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

Each graduate program that you apply to may require different materials to be submitted. Generally, however, a program will require an official university application; some schools will also require an additional application specific to the department that the program is in as well. They may also require a statement of purpose (also called a personal statement), official transcripts from all colleges and universities attended, and letters of recommendation. Additionally, the program may require a curriculum vitae (CV) and they may require you to take the General Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and/or Psychology GRE and submit your scores. The application process can get expensive, because there are fees for university applications, transcript requests, and taking the GRE, and postage can quickly add up as well.

Filling Out Applications

Graduate school applications are typically completed online and should be completed very carefully. It is recommended that you find all of the required information ahead of time. If possible, it is recommended that you print out copies of the application and write the information in as a draft before submitting it online, so that you can complete the online applications correctly and in a timely manner. You will also need to make sure that you are completely accurate with all of the information that you provide. If you are unsure of what something is asking on the application, find out instead of possibly making an error.

Also, make sure that you fill out a university application and a separate department application, if your graduate program requires both applications. If you complete a university application, but fail to complete a departmental application (if required), your application may never be considered. Even though the applications may seem like the easiest material to complete, do not leave these until the last minute, as they may ask for information that could take time to gather, and you would not want to run out of time. The applications themselves can take a lot of time to complete, and usually you can save your information as you go, and do not need to fill an entire application out all at one time.

Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose goes by many names – personal statement, letter of intent, biographical statement, etc. The statement of purpose is an essay where you have a chance to explain yourself and tell your story. This is a place for you to show who you are, where you are coming from, why you would be a good student, and much more. It is your chance to attempt to stand out from the rest of the applicants and demonstrate your academic and career potential. You can think about it as a persuasive essay, with the purpose of arguing to your readers (the graduate admissions committee) why you are an excellent candidate for their graduate program.

The statement of purpose is typically around 2 pages, although each program will give a specific length and format (word count, page limit, line spacing, etc.). The program may specifically ask you to address topics such as why you chose psychology, your background and experiences, your career goals, your strengths and weaknesses, etc. Pay careful attention to the prompt given, and make sure to always give examples to back up your statements (i.e., don’t just say you are inquisitive; give specific examples of ways you have exhibited this in the past).

Make sure to write a unique statement of purpose for each program you apply to. The best way to go about this is to write a general statement of purpose, then tweak it as needed for each specific program, and save the changes as a new document each time. Here is a highly recommended book all about writing a strong statement of purpose.

Below you will find a list of topics we suggest you include in your statement of purpose. Organize it how you wish, but make sure it flows, and make sure that you show how the information you include is relevant. Stay on topic and be succinct in order to fit more information in.

What to Include in your Statement of Purpose

Introduce yourself.

Start out your statement of purpose by introducing yourself and clearly stating your “purpose” or in other words, your academic and career goals. Give a brief overview of why you have come to this point in your life. “My name is Laura Johnson  and I am applying to the Doctorate program in Clinical Psychology at Smith University. After I successfully earn this degree, I will obtain my Psychologist license and open up my own private practice. I plan to specialize in treating Anxiety and Mood Disorders in adults.” Be brief in your intro; you can discuss your goals in more detail in the body of your statement.

What are your academic and career goals?

Explain what degree you are applying to earn and what you intend to do after graduation. Be clear and specific. Where do you see yourself in 2 years, or 5 years, or 10 years? Where will you be working? What professional activities will you be engaged in? What population will you be working with? What accomplishments will you have in the near future?

Why did you choose psychology as a major and/or for graduate study?

