Applying to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology: A Guide for Prospective Students, Advisors, and Faculty Part II
Posted September 12, 2019
By Parky Lau, Joseph Rootman, Jill Robinson, & Lesley Lutes
Evaluation CriteriaAlthough the admission criteria are fairly standardized among institutions (e.g., at least an A- average, research experience), there is a fair bit of ambiguity as to what makes an application successful aside from the quantitative scores observed in GPA and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores. In the following text, we examine the general evaluation criteria relevant to application development: 1) Academic Background, 2) Graduate Record Examination and Psychology Subject GRE, 3) Skills and Professional Development, 4) Personal Statement, and 5) Tri-Council Funding Application for Canadian Graduate Programs. Note that these criteria are distinct from what students are evaluated on come interview day, such as preparation, professionalism, fit for clinical work/program/supervisor, and other factors outside your control, but a complete review of these factors are beyond the scope of this guide.
Academic BackgroundThe quality of undergrad institution is likely set in stone. However, for more keen students beginning their undergraduate education, it is advisable to pursue a 4-year honors degree in psychology. No matter the prestige of the institution, students should strive to excel in courses, participate in research, work towards publication, and become involved in the psychology department.Although an honors degree may not be necessary at all institutions, honors programs tend to confer many academic and professional benefits for students, such as designing a research study, writing a thesis document, presenting research at academic conferences, and being surrounded by like-minded individuals who can support and inspire one another to succeed. The vast majority of students will hold an honors degree before entering graduate school. If a student is too late in their program to enroll in the honors program before graduation, they may want to explore the possibility of pursuing a postgraduate honors degree or other avenues of obtaining the necessary research experience. Students may pursue directed studies projects with professors, complete undergraduate upper-level statistics courses, and work in a lab that will allow the student to see a research project through from the initial phases to end product. Additionally, as noted earlier, obtaining an MA within a relevant field, gaining further research experience, and applying to clinical programs at the Ph.D. level may be a reasonable pathway to clinical programs for students feeling unprepared post-BA. Not all institutions will provide students with this opportunity, so it is imperative that interested individuals speak with their academic advisor early in their program.
Undergraduate institutions generally require a minimum cumulative GPA of A- over the last two years (or at least 80%); however, successful applicants typically have a substantially higher GPA. Although having lower marks does not necessarily preclude anyone from admission, especially if they have strong credentials in other areas (the same applies with GRE scores), it is important to note that certain institutions may use this as a benchmark to cull applicants if there is a large volume of applications (which is the case for most programs). For example, UBC uses a minimum first-class standard of 80% GPA as a requirement for entrance to the program. Nonetheless, applicants should not be discouraged but they should be aware that several low or failing grades, especially in psychology-related courses, will not bode well for any application. If this is the case, it would be advisable that the student pursue a terminal master’s degree program in a related field before applying to the clinical program in order to demonstrate competence, success, and productivity at the graduate level.
Graduate Record Examination and Psychology Subject GREGRE scores on the general test are broken into three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Although a scaled score is calculated, what is most important is standing relative to other individuals (i.e., percentile rank). Applicants should attempt to aim for at least the 80th percentile in each section to be competitive. Looking up the statistics of previously admitted students may be more useful than a specific percentile demarcation. This data can often be found under the “student admissions, outcomes and other data” section of institutional websites of all accredited programs. Applicants with lower scores should remember that the GRE is only one part of the application and is unlikely to be the sole deciding factor in admissions. However, given the low acceptance rates, test scores are one of the main metrics used to remove people from the interview list. The Psychology Subject GRE is typically weighted less and is unlikely to be the deciding factor in gaining admission. However, the Subject GRE can be an important factor, especially for applicants that majored in a topic outside of psychology - a low score, in either case, can be a red flag. If you received an undergraduate degree outside of psychology, it is imperative that you take the Psychology Subject test to demonstrate your aptitude for psychology. In many schools, the Psychology Subject GRE is optional, but this varies by school. If an applicant scores well on the subject test, it may offset a less than desirable academic record by demonstrating proficiency in the foundations in psychology and its associated sub-disciplines. If you come across a school that does not require the GRE, be wary as this may be a big red flag. Many of the for-profit schools (as opposed to non-profit public schools) will not require the applicant to submit GRE scores. If it seems too good to be true, it likely is! In other words, if you are not required to put in the grunt work, the education you will receive may be subpar (and expensive) compared to schools that have stringent requirements for admission.
