5 Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

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Clinical psychology is the most popular and competitive area of study in psychology, and arguably the most competitive of graduate programs in all social and hard sciences. Counseling psychology is a close second. If you hope to study either of these fields you must be on your game. Even the best applicants don't get into all of their top choices and some don't get into any. How do you improve your odds of gaining admission to a graduate program in clinical or counseling psychology?

Below are five tips to help you improve your application to psychology doctoral programs.

1. Obtain Excellent GRE Scores:
This one is a no-brainer. Your scores on the Graduate Record Exam will make or break your doctoral application in competitive fields like clinical and counseling psychology. High GRE scores are important because many clinical and counseling doctoral programs receive hundreds of applications. When a graduate program receives more than 500 applications, the admissions committee looks for ways to weed out applicants. GRE scores are a common way of narrowing the applicant pool.

Excellent GRE scores not only gain you admittance to graduate school, but they may also get you funding. For example, applicants with high GRE quantitative scores might be offered teaching assistantships in statistics or a research assistantship with a faculty member.

2. Get Research Experience:
Applicants to graduate school in clinical and counseling psychology need research experience.

Many students believe that applied experience working with people will help their application. They look for internships, practica and volunteer experiences. Unfortunately applied experience is useful only in small doses. Instead doctoral programs, specifically PhD programs, look for research experience and research experience trumps all other extracurricular activities.

Research experience is out of class experience conducting research under the supervision of a faculty member. It usually begins with working on a professor's research. Volunteer to help in any way needed. This might include administering surveys, entering data, and looking up research articles. It often also includes tasks like copying and collating papers. Competitive applicants design and carry out independent studies under the supervision of faculty member. Ideally some of your research will be presented at undergraduate and regional conferences, and perhaps even published in an undergraduate journal.

3. Understand the Value of Research Experience:
Research experience shows that you can think like a scientist, problem solve, and understand how to ask and answer scientific questions. Faculty look for students who show a good fit to their research interests, can contribute to their lab, and is competent. Research experience suggests a baseline skill level and is an indicator of your ability to succeed in the program and complete a dissertation. Some applicants gain research experience by earning a master's degree in a research oriented field such as experimental psychology. This option often appeals to students with little preparation or low grade point averages as supervised experience with a faculty member highlights your potential to become a researcher.

4. Know the Field:
Not all clinical and counseling doctoral programs are the same. There are three classes of clinical and counseling doctoral programs: scientist, scientist-practitioner, and practitioner scholar. They differ in the relative weight given to training in research and practice.

Students in scientist programs earn PhDs and are trained exclusively as scientists; no training is offered in practice. Scientist-practitioner programs train students in both science and practice. Most students earn PhDs and are trained as scientists as well as practitioners and learn to apply scientific approaches and techniques to practice. Practitioner-scholar programs train students to be practitioners rather than researchers. Students earn a PsyD and receive extensive training in therapeutic techniques.

5. Match the Program:
Know the difference between a PhD and PsyD. Choose the type of program that you'd like to attend, whether it emphasizes research, practice, or both. Do your homework. Know each graduate program's training emphases. Admissions committees look for applicants whose interests match their training emphases. Apply to a scientist program and explain that your professional goals lie in private practice and you'll receive a rejection letter instantly. Ultimately you cannot control the admission committee's decision, but you can choose a program that fits you well - and you present yourself in the best light possible.