Applying to Grad School in Psychology
Applying to Grad School
Simply put, graduate programs in psychology are very competitive. Most programs only accept 10-20 students per year; given the number of students who complete an undergraduate degree in psychology each year, the numbers alone make these programs competitive. And indeed, schools publish data such as "Only 8% of applicants are offered admission."
But if you are qualified, don't be daunted by these types of statistics:
There is a big difference between a competitive candidate (i.e., a student who is likely to be admitted) and a non-viable candidate; this page outlines what makes a applicant more likely to be successful in their admissions.
Indeed, when you contact potential supervisors and make your applications, it's good to know that potential supervisors are just as interested in working with a terrific student as you are in working with them.
It's important to do well in your undergraduate (Bachelor's) courses and to gain the types of experience you'll need to be a competitive candidate.
Generally speaking, the following is required for a successful application to graduate school in psychology:
1. An honors degree in Psychology
The specific course requirements are usually quite broad, but usually the undergraduate program should include Research Methods and Statistics and an honors thesis. At King's and Western, the honors specialization module includes the honors thesis course, so this is the degree module that is recommended for students considering graduate school.
The honors thesis serves as evidence that you can do fairly independent research and it gives you the chance to see if you enjoy research (since the bulk of grad school is conducting research!). It's a good idea to take courses related to your general interests; for example, if you want to do developmental research, you should take basic and upper-level courses in Developmental Psychology as an undergrad.
The honors degree also shows that the student has excelled at the undergraduate level relative to their peers and has performed well in the types of more challenging courses that serve as the foundation for graduate studies.
Fundamentals such as cognition and social psych are also useful for most domains, a course in neuropsychology or neuroscience is becoming increasingly important. Courses in abnormal and/or clinical is usually necessary if you are interested in pursuing clinical psychology.
2. Very good grades
Graduate school in psychology is highly competitive. Grades in your core psychology courses in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year are particularly important. The odd poor grade may be forgiven (thankfully), but overall, good grades are very important.
It's worth pointing out that what courses you take may matter -- taking low-level 'survey' courses in psychology isn't good preparation for graduate studies; you need to take challenging courses. This will also help you to discover which area(s) are most appealing to you.
A note on math/stats: Some psychology undergrads dislike the often-required math and/or statistics courses. Math/stats grades are generally considered important; graduate studies involves research, which typically involves a fair amount of math and stats, so be honest with yourself when considering your options -- i.e., if you loathed stats class, do you really want to go to grad school where you will take more stats classes and perform stats and work with numbers on a regular basis? If not, you'd be wise to consider other professional program options.
3. Research experience
This serves two purposes:
First, it ensures that you have some basic research training.
Second, it gives you chance to see if you actually like research, since the bulk of graduate training is research-based, even in clinical psych. Research experience can be gained by doing some paid or volunteer work as a research assistant (RA) during the school year or during the summer.
The honors thesis also counts as research experience, but since this is only in the student's 4th year of their undergrad program, it means that by the time the student applies for grad school, they'll have only had about 4-months of research experience if this is their only measurable research experience (because applications are typically due in December/January of the student's 4th year for the coming September).
Relevant research experience is best, but if that's not possible, the experience should be at least related to the area of psychology you are hoping to study in grad school (e.g., social psych, developmental, etc.).
Be proactive! If you'd like to gain research experience, approach profs who you have impressed (e.g., by earning good grades in their class, participating) and let them know that you are interested in volunteering or working in their lab.
Profs are King's are usually quite happy to involve keen undergrads in their labs. This can also be a great way to develop a relationship with potential thesis supervisors!
Western has a huge psychology department, where faculty often have big labs with post-docs and grad students; post-docs and grad students are often eager to have excellent undergrads help them with their research as volunteers. Talking to your profs at King's might give you some insight as to who you could approach.
4. Relevant experience
This is especially important for clinical applicants. This again serves two broad purposes:
First, you may gain basic experience and develop some skills working with clinical populations. Note that research experience is important for clinical applicants, since most programs follow the "scientist-practitioner" model (i.e., students are trained as both researchers and practitioners).
Second, experience gives you chance to see if you actually like clinical work. (Pro tip: Clinical work is not like you see on TV or in movies.)
5. Contact potential supervisors
Graduate programs in psychology typically use a mentorship approach to training; that is, most of your training is supervised by a single professor with whom you develop a close relationship, and this prof serves as your primary research supervisor and mentor.
This means that your supervisor is often critical to your success in grad school. Indeed, it is more important to select "who" you would like to work with in graduate school than "where" you will go to school.
So when you start your research into grad school, the first step is to consider different supervisors; the school or location should be secondary in your decision-making tree, in my view.
In the summer or early fall before you apply, email potential supervisors that you may be interested in working with; check the department's web site to find out about their faculty research interest and read a few of the profs' articles to see if their research is interesting to you.
Try to make a connection with the prof -- this is essential. Avoid sending a bland form letter; make it personalized (e.g., "I learned about your work in my 3rd-year seminar course..." or "I read your recent article XYZ for my honors thesis research..."). Professors are trying to decide whether they want to invest 6 or more years of their career working with you and (often) large amounts of grant moneys to support you; this letter is your first chance to make a connection. (And remember, they are eager to bring enthusiastic and bright students into their lab -- they want you as much as you want them!)
Be professional in this email -- address the professor directly (e.g., "Dear Dr. Blank") and cite specific reasons why you would like to work with this prof.
Be honest about your plans; don't say you are interested in animal cognition when you really want clinical.
The CPA (Canadian Psychological Association) has an up-to-date document outlining all of the psychology departments in Canada that offer graduate training and relevant statistics -- you can browse the different department web sites to see what areas of research may be interesting to you.
It is typically recommended that students do their graduate training in experimental or clinical psychology at a different school from their undergraduate university; this broadens the student's horizons and perspectives, experience base, and allows the student to work with someone whose research interests truly match their own. Indeed, many schools flat-out refuse to take their own undergrads into graduate programs. (And honestly, it's a great experience!)
6. References letters from 2 or 3 professors
To write a student a compelling reference letter, professors need to know the student fairly well. For a professor's view on writing strong letters, here's a good article on "strong" reference letters from the Observer, published by the APS (Association for Psychological Science).
Working directly with a professor (e.g., for your honors thesis, independent study, volunteering, work/study) is the best way to improve the quality of your references, since the prof will know you better and can cite examples of your skills. But this requires some advance planning, so if you are a year or two from graduating, get involved in your classes now, so you're not struggling to find references when you're in your final year.
Participating in class (long before you seek out references) is another way for your profs to get to know you.
7. GRE scores
Most universities require applicants to write some standardized tests prior to applying.
In Canada and the US, the main test is called the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE.
It's a good idea to practice before taking the examination. Prof Baruss recommends that students spend 6 to 8 weeks studying for the GRE in order for the GRE to best reflect their acutal abilities. Indeed, it takes study time to anticipate the types of questions that will be asked to become familiar with the format and time constraints. I found that the analytical section in particular benefits from practice, as this section goes beyond what kinds of questions students are normally familiar with.
Some schools place more, or less, emphasis on GRE scores. For example, doing well in undergraduate math/stats may reduce the impact of doing poorly on the math section of the GRE.
These tests usually need to be written in the summer or early fall before you apply for grad school -- so basically one year before you would start the program, if accepted.
The scoring is percentile-based; that is, your score is compared to the other test-takers' scores to put you in a rank position. For example, you may earn a score that is in the top 90th percentile, indicating that your score was higher than 90% of the other test-takers in a given period.
There are two main GRE tests that are frequently required by psych programs:
The GRE-General is a standardized test which assesses your language skills, quantitative (math) skills, and analytical skills.
The GRE-Psychology test assesses the breadth of your knowledge in psychology. Reviewing your intro psych text and basic stats is usually quite helpful here.
(And a personal note: In my view, the GRE's primary use is for a graduate school to verify if a student's transcript is indeed indicative of their academic potential. This can be useful in the US, where there are so many small and obscure undergraduate colleges, making it difficult for a university to determine if a straight-A transcript means a given student is stellar, or if their grades are just really inflated. If the student has all As in math and stats, but only scores at the 5th percentile on the GRE, this may indicate that he's not actually all that great at quantitative reasoning. It's been my personal experience, as an applicant and a reference for other applicants, that a solid transcript carries much more weight than the GRE scores.)
8. Submit the application on time
Seriously! Applications are typically due in the December or January for admission in September -- so you have to be organized to make your application successful. It's a good idea to start to develop your skills base for a successful application in 2nd- or 3rd-year of your undergraduate degree.
9. Apply broadly
Last but not least, apply to several schools. As my honours thesis supervisor told me (waaaaay back in 1995), "If you cast a wide net, you're more likely to catch a fish."
This doesn't mean that you should apply to every school imaginable, but rather, you should have a ranked list of which professors you would be most interested in working with.
If you're interested in developmental, for example, it makes sense to have a few professors that you'd most like to work with. For example, you may narrow down "developmental" into cognitive development; so when you check the schools' websites, focus your investigations on profs who do cognitive developmental work.
It's ok to have a "B-list" -- sometimes, the prof you most want to work with simply isn't accepting new students, even if you are the Very Best Student Ever: professors retire, take sabbaticals, parental leaves, have over-committed, etc. Your profs at King's can often provide you with some guidance in selecting potential supervisors.
(But don't be untrue to yourself or the potential supervisor -- if you are keen on cognitive development, it doesn't make sense to pursue a prof who studies motor control in monkeys as your supervisor.)
Similarly, keep in mind that you should apply to schools that may be "off the radar" -- schools in the "401 corridor" tend to have a lot of applicants because of the population concentration in this area; this means that it can be statistically more difficult to get into Queen's than Dalhousie in Halifax. Applying to schools outside of southern Ontario can dramatically improve one's odds of being accepted. There are excellent researchers distributed all the way across Canada!
You should also check specific schools' sites to find out their specific applications processes for their graduate programs. For example, the following schools have excellent online overviews of their programs and applications processes