How Hard Is It to Get Into Grad School for Psychology

Last Updated on January 15, 2023 by Team College Learners

Getting into grad school for psychology can be hard but with the right preparation and the tips below, you will be well on your way to getting in. While there are a few different ways to get into grad school like taking tons of psychology classes throughout college and turning them all into research projects, we’re going to discuss a more common way that most people take. This method is more focused and can help give you an extra edge when it comes to getting accepted.

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Five tips to get into graduate school

Steps for Getting Into Psychology Graduate School

Admission to PhD programs in clinical psychology is very competitive. Ratios of 300 applicants to 8 positions are common (though perhaps 10-15 people would have to be accepted to fill the 8 slots; some who are accepted decide to go elsewhere, or enter a different kind of graduate or professional program ). Different programs emphasize different characteristics, but it is safe to say that in all programs GREs and GPAs are examined closely. Graduate students in Northwestern’s program have averaged over 1400 on the GRE (Verbal plus Quantitative), with an average GPA of over 3.5. (GPAs for the last two years of undergraduate schooling are most important, so students with uneven early records have a good chance if they’ve improved.) There are respectable programs whose students score lower on these measures, but students who have lower than 1200 on the GRE or a GPA of less than 3.3 can expect to find it difficult to get into a top graduate program in clinical psychology without other special qualifications.

If you want to work in the field of psychology, you’ll need to earn at least an undergraduate college-level education. While there are some jobs available to those with bachelor’s degrees, most careers in the field require a master’s degree or higher.

There are many options when it comes to graduate school and a lot of things for you to consider. You’ll need to figure out the path you want your career to take, determine what you want in a program, and meet the admissions requirements of your top-choice schools. The exact steps you’ll take will depend on your goals, but in general, there are six main points to hit as you work to earn your grad school acceptance.

Start Here

Step 1

Pick a Career Path or Specialty

You’ll need to make some decisions about what you want the focus of your career to be before you apply to school. There are many specialties within psychology but not every school will offer all of them. Some paths you could take with an advanced degree include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Geriatric psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • School psychology
  • Sports psychology

It can help to volunteer in a few different settings to get a feel for the specialty you’d like to pursue. You might even be able to find full-time employment if you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, working under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Either way, gaining more experience can help you narrow down your options and plan ahead for your career.

Step 2

Choose a Degree

Your second step should be choosing the exact level of degree you need. There are three primary paths you can take in psychology grad school—pursuing a master’s, a specialist, or a doctoral degree. The degree you ultimately earn will depend on your goals, but keep in mind that if you plan to become a legally licensed psychologist, a doctoral degree is almost always needed.

Master’s degrees

You can choose to pursue either a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology. One might focus more on conducting research and the other working with patients, but both options will prepare you to take the first steps in your career. Those with a master’s can work as psychological assistants or associates, or in related fields like substance abuse counseling or social services. Unlike other licensed psychologists who need a doctoral degree, school psychologists may only need a master’s.

Specialist degrees

Specialist degrees sit between the master’s and doctoral degrees and are typically designed for school psychology. The most common option is the Education Specialist (EdS) degree, which often takes at least three years compared to the two years it usually takes for a master’s.

Doctoral degrees

Psychology students who wish to get licensed and practice independently will want to work toward earning their doctoral degree. While there are a few different options, in most cases you’ll choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. PhDs focus more heavily on research and methodology, while PsyD degrees emphasize the practical application of psychological knowledge.

You might also have the option to pursue a dual degree, which lets you simultaneously earn your master’s and doctorate at an accelerated rate. This can be an especially good option for those who wish to work in a more highly specialized area. For example, if you want to work specifically with issues affecting females, you might get a master’s in women’s studies before earning a PhD in clinical psychology.

Step 3

Find the Right Grad School Program

Once you know what specialty and type of degree you want, it’s time to start looking into programs. With over 1,500 available across the United States, this process can seem overwhelming. Of course, the program you choose should fit your individual needs and goals, but you can use the following list of things to consider to help guide you along the way.

Look for Accreditation

It’s important to make sure that the program you’re considering is accredited. Accreditation verifies that the education you’ll receive meets the quality standards set forth in the field. Attending a non-accredited school could mean you won’t qualify for federal financial aid and often that you won’t be allowed to earn your licensure.

So, how do you know if a program is accredited? In the United States, the easiest way is to check with the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA keeps an up-to-date database of accreditation status for psychology programs, as well as for residencies and internships.

Online vs. in-classroom programs

Deciding whether to attend school online or in the classroom is another important step. There’s no difference in the education you’ll receive, so the choice depends on your lifestyle and learning needs. Students who have commitments such as a full-time job or young children at home might find that an online program is the perfect fit. Conversely, some students learn better in a more structured and traditional classroom environment, with daily interactions with their professors and peers.

