“I am committed to a career in the mental health helping professions which requires a graduate-level degree, so how do I apply? How do I get in??”
Follow This Five-Phase Model
The process of applying to graduate school and working toward successfully attaining admission can be challenging. This is a lengthy and grueling journey for many people, filled with uncertainty and frequent rejections. For many degrees/specialties, gaining acceptance to graduate training programs in the mental health helping professions is more competitive than medical school or law school. For others it is less cutthroat, but still an effortful and detailed endeavor.
The Five Phases
Depending upon the exact program type(s) to which you are applying, the requirements and processes will vary widely. There is enormous diversity in this journey, even within programs of the same title and structure. While others have organized this in different ways (e.g., see another detailed description here), one framework is to think of applying to graduate school as having five distinct phases which each have relevant tasks for you to complete. The phases are listed and linked below, let’s dive in!
1) Clarifying Decisions
2) Gathering Resources
3) Evaluating Assets
4) Choosing / Preparing
5) Actually Applying
Phase 1: Clarifying Decisions
Timeline: It’s never too early; do this at least 6-12 months before application deadlines.
In this initial step of the journey, you have numerous crucial decisions to make. Students who ask me for advice during this phase are sometimes surprised to find that I respond with far more questions than input. But this is important! Your goals need to be made explicitly clear before moving forward, otherwise you’ll end up backtracking later. In that light, although this page is about getting started with applying, it should really be a resource considered after many of the other pages on this website. If you haven’t yet chosen a specific career pathway and made yourself familiar with the job prospects and projected income associated with that route, now is a great time to review some of the other tabs under this webpage’s Frequently Asked Questions section as well as the specific career pathways under the Careers section. When ready, consider the following prompts:
-Am I passionate about studying and practicing mental health services?
-What do I want out of my career, and is this the best way to get it?
-Could I be satisfied by simply keeping these interests as hobbies instead?
-What are my research/scholarly interests and clinical/applied interests?
-Do I have other goals? (e.g., teaching, supervision, consultation, industry)
-How has my training background shaped me, and what do I want next?
-Do I really want to do this now, or should I gain more experience first?
-Can I handle rejection, and what support do I have for tolerating stress?
-Do I have the time and money necessary to be applying at this time?
-Am I actually ready to commit to furthering my educational journey?
Applying to 10+ competitive programs can cost a few thousand dollars in fees, travel for interviews, etc., and many people estimate that the process takes up the effort of approximately a 4-credit college course! Rejection is indeed quite common (e.g., see example acceptance rates here), so this is an intense commitment. And that’s just the applications! Following through on attending and completing a training program often means accumulating student loans, traveling great distances from home, bouncing between multiple work positions, adjusting to significant changes in your personality/beliefs, and enduring other complex issues in your personal and professional development.
***Am I willing to do whatever it takes to earn that degree?***
Phase 2: Gathering Resources
Timeline: Do this at least 6-9 months before application deadlines.
If you’ve thought through phase 1 completely and your heart is still in it, congratulations! You’re about to embark on an exciting but exhausting and challenging adventure. Your next step is to procure materials which can give you specific advice with regard to the career path you’re pursuing. Much is available out there, once you’ve specified a path. For instance, those applying to graduate school in Clinical Psychology or Counseling Psychology are strongly encouraged to reference the Insider’s Guide by Norcross and Sayette (updated frequently, search for the current year), whereas those applying to graduate school in Social Work may wish to reference this Applicant’s Handbook or this online guide. Similar resources will likely be available for other specialties. You should also seek faculty input if you’re still in college, or talk to local professionals who work in the topic area you’re pursuing. Get as much information as possible, as up-to-date as possible, specific to the career track you chose in Phase 1. And if you’re applying to multiple graduate programs across specialties, that’s ok, but be aware you may need to prepare separate application materials so that you can showcase the ways you are aligned to the differing career philosophies. Importantly, at this stage you should mentally be saying “yes” to all information, opportunities, and possibilities which are within the realm of being reasonably specific to your career goals—you’ll narrow down and start saying “no” later. Gather everything you can find, and try your best to organize it such that it’s functional in assisting you! You will not remember everything you hear, see, and read, so take notes. Now would be a great time to start a spreadsheet of details about various programs.