Preparation for the GRE tests will vary from student to student. Plenty of test preparation courses are available (Kaplan, Magoosh, Princeton Review) to help individuals learn the content tested on the GRE. That being said, it is worth noting that the material covered in the general GRE is not inherently difficult to grasp; rather, the variation in test scores comes from speed and accuracy which can only be attained through practice. For students who consider themselves to be poor test takers, that expect to have some trouble with GRE material, or who are not well-suited for independent study, the Kaplan or other courses are likely to be well worth the cost and may be necessary for success on the GRE. This is another case of short term (financial) pain, for long term (financial) gain. In addition to learning the content tested on the GRE, preparation courses also teach “test logic.” An alternative option is to use free online courses (e.g., Greenlighttestprep) or purchase used preparation materials from students who have taken the test in the recent past. For this path of independent study, a local GRE tutor may be a supplementary option for difficult material. Practice tests (e.g., Princeton, Manhattan, Magoosh, ETS), on the other hand, are extremely valuable, if not necessary, in assessing progress. Finally, if an applicant has received their scores and is unsure if they are sufficient for acceptance into desired institutions, we recommend they contact their potential supervisors to ask if they would recommend retaking the test before putting down a deposit for another date. Speaking with supervisors may also be helpful for students torn on taking the psychology GRE which is often optional. Recommended study resources for both the subject and general GRE are listed in the appendix. In summary, students should strive to excel the GRE tests. The short-term financial pain of purchasing a Kaplan study course or attending tutoring sessions may be well worth the long-term professional gain!
Skills and Professional DevelopmentIn this section we discuss the necessary skills and qualifications desired by MA/Ph.D. graduate programs in clinical psychology. Although clinical psychology programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner model, first and foremost students are trained as researchers. The important thing to note here is that clinical programs intend to train their students as clinicians from the bottom up, whereas they have more rigorous expectation concerning incoming students’ abilities and past experience as researchers. Consequently, capacity as an independent scientist is the most important quality to cultivate during undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Research experience can be obtained in many ways: volunteering in psychology or related research laboratories, completing directed studies (i.e., working in labs or undertaking small research projects for course credit), or completing an honors thesis. Importantly, we would embolden those considering applications to join labs in which they have a budding interest and take the initiative to demonstrate to the supervisor their capacity as a researcher. Research Assistants (RAs) often feel grateful for their position and typically perform a variety of tasks such as data cleaning and entry, transcription, and running studies. RAs should feel comfortable asking for more responsibilities and opportunities for professional development should they want to broaden their experiences. By becoming involved in a research lab, applicants put themselves in a position to take on more responsibilities, which may cascade into paid/leadership positions and tangible evidence of contributions (e.g., co-authorships on presentations and potentially scholarly publications). Arguably, the best way to gain admittance into graduate school is to demonstrate a capability to conduct graduate-level work. The gold standard here would be a publication or several presentations, but any evidence that the applicant can think like a scientist (study development, hypothesis generation, etc.) would also lend well to an application. In that way, the nature of lab’s focus (e.g., health, cognitive, animal-based) is less important; rather, obtaining experience and applying yourself will foster these invaluable skills and allow supervisors to write strong letters.