Keep in mind that even if you do choose an online option, you won’t be entirely behind a computer. While your classroom courses can be taken online, any lab work, clinical internships, or other hands-on experience will need to happen in person.

Ask Questions About the Program

There are many important things to consider as you research and compare programs. Before making your final choice, make sure you know (and like) the answers to the following questions:

  • Is this program accredited?
  • Does the program offer the specialty and type of degree I want?
  • What are the credentials of the faculty?
  • Does this program have a fieldwork requirement?
  • How large are the class sizes?
  • How much interaction will I get with faculty and other students?
  • Does this program offer career placement or assistance?
  • What kind of jobs do graduates find?
  • What percentage of graduates pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology?
  • Is the tuition affordable for me?
  • Are there any financial aid options associated with this program?

Step 4

Meet or Exceed the Admission Requirements

Once you’ve narrowed down your top-choice schools, you’ll need to make sure you meet their admission requirements. Different programs require different things, but there are generally some standard benchmarks to meet:

  • A solid GPA: GPA requirements vary, but most programs look for at least a 3.0, if not closer to a 3.5.
  • Good scores on the GRE: Some programs don’t ask you to submit scores on the GRE, but many of them do. According to the Educational Testing Service, those in the social and behavioral sciences earn average scores of around 153 on Verbal Reasoning, 151 on Quantitative Reasoning, and a 3.9 on Analytical Writing. Aspiring grad students might also need to take the GRE Subject Test specifically for psychology. As of 2018, the average total score was 618.
  • An essay: Most schools will ask you to submit an essay along with your application. This will likely be about your professional aspirations or past experiences in the field. For competitive schools, you’ll want to aim to be within the 75th percentile on your score.
  • An in-person interview: You’ll meet with an admissions representative to answer questions about your life, educational, and professional experiences. This is also a time when you can ask questions to see if the program meets your needs.
  • Letters of recommendation: Your school will likely ask for at least two letters of recommendation. These will need to be from people who can speak to your ability to succeed in the program such as your undergraduate professors or work supervisors.

Other requirements will vary depending on the program, as well as your educational background. For example, if your bachelor’s degree wasn’t in psychology, you might need to take a semester or two of undergrad prerequisites such as statistics, biology, and social sciences.

Counseling/Clinical Psychology Graduate School Interview Questions – UConn  Center for Career Development

Step 5

Make Your Application Stand Out

Along with meeting or exceeding the standard requirements, there are other things you can do to make your application stand out. Volunteering in the mental health field will not only give you valuable experience that can help you determine the specialty you want to pursue, but it will also look good on your application. What’s more, volunteer positions are an ideal place to network with other professionals in the field and make connections that can earn you strong letters of recommendation.

You’ll stand out especially, experts say, if you get some research experience and write a compelling statement of purpose. Work in a lab setting to prove that you understand research methodology and documentation will show commitment and give you a deeper academic experience. But because this is ultimately a field in which you’ll be working with and helping people, it will also help to draft an engaging story detailing your passion for psychology. Describing what drew you to this area of study in a college essay-style statement of purpose—which can be a stand-alone document or part of your essay—will demonstrate next-level dedication to the field.

As simple as it sounds, cover the basics. Get started on your applications early so you’ll have plenty of time to get your application materials together and have advance notice of any supplemental materials a school may require.

Step 6

Plan to Pay for School

Of course, getting into the program of your choice is just a part of the process. You also need to figure out how to pay for it. Thankfully, there are plenty of options to help you fund your education, including loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships, and work-study programs. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will determine any need-based assistance you qualify for.

Once you know what you’ll receive from the government, you can supplement that aid in other ways. There are countless scholarships, grants, and fellowships available through psychology associations and private organizations. Those who are pursuing their doctoral degrees might also receive full or part tuition remission for assisting with research or teaching. If you’re working while going to school, your employer might offer contributions to your education.

If you’ve exhausted your options for free financial aid, loans can fill in the gaps. If you do end up needing loans, keep in mind that federal assistance often has advantages to loans from private banks, including potentially lower and fixed interest rates and the possibility for loan forgiveness.  

Student loan forgiveness

You may qualify for student loan forgiveness through the government if you meet certain criteria.

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, psychologists could have some of all of their remaining loans erased if work full-time in a government or nonprofit agency and have made at least 120 qualifying repayments.
  • National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program: Psychologists and counselors are eligible to receive up to $50,000 for two years of service in a location considered a shortage area. There’s also the change to amend the two-year contract to receive up to $100,000 for 5 years of service.