Phase 3: Evaluating Assets
Timeline: Do this at least 4-6 months before application deadlines.
Self-assess and discover your strengths and weaknesses, so that you can harness what makes you a strong applicant, and work toward improving what may weaken your chances of acceptance. As you consider the following factors, it is important to stay hopeful while also being realistic about where you stand. There will always be others who are both more and less qualified than you. The following characteristics make up the bulk of your ‘profile’ as an applicant, so you should evaluate which are strengths/assets and which are deficits/shortcomings. The factors are…
1. College GPA
2. GRE Scores
3. Research Experience
4. Clinical Experience
5. Recommendation Letters
6. Program ‘Fit’ (e.g., alignment with training philosophy and interest areas)
These factors are considered in a balance, which varies based on the target programs to which you are applying. For instance, programs with a more applied focus (e.g., MSW Social Work) may place more value on the kinds of hands-on experiences you’ve accumulated during training, whereas programs with a more academic focus (e.g., PhD School Psychology) may place more value on your previous research work. Some programs will require the GRE, while others may not. Nearly all programs will require recommendation letters, but the types of sources and content necessary may vary. If you don’t have all these things ready right now, that’s ok, but it’s never too soon to start evaluating. Do everything you can to improve yourself across the first 5 factors up until the point that you send the applications. The 6th factor, your ‘fit’ with the program, can’t really be inflated or improved exactly; you just need to be honest with yourself about your goals and ensure you are pursuing programs which match them closely.
Phase 4(A): Choosing
Timeline: Do this at least 3-5 months before application deadlines.
Phase 4 includes some pretty hefty work, so let’s split it into two parts (4A: Choosing and 4B: Preparing). These are separate tasks mentally, but occur in overlapping timelines. Here in Phase 4A, we’re considering questions like “where should I go?” and “where would I fit?” This section deals with deciding on the specific institutions to which you will apply. Here are some more specific pointers about selecting target programs:
–Start Broad. Are there certain parts of the country you’d like to live in? Do you want a big city or a rural area? What sort of university setting appeals to you? What academic path are you interested in? Make a list of very broad factors that you hope for in your program; no exclusionary criteria yet, just positive things.
–Research/Practice. If you’re considering clinical or counseling psychology, The Insider’s Guide you purchased provides a score from 1 to 7 (clinical focus to research focus) for each program, to give you an overall view of the academic atmosphere. It’s not exact, but you’ll know that a 1-level school probably won’t force a lot of statistics training on you, while a 7-level school will probably expect quite a lot of research productivity from you. Use this and other school-based factors, like availability of funding ($$$!), to lengthen your list of inclusive factors. Again, no exclusions just yet.
–Your Interests. Take another look at your experience and interest topics and add to your inclusionary list all the things you’d like to have available in your program (e.g., an option to focus on child psych, research mentors interested in trauma, opportunities to work in forensic settings, etc.).
–Review Options. After listing the factors above and any other characteristics important to you, simply make a note of each appealing program based on any of your inclusionary factors. This may mean going through a book like the “Insider’s Guide” or simply looking for options online. Hopefully somewhere between 25 and 75 programs caught your eye if you are applying competitively. If not, you might be fine with a shorter list, but the general guidance remains that you should start broad and narrow later. Starting local is not necessarily the best route, there may be programs which fit you much better if you search further from home; on the other hand, closeness to family/friends certainly matters for many students, so give serious thought to this issue.
–Organize Information. You should now have a long list of schools to which you are potentially interested to apply. If you haven’t yet, you should now begin storing information about each program in a spreadsheet which is user-friendly for you. Use each row to store a single program and each column to organize basic facts (e.g., title, location, website, research topics, training philosophy, advisor name) as well as how that program rates on interest areas of yours (e.g., give ratings of your satisfaction level with various aspects of what they have to offer, which you could use later to rank-order your options). This may seem like a chore, but it will absolutely come in handy.
–Trim List. Having done the above, now you can begin thinking about exclusionary criteria! What are your “must-have” characteristics? What is tolerable, but less desirable? Perhaps you are now trimming out the programs with no funding, or the programs with too stringent of GPA requirements for eligibility, or the programs which lack accreditation, or the programs missing a certain training opportunity you really need. Begin with really basic things that make you say “oh no… I don’t want to go there” but otherwise keep the list longer than necessary. I recommend color-coding the now undesired options in your spreadsheet rather than deleting those rows altogether (it was a lot of work after all, and maybe you’ll change your mind).
