisite courses, most programs will require that you have taken a psychological statistics course and an experimental methods/research design course. Other courses will vary depending on the type of program you apply to (i.e., all clinical programs will require an abnormal psychology course, while a research program will not).

You may be disappointed that you do not have all of the prerequisite courses under your belt. Maybe you don’t have time to take them during your undergraduate degree, or you already graduated and don’t have the opportunity to re-enroll and take them. Do some research and ask the department staff at the programs you want to apply to how much flexibility they allow. Some programs will let you take the missing prerequisite(s) in your first semester of your graduate program. However, keep in mind that it may take longer to graduate if there are prerequisite courses being added to your courseload.

Clinical & Research Experience

Different graduate programs will have different requirements as to the type of experience needed to be admitted. Some programs will be require clinical and research experience, or one or the other, while some might not require either. Keep in mind that even if the programs do not require a certain type of experience, it will only help you to have more than the minimum requirements.

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience, or applied experience, is usually defined as working in some sort of environment where you are applying psychological principles, and working under the supervision of licensed clinicians. If you are not sure whether your job experience counts as clinical experience, or will be highly regarded by the admissions committee, try asking the program staff for their opinion.

How can you gain clinical experience? Hopefully, you will have worked in a job or internship where you were able to apply psychology in the workplace. If you have not, don’t fret. If you are still a student, you may be able complete an internship; make sure to choose one that will be good experience for the type of program you wish to apply to. You can also check with the career center at your school to find out about job or internship opportunities. If you are no longer a student, it may be a more difficult task to find opportunities to gain relevant experience. You may be able to find a paid job doing so, but be open to volunteer opportunities as well. Also, don’t be picky; take what you can get if it will strengthen your resume and help your chances of being admitted. You can also look into applying to summer research fellowship programs, but these are extremely competitive.

Research Experience

Research experience typically means that you have spent time helping with the conduction of research. You may have held a paid job doing this, or helped carry out research as a research assistant in college, and earned units for doing so. If you are interested in doing research, or want to find out if you are, or you already know the programs you are applying to require research experience, you may be wondering how you can get this experience. Keep in mind that any psychological research experience will be relevant; it is not necessary that your research experience be related to the area of psychology that you are interested in studying during graduate school.

The easiest way to gain research experience is by registering for units as a research assistant at school. Check with your department for how to go about this process. Often, you can only work with a faculty member who you have taken a class with and done well in the class. You need to have mastered the material in the subject that the faculty member’s research is in. If you are no longer a student, you can still volunteer to help conduct research. Contact your previous faculty members and find out if they would allow you to volunteer as a research assistant. If that is no longer an option, contact faculty members at a nearby college or university and see if you can volunteer there, as long as you have taken courses in their specialty area. You also may want to obtain a letter of recommendation from a faculty member who knows you as proof for their faculty member that does not know you that you are reliable and knowledgeable. Lastly, you may be able to contact other organizations such as hospitals or intervention programs that are conducting research, and find out if they are hiring or accepting volunteers.