Explain what life experiences you have had that led you to major in psychology and/or choose this field for graduate study. You can be personal here; after all, the statement of purpose is often referred to as a “personal statement”. Also, don’t rely on absolute phrases such as “I have always wanted to be a psychologist.” Spent time discussing specifics that have led you to this desire. A caution here is to minimize discussing psychological weaknesses. Many people choose psychology as their field of study due to experiencing psychological hardships or psychological disorders. While this is common, you should not spend time discussing severe personal problems, such as the fact that you experienced severe trauma, or have been attending therapy for years, or have received a diagnosis of mental illness, etc. While you can of course be a successful graduate student having experienced these things in your past, it will behoove you to discuss your strengths, and positive experiences you have had in your life. You would not want graduate admissions committees wondering if you are emotionally unstable or may have qualities that would make it possible for you to not be completely focused on your studies. Be cautious and do not overshare.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

What is your motivation? How did you decide to pursue an advanced education? What do you want to be able to do that you are unable to without a graduate degree? What is motivating you to put in this time and effort into more schooling at this time? Is there a certain topic you are motivated to study? Is there a certain population you are motivated to help? Explain how you chose your particular study interests. Spend time discussing your passion and drive, your love of learning, and why you are so committed to this choice. Be specific and be sincere. For example, you can’t “save the world”, so don’t go overboard when discussing who you want to help and how you want to help them.

Why did you choose this specific graduate program?

Make sure to do your research on each individual program. Flatter the program; some examples include pointing out some of the particular faculty members they have and why you admire them, discuss a facility they have on campus that you think will be very useful to you, or talk about some of the research that is being conducted within that program that you are excited about. Make sure this section does not sound superficial or generic. You really need to make it clear that your interests and philosophy align with those of the program; show that you have done your research and you are a good fit.

What about your background or life experiences makes you unique or special?

Are you a first generation college student? Are you a member of a minority group that is underrepresented in graduate programs? Again, do not spend time discussing serious personal problems or how you have had a very difficult time academically getting to where you are today.

What experiences did you have as an undergraduate student that you learned a lot from or have guided you to attend graduate school?

Discuss some of your favorite classes, why you liked them, what you learned from them, how they added to your knowledge of psychology, or how they led you to pursue graduate study. Make sure to point out the classes you have taken that are directly relevant to your field of study. Additionally, discuss teachers who left a lasting impression on you and discuss why. Discuss clubs you have joined and how you were involved with them. Discuss any research you have assisted with and what you learned from it. Discuss any teaching assistant positions you have held and how they influenced you. Explain any other extracurricular activities that are relevant.

What academic strengths do you possess that will make you a successful graduate student?

Do you have a high overall GPA or high psychology GPA? Do you have impressive grades in any very relevant courses (i.e., Abnormal Psychology for clinical applicants; Advanced Statistics for research applicants)? Have you earned any awards, scholarships, honors, or Dean’s List recognition? Explain certain abilities you have that make you an excellent student, such as communication skills, writing skills, study habits, being able to work in groups, accepting and applying feedback from instructors, perseverance, strong work ethic, being organized, etc. Make sure the skills you discuss are specific. You do not want to sound like you copied and pasted these skills from the internet. It will be even better if you can point out specific examples of times when you were able to demonstrate these skills. If you have a few poor grades or W’s (withdrawals) on your transcripts, you may want to briefly explain why (i.e., working full time due to a financial burden in the family, or studying a major that you were not happy with before finding psychology, etc.). Make sure you do not criticize or blame others for a poor grade (such as the school or a teacher you had).

What applied work do you have that make you suitable for work in the field of psychology?

Explain in detail any jobs or internships you have held that are related to psychology. Discuss in detail what type of tasks you did, what you learned from working there, and especially, explain how you were able to apply your psychological knowledge and were able to utilize psychological principles at work. Discuss your work accomplishments or consider how your abilities were demonstrated in these positions. Explain how these experiences have made you more committed to your career goals and the field of psychology.

Close with a Summary.

Make sure to close by reiterating strongly that you WILL be earning your degree and you WILL reach your career goals (not just that you “hope” to). Summarize why you will be an excellent student if admitted to their program (experience, academic strengths, motivation, etc). Keep your summary short, direct, and strong.

What Not to Include in your Statement of Purpose

Your life story.

While it is appropriate to discuss certain life experiences you have had and why they have led you to where you are today, it is not appropriate to tell your entire life story. The committee does not need to know everything about you over your lifetime (i.e., where you were born, your childhood experiences, or your time spent in high school, unless it is very relevant). It is your job to decide what information is relevant to the purpose of your personal statement. Do not overshare and waste time; committees will be bored reading an impertinent narrative.

Your history of mental illness.

As stated earlier, you should minimize discussing your psychological weaknesses. It is possible that you have chosen psychology as your field of study due to experiencing psychological hardships or psychological disorders. However, do not spend time discussing severe personal problems, such as the fact that you experienced severe trauma, or have been attending therapy for years, or have received a diagnosis of mental illness, etc. While you can of course be a successful graduate student having experienced these things in your past, it will behoove you to discuss your strengths, and positive experiences you have had in your life. You do not want graduate admissions committees wondering if you are emotionally unstable or may have qualities that would make it possible for you to not be completely focused on your studies.

Do not use weak verbs in your statement.

Make it clear that you will reach your goals. Read through your entire statement when you have finished drafting it, and replace any verbs that are not strong.

Do not include words such as:

  • “I hope…” (I hope to get accepted to graduate school.)
  • “I plan…” (I plan to earn my degree.)
  • “I think…” (I think I would make a good graduate student.)

Change these verbs to sound strong rather than weak.

  • “I will…” (I will attend graduate school.”)
  • “I commit to…” (I am committed to earning my degree.)
  • “I know…” (I know I am an excellent candidate for graduate school).

Do not use unprofessional terms.

Write in a professional tone. While you are trying to stand out through your statement, it should be through your content, not the way that you write. Do not use slang or colloquial terms, and avoid contemporary phrases. Don’t attempt to be overly creative, odd, cutesy, or humorous. Avoid using religious references, unless you are applying to a religious school. Use terms that you would use academically for a college assignment.

Do not allow poor writing.

Not only are you explaining yourself in your statement of purpose, you are also responsible for demonstrating strong writing skills, an ability that is crucial to being a successful graduate student in psychology. In many cases, graduate admission committees will toss your application into the denied pile at the first sign of a grammatical mistake. Make sure your writing is organized and clear. Use transitions when necessary to create flow. Always check your spelling. Most importantly, you need to make sure your grammar is correct. This goes far beyond using the grammar and spelling check function in your text editing program. Make sure to give your statement of purpose to various professionals and professors and ask them to provide you with feedback (on grammar as well as content). You will need to provide them with your statement of purpose in order for them to write you a letter of recommendation, so you can ask them to provide feedback as they read it for that purpose. Don’t just ask a friend or family member to proofread it; they really are not the best judges of what the graduate admission committees will be looking for.

Curriculum Vitae

A curriculum vitae (CV) is an academic/professional resume. It is different from a regular resume because a CV is focused on academic and professional accomplishments and experience. It should include sections such as education, awards, research and applied experience, club memberships, and more. Some but not all graduate programs will request that you submit a CV. It is often required by professors that you request letters of recommendation from.

Make sure to ask your professors for help with this. Draft your CV and then ask them to look over it and provide feedback. They could help with structure and organization, information that should be added, or with the wording of descriptions. Spelling and grammar errors can be very detrimental, so make sure to have help with proofreading it. You can also purchase a very helpful handbook to help you in constructing your CV.

Organizing your Curriculum Vitae:

Organize the sections in ascending order of relevance or importance to your program. For example if applying to a PhD program, you may want to place research experience before teaching experience, but if applying to a clinical program, you may want to first emphasize your applied experience. This organization should be tailored to whatever program or position you are applying for. If you have a lot of information in some of the sections, is possible to break them up (i.e., teaching, clinical, applied, research experience, publications, volunteer work, etc.).

Formatting your Curriculum Vitae:

In regards to formatting, stick with Times New Roman font, size 12. Make sure to utilize line spacing so that it doesn’t look cluttered. When in doubt, use APA format (i.e., APA headings). There is typically no limit on page length; include a lot of information, yet be succinct.

Possible sections to include in your Curriculum Vitae:

  • Personal contact information: Include your full name (at the top of the page and in a larger font so that it stands out), phone number, mailing address, and emailing address.
  • Education: Include the name of all schools you attended as an undergraduate, with the most recent listed first. Include the name of your major and minor in which you earned your degree in. Include your overall GPA, and perhaps your psychology GPA (if it is strong). Do not list out your courses. If you did not earn a minor, but took a large amount of courses in a certain area that is relevant, you can briefly mention this (i.e., extensive coursework in Child & Adolescent Studies). Do not discuss high school.
  • Academic honors/awards: List scholarships, honors or awards bestowed by various colleges or departments, membership on the Dean’s List, acceptance into honors programs or honors clubs, graduating with honors, or graduating with academic distinction (summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or cum laude).
  • Clinical or applied experience: List jobs, internships, or volunteer positions you have held doing work where you were able to apply psychological principles. Use bullet points to briefly describe your duties or accomplishments in those positions.
  • Teaching experience: List any teaching, teaching assistant, tutoring, or mentoring positions you have held. Use bullet points to describe details.
  • Research experience: List and discuss any research-related experience and activities you have been involved with, including planning, literature review, data collection, data entry and analysis, writing, presentations, and publications.
  • Professional memberships: List any psychology-related clubs or professional organizations that you are a member of. Be sure to discuss your involvement or leadership roles you may have held.
  • References: List 2-4 references and include each person’s name, title, institution, mailing address, phone number, and email address.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are required by just about every graduate program, and are heavily considered by admission committees. Letters of recommendation should describe your personality traits, academic skills, and accomplishments and should be written by people who know you very well.

Number of Letters of Recommendation

The amount of letters you need to provide will vary. Most programs will require 2 or 3 letters, and each program will specify how many they require. If you decide to provide extra letters, make sure you are not supplying too many extra (i.e., double the amount that they require). This makes extra work for the admission committees; it also might look like you could not decide who would write the best letters or were not able to plan well, so you asked extra people. Having an extra letter is not necessarily going to increase your chance of getting in. It is much better to have quality over quantity.

Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation

Each program will have specifications regarding who your letter writers need to be. Typically, some of your letters of recommendation must be from college professors. It is also usually acceptable to obtain a letter from a supervisor from work, but this depends on the program you are applying to. You should request a letter from a supervisor if the program allows you to and if the position is psychology-related.

The most important thing is that the person writing the letter can write you a strong letter, or in other words, knows you well enough to speak about your strengths that make you a great student and will make you be successful in the field. It is very important that you choose someone who knows you well, rather than someone who has a respected title but does not know you well. Just because someone is influential or well-known and writes you a letter does not show admission committees that you are a good candidate for a graduate program. The recommender’s status is much less important than his or her level of knowledge about you. It is your responsibility to create experiences for you to have personal interactions with the person who will be writing your letter, so that he or she can get to know you well enough to write the letter.

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Make sure to ask for these letters in person; a professor is going out of his or her way to write a letter, and it is respectful of you to pay him or her a visit. It is also helpful for you to remind the professor of who you are, what you gained from the class(es) you took with that professor, and you will have a chance to talk about your academic and career plans as well. Asking over email should only be done if you no longer live in the area of the campus.

How to Obtain Strong Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate school applicants can get professors to write letters of recommendation for them. However, in order to stand out, you need to make sure your letters of recommendation are strong. Instead of just asking a professor if he or she can write you a letter of recommendation, ask the professor if he or she can write you a strong positive letter of recommendation. You are essentially asking your professor, do you know me well enough to write a letter that can speak of my strengths that will make me an exemplary student and a successful professional?