–Get Specific. Armed with your spreadsheet of basic info and a list of programs which is perhaps twice as long as the number of schools you’ll actually apply to, you should now spend time on their websites and get a deeper feel for each. The more competitive your targets, the more certain you need to be about your fit. Now is a great time to connect with potential faculty mentors and/or current students at these schools for any inquiries you may have (e.g., ensure the lab you hope to join is actually accepting students next year!). Another bit of advice is to find out what their teaching model is: some programs are strictly a one-on-one mentorship model where you enter under the expectation of working with a specific faculty member and continuing their line of research, meanwhile other programs are more collaborative and function under a cohort-model or community-design allowing students more flexibility for self-guided research or selecting an advisor later.
–Finalize List. In reaching the end of Phase 4A, you should land at a final set of programs to which you are applying. I cannot tell you exactly how many should be on the list, but I will remind you that this is a numbers game. If you are pursuing highly competitive programs such as those offering a PhD in Clinical Psychology, know that they are probably receiving 150-300 applicants per year (or more) for only 5-8 openings (or less), thus you want a longer list of target programs just to statistically give yourself a decent probability of an interview. In that scenario, I would recommend applying to at least 10 schools, perhaps around 12-14. If pursuing less selective programs, then obviously your final target list may be shorter while still leading to success, but it all depends. Applying to any more than 15 programs, however, will likely end up overwhelming you given all the tasks required. Finalize your list wisely! And do all this gradually, as you will certainly go into a panic if trying to sift through all these thousands of details in a short amount of time. Moving through Phase 4A should be a gradual, well-informed, rational process occurring over several weeks’ time. Moving quickly or impulsively through this phase will increase the chance of errors, and errors lead to rejections.
***Finally, always remember that the program has to be good enough for you! We often spend so much time wondering if we’re good enough to get in, that we lose sight of the fact that this is an education that we seek and pay for. It has to be what you want or it’s not worth a penny.***
Phase 4(B): Preparing
Timeline: Do this at least 2-4 months before application deadlines.
In this phase you are now doing some tasks which are, well, probably not fun: studying for and completing a standardized test, writing about yourself, drafting and redrafting your words over and over, begging your superiors to say good things about you, etc., but it doesn’t have to be too awful. Here are the specific requirements to be aware of:
–Personal Statement. Nearly every graduate program will require applicants to submit a “personal statement,” “statement of purpose,” “professional narrative,” or some other similarly-titled task. In it, you will write about yourself, your prior training/experiences, your interests/goals, and the reasons why you are applying to study at their program. This is somewhat like a “cover letter” which you would use in other application settings, but more detailed, often 1-2 full pages. Do not be misguided by the term personal, rather this should be framed as a professional and argumentative piece of writing in which the key thesis is that you would fit well at their training program. Review the graduate applicants’ “Kisses of Death” and make special note of issues frequently affecting personal statements, and be sure to avoid each of those common problems. Deeply familiarize yourself with the program to which you are applying before finalizing this essay, as it is a key way that your ‘fit’ is evaluated. Discuss your academic background, research productivity, clinical experiences (or other hands-on work with people), your philosophy of mental health, and the specific ways in which the training program offers the sort of experience you are seeking, among other potential topics. Although you can probably start by making a template of the letter which would go to each target program, you will ultimately want to edit them to be as specific as possible (e.g., name a faculty advisor with whom you would like to study, mention a practicum placement you would be eager to pursue). This is an opportunity to show some creativity and personality, but primarily to advocate for yourself confidently with professionalism. You should be aiming to sound bright, dedicated, open-minded, collaborative, insightful, and teachable. See more tips here. Have friends, family, coworkers, advisors, and faculty read over your drafts until completely polished!