Given the emphasis on research potential, applicants should demonstrate their proficiency to conduct research - namely understanding and applying research methodology and statistical analysis. Applicants should strive to do very well in courses involving research methods and statistics and should not be afraid to take additional advanced courses (or retake one of these critical courses if they did not obtain a strong grade – if permitted). Application committees will pay particular attention to grades in courses related to research methodology and statistics. In conjunction, applicants can also take the initiative to help their supervisor or graduate students design research materials and ask to assist in analysis. A letter of recommendation that speaks about how a student helped design a study or present research at a conference will go a long way in furthering an application.
Applicants may wonder whether they should delve into a single stream of research in one lab or volunteer with multiple labs to gain experience - the age-old question of breadth or depth. The answer, albeit arduous, is that a mix of both would be ideal. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and both can lend well to an application. The benefits of gaining depth into a field of research will inform an appreciation for the work being conducted. An applicant’s extensive training and research may be looked upon favorably by potential supervisors who study a similar field during application periods.
Although depth in training is invaluable, applicants should not neglect obtaining a breadth of research experience as well. Research labs often operationalize and examine variables and hypotheses in different ways and train their RAs to do a variety of unique tasks. Consequently, they will develop a large range of marketable skills. Working in multiple labs may also confer a more nuanced understanding of research, however, quantity is not analogous to quality. Students should strive to excel in whatever position they hold; doing a great job as an RA in one lab will hold more weight and confer a stronger letter of recommendation than performing less than optimally in 2 or 3 labs.
Lastly, clinical psychology programs are multi-faceted and often require that students wear many hats each day and throughout the program. Students may find themselves in a lecture in the morning, meeting a client afterward, consulting on research in their lab, submitting an abstract to a conference, and spending their evening writing an academic paper. As such, programs are seeking individuals with exceptional organization and time management skills. Learning to effectively switch between different hats in your roles as a graduate student is an incredible skill that will serve you well throughout your career. Students who succeed in graduate school are those who are self-directive and able to manage a heavy and demanding workload. The workload of clinical psychology programs can lead to burnout, mental health concerns, and general unhappiness if not managed appropriately. Students who are successful in these programs are those who are insightful about their mental health, self-care, and work-life balance. Programs are not looking for students who are immune to stress and mental health issues. Instead, they are interested in the students who have insight into their own health and are able to make adjustments when less than ideal circumstances crop up (as they will in graduate school). Students who demonstrate high degrees of self-awareness and self-reflection and who are proactive in caring for their physical and mental health are the students that succeed in graduate school.
Personal StatementThe personal statement is perhaps the most time intensive portion of the application outside of the GREs. With that in mind, we recommend applicants start drafts in September. While each school requires a unique personal statement tailored to that program, a lot of programs have several different required questions which tend to ask variations of the same question. Typically, a program will ask a question to the effect of “What makes you a good fit for our program?” Responses to this question will vary from person to person but there are a number of areas that we recommend covering. Specifically, the primary goal is to prove that the applicant can think and act like a clinical scientist as evidenced by research experience, coursework, GPA, GRE, and any other experiences and skills they have obtained. Applicants will also want to outline goals for their future and how this specific program will help them attain those goals.
First, many people start with a personal anecdote about why they want to pursue clinical psychology but launching into a deeply personal montage may be regrettable. These introductory statements should be used to quickly lead readers to the reasons why clinical psychology is appealing to the applicant. Applicants must be conscious of how much information they disclose. They should refrain from saying that they are interested in Clinical Psychology because of their own (or a loved one’s) past experience with mental health concerns (refer to the “Kisses of Death” mentioned previously in the article). Rather, they should express their passion for a specific area of research and focus on the innate desire they have to conduct meaningful research. While some applicants end goal may be to focus on clinical practice, these MA/Ph.D. programs are interested in applicants that are passionate about research as well. It is important that applicants present a balanced picture of themselves. If applicants have no affinity or interest in research, it might be advisable to pursue other career options (e.g., Psy.D.).