Unfortunately, many students do not plan well for obtaining strong letters of recommendation. Just because you were a student in a certain professor’s class, and the professor agrees to write a letter for you, does not mean that the letter will be positive or strong. Some students merely send an email to a professor they had a year or two ago and ask for a letter. The professor (who has had thousands of students over the years) probably does not remember the student, especially if the student never visited the professor during office hours or demonstrated interest or participation during class. The professor may deny the student’s request, because the professor does not know the student well enough.

Some professors will agree to write you a letter even though they do not know you very well or remember anything about you. They are assuming you asked them because they were the best option you had, which is probably true. If you have not taken the time to get to know a professor or to let the professor get to know you, this will show in your letters. The letters may be very generic or mediocre and the writer will not be able to speak about your individual personality characteristics or academic abilities and accomplishments. Generic, mediocre letters will be noticed by admission committees and can be hurtful to your application. Don’t let this happen to you; let the professor get to know you!

In the worst case scenario, a professor may even have something negative to say about you. You can avoid this by asking the professor what type of letter he or she can provide for you. Again, ask if it will be a strong positive letter, or ask if the professor knows you well enough to write a good letter.

Getting to Know Professors (and Letting Them Get to Know You)

The way to obtain strong positive letters of recommendation is by getting to know your professors and letting them get to know you through personal interactions.  Early on in the semester, visit your professors’ office hours and them know that you are planning on attending graduate school. Tell them about your plans. Ask them questions and be sure to utilize them for help in your planning. Ask them about different graduate programs and career options. Ask them about potential opportunities on campus that can help you reach your goals. Ask them to proofread your CV and statement of purpose. While in their class, participate by asking and answering questions. Try to take more than one class with the same professor so he or she will have more experiences with you and can write more about you. Stay in touch with your professors. Keep them updated about your plans. Pop in and say hello even after you are no longer a student of theirs. If you won’t be applying to graduate school for awhile, but want a letter from a professor, you can ask the professor to write the letter while his or her memory of you is fresh, and the professor can save a copy of the letter until you need it. This is much better than letting a year or two pass without contacting the professor, and then all of a sudden requesting a letter from him or her.

Other ways to earn letters of recommendation include becoming active in clubs and organizations on campus or becoming a teaching assistant, research assistant, or tutor. In these roles, there is often a faculty advisor in charge of the students, and he or she is an excellent resource for a letter of recommendation, especially if you have given the professor opportunities to get to know you well. Again, utilize this professor in your planning process and keep them updated about your plans.

If you are no longer a student, it may be difficult to ask for a letter of recommendation, because you may feel that your professors will not remember you. That is very possible. Try reaching out to your past professors that you felt a connection with or enjoyed their class. Pay them a visit and let them know about your plans. Ask if you can volunteer to help as a teaching assistant or with any activities, and let them know you are trying to demonstrate your skills so that you can obtain a letter of recommendation. You don’t have to surprise them with the letter request; feel free to be upfront and open about it.

What to Provide to Your Letter of Recommendation Writers

First, visit your professors’ office hours and ask them if they can write letters for you. Make sure to have a face-to-face meeting rather than asking such a large favor merely over email. When requesting the letter, make sure to explain why you are choosing that professor (i.e., you learned a lot from his/her class, you really enjoyed the subject, you participated a lot during class activities, you received an “A” in the class or on the paper, etc.). It is helpful for you to jog your professor’s memory so he or she can remember you better, if you are not currently in one of his or her classes when you visit.

Next, you will need to provide them with materials in order for them to write the letters. When it comes to providing the materials, don’t just send them numerous emails; they should not have to spend time searching through your emails, looking for specific information, and printing out attachments. It is much better if you can put all of the material together as hard copies, and give it to your professors all at once in a file folder. Do your part to make this process as easy as possible for them. Here is a list of materials you should provide to your professors:

  • Complete unofficial transcripts, with the course(s) you took with the professor highlighted
    • You may also wish to include a paper that you wrote for the course to remind the professor of your writing skills and demonstration of course knowledge.
  • Current resume or curriculum vitae
    • Make sure that it is up to date.
  • Personal statement that you have written for graduate school
    • If you have completed your various personal statements for the various applications, supply all of these. Otherwise, just supply a generic one (if you are still working on the variations).
  • Any forms that the graduate programs require the letter writers to complete
    • These may be in paper form or in the form of an email with an electronic link.
    • If in paper form, make sure to fill out all of the information you are supposed to ahead of time (usually at the top of the form).
  • Information about each graduate school program, including the following:
    • Complete name of the program/institution
    • Mailing address of the program/institution
    • Name of the degree (i.e., MS in Clinical Psychology)
    • Brief program descriptions
    • How the program would like to receive the letter (via email or regular mail)
    • Application deadline
  • Blank business-size envelopes for any letters that you will be picking up from the professor (to be sealed and signed by the professor)
  • Stamped addressed business-size envelopes for any letters that the professor needs to mail for you

How Much Time to Give to Your Letter of Recommendation Writers

Make sure to give your letter writers plenty of time to complete your letters. When it gets to the time of year when applications are due, consider that your professor is probably writing 5-10 letters per student for many students, all with similar deadlines, on top of his or her teaching assignments. This can accumulate and the professor can get very busy. Be respectful and give your letter writers at least 1 month to write your letters (from the time that you give them all of your materials). The worst thing you can do is ask them when there are two weeks or less left, and not have the materials ready for them (such as your CV and statement of purpose). In this case, the professor may say no, or he or she may not spend adequate time on your letters because you did not allow them to. This may result in rushed, generic, poorly crafted letters.

It is also a good idea to send your letter writers an email reminder about one week before the first letter is due. In the email, you can list out the due dates of the other letters as well.

How to Submit your Letters of Recommendation

Pay attention to the instructions each program gives in regards to how they require the letters of recommendation to be submitted. Some programs will ask that you submit all application materials together (including the letters). In this case, you will want to gather the letters from your letter writers (after the envelopes have been sealed and signed) and put them together with the rest of your materials to be mailed in a manila envelope. Some programs will allow your letter writers to mail the letters directly to them, in which case you will provide your letter writers with addressed stamped business-size envelopes. Other programs will have your letters of recommendation be completed and submitted electronically. They will usually require you to provide them with email addresses of your letter writers. Your letter writers will receive the requests by email and will complete forms and upload their letter onto a secure website. You will typically get an email confirmation when your recommenders have submitted their letters.

Waiving your Right to Review the Letters

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires that students be allowed to review their educational records. This includes graduate school applications and letters of recommendation. When you submit a letter of recommendation, you are asked to decide between waiving and retaining your right to review the letter. It is recommended that you do waive your rights for a few reasons. One problem is that it is possible that a potential letter writer will not agree to write a letter if you do not waive the right to review it. He or she may want this information to stay between the letter writer and the graduate admission committees. Another problem with waiving the right is that graduate admission committees may assume that you are worried about the content of the letter. In addition, is possible that admission committees will weigh letters more heavily when the rights have been waived, because the evaluation is thought to be more candid. However, you can still to decide to retain your right to review the letters. Make sure you have a good reason for this decision, beyond mere curiosity about the content of the letters.

Thanking your Letter Writers

Do not forget to thank the individuals who wrote your letters of recommendation. They have volunteered their time and spent much thought and effort on you, and it is important that you show your appreciation. It is strongly recommended that you send a handwritten thank you note. Professors receive hundreds of emails each week that are quickly read and often forgotten. If you send a handwritten note, this note can be kept and appreciated for long after. Especially if your letter writers have helped you with your academic and career plans and proofread your application materials, a tangible note and maybe even a small thank you gift is not much to ask for in comparison to the assistance and guidance they have provided you with.

Your letter writers will be rooting for you and will be interested in how things turn out for you; make sure to update them on how you are doing after you hear from the programs you applied to. It is appropriate to send these types of updates via email.