–CV / Resume. Most programs will require a Curriculum Vitae (sometimes shortened to “CV” or simply “Vita”), which is a comprehensive document showcasing all your professional activities. As opposed to a resume, which is typically only 1-2 pages and may communicate in themes or summary statements (e.g., key work skills, career goals, representative samples of job-related accomplishments), the CV is thorough and continues to grow throughout one’s career. If starting from scratch, begin by simply listing every relevant thing you’ve done which contributes to your readiness for a training program in mental health (especially at the college/university level–high school activities are often left out). Reflect on your work experiences, research projects, volunteerism, scholarships/awards, leadership roles of various kinds, degrees and certificates, and organize all of it in a reader-friendly format. Look around online for examples and follow formatting that is appealing and professional. See more tips here. Like the personal statement, you should have many people read it and offer you feedback. You could also ask your professors for examples of their CVs to get a feel for the structure, or visit the career center on your campus to seek their input. The CV is all about making you look accomplished, well-rounded, and conscientious.
–Letters of Recommendation. Nearly all graduate programs will require that a “letter of recommendation” or “reference letter” is submitted on your behalf, and oftentimes they will require two or three of them. Thus, you are strongly encouraged to build a good connection with at least three established professionals in your target field who can speak to your capabilities. Typically the gold standard of a good letter-writer is that this person holds the highest degree-level possible in your chosen field, is actively employed in either an educational or applied/clinical setting, and has worked closely with you in multiple contexts to be able to speak positively and in detail about you. Your professors and on-site clinical supervisors are good choices. Less ideal, but still plausible, would be letters of support from current graduate students under whom you’d worked closely, or other mid-level employees at a mental health work setting who may not have supervised you directly but closely collaborated. Do not request reference letters from friends, family, partners, or others outside the mental health / academic setting. Ensure that your letter-writers know you well, in that you’ve discussed your career goals with them and they are familiar with your graduate school plans and interests. They should be individuals who can speak about both your academic abilities and your personality. As much as you may find it awkward to request this service from your superiors, please know that it is commonplace and should not be met with confusion on their part. I recommend the following: set up a time to meet with them in-person (at least one month in advance of the deadline), explain that you are applying to graduate school, and ask “can you write me a strong letter of reference?” If they pause, hesitate, or show you any ambivalence, then this person may not be the best fit. A mediocre letter does not help you much; you want a piece of input that strongly endorses you!
–GRE. The Graduate Record Examination or “GRE” is a standardized test offered by the company ETS to quantify applicants’ skills in verbal reasoning (vocabulary), quantitative reasoning (mathematics), and critical thinking (writing). The GRE is akin to many other standardized entrance exams (e.g., SAT for college, LSAT for law school, and MCAT for medical school). Intended to be a measure of general aptitude for graduate-level study, the GRE has historically been a required component of applications to many graduate programs. However, recent history has seen some changes in this due both to the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e., it was deemed inappropriate to force applicants to visit testing centers in-person) and due to the potential of systemic bias in the scores (i.e., certain demographic groups appear unfairly disadvantaged by inclusion of the GRE in admissions decisions), so the GRE is not as universally utilized as it once was. To determine if it is required for you, check with the individual programs to which you are applying. [Unfortunately, however, that advice creates a “catch-22” situation for many students. Specifically, in order to successfully complete the GRE and have your scores available in time to submit them alongside your other application materials, you will need to schedule a test session weeks in advance and begin studying months prior to that–at which point you may not have yet completed Phase 4A and trimmed down to your final set of target programs. So, for many types of programs (e.g., PhD Psychology), it is best to simply plan on taking the GRE even if it eventually is unnecessary for you. Sorry.] Note that the GRE is expensive, time-consuming, and anxiety-inducing, but not the sole determinant of your acceptance to a graduate program. There are study guides and practice tests and training courses available if desired. Make use of such resources, stay optimistic, and do your best!
–GRE Psychology Subject Test. In addition to the basic GRE, there are also subject-specific GRE tests, including one on the topic of psychology. Many programs do not require this, but some may, and others will list it as an optional application material. The design is multiple choice and content coverage is very broad, so reviewing materials from your introductory psychology course at the college level is often a great way to get started. This factor is very unlikely to ‘make or break’ your application to graduate school, but it is probably still worth your time and effort if applying to psychology programs in particular. It is just another piece of the puzzle that you should take seriously as an attempt to make you the best-looking applicant possible.