Following this, the bulk of the statement should highlight how past experiences have been preparatory for entering a rigorous clinical psychology graduate program. Here, they should point to their overall GPA (highlighting their psychology marks) and any awards or scholarships they hold. Applicants should avoid simply restating their CV. Instead, they should expand on what they learned from their research experiences and link them to their success in the MA/Ph.D. program. Recycling old ideas should also be avoided. If one research experience taught the student to run proper analyses, applicants should make sure that the next experience they speak to expands on and provides them with new knowledge or opportunity. Applicants should aim to cover time management, self-motivation, experience working with clinical populations, writing and communication skills, professionalism, statistics training and experience with study designs. Applicants should use concrete examples to prove that they have the experience to manage the rigor of a clinical psychology graduate program.
Finally, applicants will want to end their statement with a section that refers to the reasons why this program is the best fit for them. Here, they will primarily be discussing the fit with their supervisor(s) and their research program. It is also good to briefly point out other unique portions of the program (refer to their clinical handbook) that are of interest. Most programs request a statement of approximately 2 single-spaced pages in length. Applicants should use all the space given. Applicants should aim to have someone edit their statement and incorporate useful feedback. Applicants should scour the document for typos (e.g., repeated words, mixed up letters, etc.), grammar, and formatting before sending it off.
Tri-Council Funding Application for Canadian Graduate ProgramsThe Tri-Council funding application is relatively straightforward. First, applicants need to decide which funding agency will best fit their research proposal (i.e., NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR). For clinical students, CIHR (clinical research) and SSHRC (social research) funding agencies often fit the bill. Applicants should review the agencies respective mandates to ensure they are applying to the proper agency. Applicants may also send a summary of their proposal to each agency to determine whether their proposal fits within the mandated guidelines of the agency. The application requires two academic recommendations, a Canadian Common CV (CCV), and a hypothetical research proposal. The doctoral award also requires a list of research contributions, an online application, and a recommendation from your department head. Creating a CCV requires applicants to input their current CV into the format required on the government website.
The hypothetical research proposal will likely be a maximum of 1 to 2 pages in length (not including references) and should include the following sections: background, objective and hypothesis, methods, and significance. When considering a potential project, the most important factor is feasibility. Applicants should choose a research project that is manageable and can be completed throughout their masters. Moreover, applicants should keep in mind that no one will hold them to this project; rather, this proposal is a means of assessing their ability to formally write like a scientist. Few resources are available to guide applicants through writing this proposal, but they should seek out professors and graduate students in their program for guidance. Their scholarly writing center, college of graduate studies, or library may also host Tri-Council application writing workshops as these grants often span several disciplines. For more resources, prospective applicants can find the Tri-Council Funding awards information and application process at the links in the Appendix section.
Funding Opportunities in the United States
Funding opportunities in the United States vary greatly from program to program in the following areas: tuition, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. In regards to tuition, there are some programs, such as Louisiana State University that provide full remission of tuition. Some programs also guarantee teaching or research assistantships. For instance, Arizona State University typically provides doctoral students with 20 hour-per-week graduate teaching or research assistantships. While a full discussion of differences in funding of clinical programs in United States is beyond the scope of this guide, The Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition book provides a more comprehensive discussion of these individual funding opportunities. With respect to federal agencies, there are also funding opportunities from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Final ThoughtsBefore concluding, a few miscellaneous pieces of advice are worth noting. Applicants should remember that it is very common for individuals to apply multiple years in a row, with acceptance rates ranging between 5% and 8% of all applicants per year. Students should not be discouraged if they have been rejected on their first, or even second, try and they should take the time in between application years to bolster their experiences. If need be, applicants should rewrite the GRE or volunteer with different populations to gain clinical experience. Applicants should feel comfortable reaching out for help. Graduate students and your supervisors have been through the process and are often willing to help in more ways than might be expected. Finally, applicants may wonder if they should take a year off before applying. While in theory, applying in their final year of undergrad cannot hurt, applicants must recognize that this application process is no small or inexpensive feat. With that in mind, applicants who juggle the application process with their coursework might be negatively impacting their ability to excel in their commitments. If they are struggling to balance 5 courses, study for the GRE, complete an honors thesis, and volunteer in a research lab(s), their applications may suffer. Many people take a year or more off after completing their undergraduate degree. The most important thing is not that you take a year off, but rather, it is what you do with that year. Work as a full-time research assistant. Work on publishing your thesis. Keep doing research with your mentor and colleagues. Submit, attend, and present at local, regional, or even a national conference.
No matter the path that a student takes, the key is to remember that it is often a long and arduous process to becoming a clinical practitioner or research scientist in clinical psychology. Everyone will pay their dues at some point throughout the process. Some students pay in the beginning by obtaining first class grades in all their undergraduate courses, some students pay in the middle by completing a terminal master’s program to demonstrate their ability to conduct high-quality research, and still others will pay at the end by taking an extra year in their Ph.D. to complete their dissertation following their internship/residency.
In summary, we hope this guide has given applicants, advisors, and faculty a greater understanding of the components that should be considered before applying for clinical psychology programs. We encourage students and advisors to use the research and data regarding applications to make informed decisions about how and when to apply to clinical psychology programs. While clinical psychology programs can certainly be competitive, many people have managed to succeed in these endeavors and an applicant equipped with the knowledge shared in this guide is already one step ahead in the process!
American Psychological Association. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition. American Psychological Association.
Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Teaching of Psychology,33(1), 19-24. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3301_5
Canada Graduate Scholarships – Master’s Program Resources. http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/CGSHarmonization-HarmonizationBESC_eng.asp
Choukas-Bradley, S. (2011, October). A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley, M.A. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/psychology/_files/PDF/diversitypdfs/A%20Students%20Perspective%20on%20Applying%20to%20Graduate%20School%20in%20Clinical%20Psychology.pdf
CIHR Doctoral Research Award. https://www.researchnet-recherchenet.ca/rnr16/LoginServlet?language=E
Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Doctoral Scholarships and SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships. http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/fellowships/doctoral-doctorat-eng.aspx
Prinstein, M. (2017). Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from http://mitch.web.unc.edu/files/2017/02/MitchGradSchoolAdvice.pdf
GRE e-rater (to be used in order to get a sense of GRE score)
Crash Course Psychology (used as Joey’s primary resource for subject GRE studying with great success)
Jill M. Robinson, M.A. is currently a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of British Columbia | Okanagan. Her research interests include cognitive models of substance use as well as prevention and intervention of adolescent substance use. Jill currently works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders.
Parky Lau is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at Ryerson University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Parky obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He currently works in the Sleep and Depression Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Carney examining cognitive factors related to the development and maintenance of insomnia. His professional interests include mentoring undergraduate students, attending research conferences, and playing an active part in shaping organizations within Ryerson University. Parky can be reached by email at [email protected]
Joseph Rootman is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus. He moved to the Okanagan after completing his undergraduate education in Psychology at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver campus. He is currently a researcher in the Therapeutic, Recreational & Problematic Substance Use Lab under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh. Joseph’s primary research interest surrounds the use of Cannabis as a substitute for other, more harmful, drugs. Beyond research, Joseph is the Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Okanagan Chapter. Joseph can be reached by email at [email protected]
Dr. Lutes is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. Dr. Lutes is a clinical health and registered psychologist whose area of research is in developing innovative cognitive and behavioral treatment interventions focused on lifestyle change and chronic disease management for conditions such as obesity and diabetes and their co-morbid psychological correlates including distress, depression and well-being. She also does research/advocacy/policy change in the area of integrated primary care and training the next generation of psychologists for healthcare delivery in the 21st century. She has secured over $7 million dollars in grant funding, published over 60-peer-reviewed publications, and had over 100 oral presentations to date. She is on the national executive of the Canadian Council for Professional Psychology Programs (CCPPP) and is on the editorial board for the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. She is the director of the healthy weight clinic and the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence (CORE) at the UBC. Dr. Lutes can be reached at [email protected]