Psychology Grad School Requirements


As you begin to apply to graduate school, know that schools look at the whole person in the decision-making process. This begins with an assessment of an applicant’s academic performance using school transcripts. Schools will review your college transcripts to identify coursework you took, grades you received, and your overall pattern of performance. They pay particular interest to the last 60 credits of your undergraduate degree. This comprises your junior and senior years when you take upper-level courses in psychology or another major. Generally, graduate schools in psychology want to see an average 3.0 cumulative GPA.

While many graduate schools in psychology will not consider a student with less than a 3.0 GPA, competitive GRE scores override a lower GPA. Find out the expectations of each school and try to exceed them or provide supplemental evidence of your readiness for graduate school. If you attended more than one college, present all of your transcripts to each graduate school unless they say otherwise. You can order transcripts in person, online, or in writing. Graduate schools generally want official transcripts. Some schools provide them for free. Start the ordering process early to avoid any delays that could hamper your progression through the application process.

Test Scores

ETS allows test takers to designate up to four recipients of your GRE general test and/or subject test scores. The organization provides this service as part of your test fee. You submit the request at the center when taking the computer version or at the time of registration for the paper version. You pay $27 for each additional recipient.


The selection committee for graduate students at each institution appraises all aspects of their educational and professional life. They review your resume to measure your accomplishments since you left college, and they look for any experience in psychology that might bolster your chance of admittance.

A strong resume makes up for lackluster academic performance or poor GRE test scores. Some programs require specific experience, depending on the needs of the professors and department. Emphasize the most relevant and recent work experience applicable to psychology. If you do not boast experience or you have an employment gap, remember that skills from other professions can transfer over. Your research and data analytics skills as a marketing associate matter to a professor seeking a research assistant.

Those with no experience should find volunteer work, community service, or internships applicable to responsibilities in their area of psychology. High-impact volunteerism over the summer could likewise make the difference to a selection committee. Psychology majors need a desire to help others and an ability to juggle work, family, and community.

Essays and Personal Statements

Admissions committees review information from piles of applicants before they make a decision. Your job remains to stand out in the crowded field, a task facilitated by a personal statement or essay. Some people get confused about the difference between a statement of purpose and an essay or personal statement. A statement of purpose answers specific questions about why you chose psychology, your interest in the particular program, your proposed plan of study, and your short-term and long-term career goals. An essay outlines your experience and qualifications in the field, as well as how you fit in the program.

Always submit an essay even if it’s optional; essays allow you to personalize your application in a way that other materials in the package cannot. Think about the essay as a marketing tool. Before you start writing, think about the main takeaways. Why should they choose me? Why do I fit into this department? What will I accomplish with this degree from this department? In your preliminary notes, structure the essay with a dynamic and coherent theme or narrative, and begin the essay with a hook that grabs the attention of the reader. Highlight your strengths, give specific examples of coursework or research, and succinctly discuss your relationships with faculty mentors. Keep the essay to the established length. Use as many credible resources as you can find to complete a winning essay.

Case Study Analysis

As you study how to apply for graduate school, consider that schools may require you to craft a case-study analysis as part of their application. First, follow their guidelines. The case study may focus on a real or imagined individual, group, or event. Alternately, they may focus on a particular research area or topic. The graduate school may require that you provide a background history and present a diagnosis using the relevant Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. In the second part of the analysis, you will outline the needed intervention. This case study provides the admissions officer with some insight into you and your expertise. It highlights what you know, your analytical skills, and where you fit within the particular program.

Letters of Recommendation

Schools request two to four letters of recommendation from former advisers, professors, research mentors, or employers. Begin this process as soon as possible to give the people you asked for a recommendation ample time to write a letter on your behalf. Schools want to hear from those with experience working directly with you, so make sure to ask someone who can speak accurately on your behalf.

Once they agree, provide them with a packet of your application materials, which may include a personal statement and points that deserve inclusion, for their reference. Schools want to hear about your research experience, presentations, scholarship, and your overall performance as a student. You may certainly ask those giving you references to speak to certain aspects of your work. Check in with those recommending you a few weeks before the application deadline to ensure that they complete and send their letter.

English Proficiency Tests

English proficiency tests, such as the test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL), measure a test taker’s language skills. TOEFL remains the most widely used academic English-proficiency test. Schools generally request that students complete the test if English is not their first language. Two lesser known tests, the international English language testing system and the test of English for international communication, also test students’ and workers’ English language proficiency. The TOEFL, which is delivered online, tests reading and listening skills when test takers answer questions after they read sample passages. The TOEFL also tests speaking and writing skills when test takers vocally respond or express an opinion about a particular topic.

Background Check

Schools may require you to submit to a background check for participation in internships, practicums, and other fieldwork, especially when working with minors; forensics; or in governmental positions at the local, state, and federal level. Schools may review driving records, criminal or court records, sex-offenders lists, and state licensure records. Some states may require fingerprinting. Make sure to mention any anomalies in your application.

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