Now that you have ensured that you meet all of the minimum requirements to apply to your programs, the next step is to strengthen your resume. You need to make sure that you stand out above all (or at least many) of the other applicants. Here are some additional activities you should think about getting involved with in order to become more of a competitive candidate.
Psychology-related organizations and clubs are a great resource for you as an undergraduate student and as a prospective graduate student. Look into your psychology department, or other related departments (i.e., counseling, human services, sociology, etc., or perhaps the area you are earning a minor in) to find out about the available clubs and to find out how to join them. Also, you don’t have to be a current student to join psychology organizations. Many have national or international branches that you can join without being connected to a college or university. However, it is often cheaper to join if you are a current student. While they usually require a small fee (either one-time or annually), you usually get something in return, whether it is a newsletter or magazine subscription, access to helpful or interesting information, access to a job or internship database, or some kind of product, like a t-shirt.
Psychology clubs can offer leadership opportunities, speakers on interesting topics, networking and social events, service projects, panel discussions, graduate school and career preparation information, and much more. It is very beneficial to you to get involved with clubs, and will be regarded highly if you seek out experiences as a club member, rather than just signing up to become a member. In your statement of purpose, you can discuss how you participated in the club and what you learned from your experiences. Being involved with these organizations is a sign of your commitment to the field and motivation to pursue further education.
To take it one step further, think about gaining a leadership position within an organization. Often times it is not as difficult as you might expect; just attend the first meeting of the semester, show initiative by nominating yourself for a position, and put a little work in during the semester to helping with the organization. This will look excellent on your graduate school application. Many on-campus clubs also have a faculty member who serves as the advisor. If you serve as a leader in a club, the faculty member has a chance to get to know you, and will often be a great source for a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
Earning honors and awards in recognition of outstanding academic achievement is a great accomplishment and can help distinguish you from other applicants in the programs you apply to. Usually the university and/or department applications will have a place to list honors and awards. You will also want to discuss them on your statement of purpose. In addition, they should be included on your curriculum vitae (CV) so that your letter of recommendation writers are aware of them and may possibly point them out in their letters.
When you are applying to graduate school, it is not helpful to list high school accomplishments; limit yourself to discussing honors and awards earned during your undergraduate degree. Examples include scholarships, honors or awards bestowed by various colleges or departments, membership on the Dean’s List, being accepted into honors programs or honors clubs, graduating with honors, or graduating with academic distinction (summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or cum laude).
While typically not a requirement for admission, graduate programs will be very impressed if you have had the opportunity to have any of your research published in a scholarly journal or if you have presented your research at a conference or symposium. These accomplishments will be especially valued by doctoral or scientist-practitioner based master’s programs in psychology. If you have are helping to conduct research, or have done so in the past, speak to your faculty advisor or research leader about the possibility of publishing or presenting your research. Being able to discuss a publication or presentation on your statement of purpose, CV, and applications will be one of the best ways you can get noticed and boost your chances of acceptance.
While you may not have the opportunity to publish or present your research at a conference, it is still very beneficial for you to attend any conferences you have a chance to. Psychology conferences (either state, regional, or national) are great opportunities for you to find out about research that is being done on topics of interest to you or at institutions you are interested in attending. You can also take advantage of the networking opportunities by meeting faculty and graduate students from different schools that you are considering. These experiences can be relayed in your statement of purpose, and will show the graduate admissions committees that you are passionate about learning about psychology.
Another way to ensure your application stands out from the others when you apply to graduate school is to gain teaching experience, leadership experience, or have relevant volunteer and/or paid work.
Teaching experience shows graduate admission committees that you have expertise in a certain area and can apply psychology to an educational setting. It also shows that you have good organization and communication skills and can work well with people.
You can gain teaching experience as a student by becoming a teaching assistant. Ask past professors of yours if they need a teaching assistant. It typically should be a teacher of a class that you took in which you received an “A”. Ask far in advance, as teaching assistant positions are quite limited and can fill up fast. You may get to help with activities such as developing curriculum, helping present a lecture, proctoring exams, scoring homework and papers, recording and maintaining grades, holding office hours, tutoring other students, and more. It is beneficial to you to get to see the behind the scenes of what it’s like to be a professor. You can also usually get a very strong letter of recommendation from the professor you assist, because he or she will get to know you well. Many times you can earn units doing this, or you can do it on a volunteer basis if you are no longer a student.
You can also gain teaching experience by working as a tutor. Many colleges have tutoring centers where they hire undergraduate students as tutors. You may be able to tutor in general subjects such as english or math, or you may be able to be a psychology tutor. Either way, you can apply your psychology knowledge when it comes to your teaching techniques, and can discuss this in your statement of purpose.
Leadership experience is very valuable to graduate admission committees. Having served in leadership positions shows that you are responsible, that you take initiative, and that you work well with others. A great way to gain a leadership position is by becoming active in psychology clubs and organizations, especially if you are still an undergraduate student and have access to joining on-campus groups. Contact the psychology department at your school (as well as related departments, i.e., sociology, human services, counseling, etc.) to find out about the clubs and organizations that they have on campus. Email the organization before the first meeting of the semester and let them know you are interested in a leadership position. Find out how you can become nominated, and make sure to attend the first few meetings so you can be part of the nomination and voting process.
Another way to showcase your leadership experience is by being able to point out leadership positions you have held at work. Think about opportunities or positions you have held where you were put in charge of other staff. You will be able to point these out on your CV but can also discuss them in your statement of purpose. Make sure to discuss how you were able to use psychology-related principles in your leadership position and how you were able to work well with others.
When it comes to volunteer and paid work, make sure you have had a variety of opportunities to work in positions where you were able to apply your psychology knowledge. Seek out these types of jobs, internships, and volunteer positions in your community. The more opportunities you have, the better. Try working in many different settings with many different populations to highlight that you have experience with people from diverse backgrounds. Working in many different settings will also help you make decisions about what you like or don’t like when it comes to work environments and your future career. Try visiting or contacting the career center at your school to find out if they can recommend any organizations or positions for you. You could also talk to your department or to some of your professors to try to locate psychology-related volunteer and/or paid work. Also, you may have worked in various positions that don’t seem strictly psychology-related, but you will need to think about how you were able to use psychological principles in that setting and be able to discuss that in your statement of purpose. If you don’t have any experience to add to your resume, you might not be a very strong candidate for certain programs, but it is true that some programs will not weigh this section as heavily as others.