–Other. Expect the unexpected, and leave yourself enough time in this applications journey to provide additional materials to the programs if/when they are requested. While most medical schools have a streamlined and unified application process with a shared submissions portal, graduate programs mostly still function in idiosyncratic ways asking for materials that may have subtle differences from one another. For instance, some programs may require that in addition to the materials noted above, you also provide a brief essay summarizing your thoughts on a certain issue (e.g., your preferred theoretical orientation to psychotherapy, a social justice issue about which you care deeply, your perspectives on the topic of diversity, a treatment-planning response to a hypothetical client vignette, a representative sample of your writing from an undergraduate course). These additional requests are important aspects of your application and are not to be taken lightly or completed last-minute; the program wouldn’t require them of you unless taken as a legitimate part of the applicant screening process.
Phase 5: Actually Applying
Timeline: The final weeks before application deadlines—don’t wait until the last second!
Having wrapped up the two co-occurring sides of Phase 4, you should now have a finalized list of target programs to which you are applying as well as a finalized set of application materials. Phase 5 is when you send it! Let’s review some tips:
–Persist! Stay with it. Everything up until this point has been a preparation, so don’t lose hope now or it was all for nothing. Keep yourself healthy and sane by sticking to a regular sleep schedule and exercise if at all possible. It’s easy to let things become chaotic as you near the deadlines, but that can lead to mistakes on your part. It is best to be in the most calm and collected state of mind you can. Try to remain hopeful and driven.
–Organize! Now is not the time to scrap your detailed notes in favor of “winging it.” Stay organized with a spreadsheet, a planner, checklists, automated reminders, and whatever else you need to stay on top of it all. Ensure you provide every required component of the application requested by each school. Ensure your letter-writers are staying in communication and submitting their work. Ensure ETS has provided your GRE scores to the target schools. There is likely no secretary checking all this, there is only you. Missing requirements means rejection. If you feel unsure about something, email and call to verify that the materials were received. At this point in the game you cannot settle for passivity; you have to do everything in your power to make sure that your materials make a smooth transition into the hands of the admissions committee.
–Support! Have a support group. You may find solace with your friends, your parents, your roommates, your romantic partner, or with other grad school hopefuls. This may be a great time to seek your own personal psychotherapy/counseling if you have not already done so. If you have come this far, you likely have some venting to do. Find appropriate routes for self-care and mutual support from others.
–Flexibility! It bears repeating: expect the unexpected. There will always be some form that doesn’t download correctly, some difficulty with an electronic signature, some minor piece of info missing somewhere, or something else. Don’t fret! If you’ve started the process early and stayed close to your projected timeline, little slip-ups won’t cause a complete meltdown. Stay in close contact with the admissions personnel at your chosen schools and make sure that they get all the things they need from you. Your exact plans may change, so leave wiggle room for how it all unfolds.
Post-Phase: What Now?
Timeline: You could be waiting in suspense anywhere from 1 week to 4 months!
You’ve submitted all the applications, and now the waiting begins. First, be proud of yourself for surviving a very difficult task and take some time to relax. In a few weeks to a couple months, you’ll start getting responses, and hopefully they’ll be positive! Try not to be discouraged by the rejection letters. There are a number of things impacting admissions decisions and despite your strong qualifications, sometimes it just doesn’t “fit.” And try to keep perspective that this is ultimately the start. Although you have now finished applying to graduate school, you are only just beginning the journey of your professional training, which will include numerous more rounds of applications, interviews, tests, etc.
Offered an interview? Take it! Even if it is for a program ranked lower on your list, I encourage you to do it. All admissions interviews are opportunities to learn and make connections. Go in-person if possible. Search around online for example questions likely to be posed in the interviews, and practice your responses with someone. You want to sound rehearsed and thoughtful, while also flexible and non-robotic. If all goes well, you’ll blink and find yourself soon sharing this advice with next year’s cohort of applicants.
Offered admission? Congrats! Take your time to decide, you may end up with multiple competing offers and that would be the perfect problem to have. You can then take an even closer look at all the details of the package, especially financial considerations, and make the choice best fitting you.
Not accepted? It’s ok, keep your head up. If it doesn’t work out this year, you can try again next cycle. Remember how and why you concluded that this is the right career path for you. Many people have to apply two or more years in a row in order to find the right fit for them, and it gives you more time to build up your credentials. If this is truly your passion and your ideal career, the wait will be worth it and you’ll find yourself in the right place eventually. