Generally speaking, getting into graduate school is a game of chance. Many programs are very competitive. There's no guarantee that you will get into the exact program at the exact university that you want. But there are some things you can do to optimize that possibility:
Grade point average is one index that many graduate schools take very seriously. Obviously, the higher your GPA the better your chances of getting in. Very competitive programs may look for GPAs at 3.5 or higher. Less competitive programs may accept 3.0 or a bit lower.
-- Letters of
Many graduate schools weigh letters very highly. Strong letters of recommendation can compensate for GPAs and GREs that are a bit weak. Your letters of recommendation could become one of your greatest assets! At NC State, especially in our Psychology Department, you have the unique opportunity to get to know the faculty. Get involved in the Psychology Club and other activities in the department. Talk to the faculty. The better they know you, the more likely they can write a convincing letter. When you ask a professor to write a letter for you, be sure to give the professor some written information about yourself, the courses you took with him/her, your grades, any activities you undertook in our department or on campus, etc. And here's one way you can work towards getting a truly excellent letter....
With Our Faculty (most important factor!)
In our department you have the unique opportunity to work closely with professors on research projects. Take advantage of this! Volunteer your time to work with a professor, ask about work study, take a tutorial course. Also, find out if there are faculty who will be your advisor on an Independent Research project (PSY 499). This is a project in which you work one on one with a faculty on a topic of mutual interest. When professors get to know you in this capacity, they can write a very strong letter of recommendation (assuming you didn't screw up on the project!). Successfully completing these projects also demonstrates to graduate schools that you are a motivated person who can work independently.
In the past students have presented papers at conferences (e.g., The Carolinas Psychology Conference) or published articles with the faculty based on such projects. Many graduate programs will be impressed by this! It is unusual for undergraduates to do this sort of thing. Graduate programs that emphasize experimental research may be very impressed by your having been actively involved in research, especially if the research led to a conference presentation or a publication. Programs that emphasize training in counseling (and not experimental research) may be impressed by projects involving case studies, literature reviews, and experiential learning even if these projects did not lead to a publication or conference presentation.
Note: You have the opportunity to present at the Carolinas Psychology Conference held in April every year. Get your research projects moving now so that you'll have something to present! (Abstracts due Feb 26th - see www2.ncsu.edu/cep/Psychology/car_conf/ for more info)
Many graduate schools will require you to take the Graduate Record Exam. That's right! It's the SATs all over again, but on a slightly bigger scale! The GREs consist of three sections: verbal, math (quantitative), and analytic (which measures abstract thinking). Some schools will also require you to take the "advanced" portion of the test, which for you would be in psychology (it consists of multiple choice questions pertaining to all the different fields within psychology).
Usually programs will use a cut off. If you don't get above a certain score, they may not even look at your application. Graduate Study in Psychology lists the average GRE scores for students who are accepted into a program. A few less competitive graduate schools may not have a cut off score or may not require you to take the GREs at all.
It is very unwise to take the GREs cold. Prepare for it. Bookstores sell manuals that describe strategies for taking the test and provide sample exams. There also are classes you can take, such as the Stanley Kaplan preparatory courses. A good way to study for the Advanced test in psychology is to get a good intro psychology textbook and memorize as much of it as you can. Some schools also may require you to take additional standardized tests such as the Miller Analogies Test, alias the "MAT" (and you thought the GREs were hard!). There are books that can help you prepare for these exams.
-- Your Personal
There probably is wide variation in how graduate schools react to your written personal statement in which you describe yourself and your reasons for going to graduate school. Some might take it quite seriously, others may not pay much attention. Play it safe. Spend some time on it and prepare a well thought out letter. Avoid platitudes like "I'm really interested in psychology" or, for a counseling or clinical program, "I want to work with people." Would you be applying for graduate school if you didn't feel that way?
If you really want to do it right, TAILOR your letter for each program you apply to. Say something about your background, your accomplishments, what exactly about psychology interests you, what you plan to do in the future BUT ALSO STATE EXACTLY WHY IT IS YOU ARE APPLYING TO THAT PROGRAM. What is it about the program that attracts you? How will it benefit you, and what do you have to offer it? Be as specific as possible. If you are interested in one or more of their faculty member's work, say so! If you are interested in a particular program, say so! And explain why you are interested!
Keep the letter short - maybe two or three pages, TYPED. Experiment with being both creative and informative. Ask friends and professors for comments on what you have written.
-- Field Work
and Other Practical Experiences
Some graduate programs may be impressed by your having had some substantial practical experience in a setting related to their program. For example, experimental programs may find it appealing that a student helped out with a professor's research project. A developmental program may be impressed by someone who worked with developmentally handicapped children. Clinical and counseling psychology may think it is important that a student worked in a mental health setting.
There are many opportunities out there that your professors can tell you about. You also can volunteer on your own or look for part time/summer jobs. However, there is no guarantee that a graduate program will highly value this experience. Those programs that emphasize research training (including clinical psychology programs) may be more concerned about your academic achievements than your practical experiences.
Many programs will require that you have taken undergraduate courses in psychology and a certain amount of credits in psychology. Courses such as statistics and experimental psychology often are required. If you will be completing the major in our department, you probably will have no problem with this. But specialized programs may require specialized courses. Check Graduate Study in Psychology which will list the requirements for each graduate program.
-- Using the
Shot gun Method
To maximize the possibility of getting in, apply to many schools maybe twelve or more. Apply to a few really outstanding programs: who knows, you may get lucky! Also apply to a few programs that are less competitive, so you'll be guaranteed of receiving at least one or two offers! And don't be too upset if you do get rejected, because the odds are that some programs WILL reject your application.
If you're willing to go to another part of the country, you will have a wider selection of schools to apply to, and a better chance of being accepted. There are very good programs in parts of the country that people perceive to be less desirable areas to live.
-- Going for
a Visit and Interviewing
If possible, go see the school even before you know whether or not you are accepted. Talk to the faculty and students. It may help you decide whether or not you want to be there. It also may help you make an impression on them. Making a personal contact can be very effective (even on the phone) as long as you are not pressuring people or being a pest in some way! One really effective way to make a contact is to e-mail a professor that you might be interested in working with. Once you've established contact and correspondence via e-mail, you're getting one foot in the door.
Definitely try to visit the programs that accept you! Talk to the faculty, find out everything you can about the program. Do they feel like people you could work with? Are they friendly, helpful, cold, obnoxious? Make a point of talking to beginning and advanced students - they will tell you things that the faculty may not.
Applying Now or Applying Later
Many students think that they should apply to graduate school immediately after they finish their undergraduate work. If you are the type of person who will lose steam (i.e., motivation) after taking a year or two off, then maybe you should apply right away. But it's not critical that you apply immediately. If you take a year or two off to work, in order to make money for graduate school or to get some experience in psychology, that could look good in the eyes of the graduate program. They like motivated, determined people. But if you drift from job to job, or if you aren't working at all and just amble about with no rhyme or reason, that might look bad.
Older students who have been working a number of years or raising a family sometimes think they are in a one down position. Again, this is not necessarily true. If there is evidence that you are a conscientious and motivated person, then those are points in your favor. Some counseling and clinical psychology programs prefer older students. They believe they are more mature, responsible people. Many counseling psychology programs are specifically designed for older people who may be working full time and/or have families.
Education costs money. Graduate school is no exception. Many programs may offer you some financial support. Some programs, usually those at state universities, will support students for the first few years in the form of "stipends." Others may offer a "Research Assistantship" in which you help a professor conduct his or her research in return for pay. For a "Teaching Assistantship" you would help a professor teach a course, or perhaps teach a section yourself, in return for pay. You may not get as much money as you want but, as Jagger might say, you'll get what you need (just enough to live on). Also, some universities may waive tuition. Find out about stipends, teaching and research assistantships, and tuition remission before you decide to go to a program.
Most of this information
in its original form was taken from: http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/gradschl.html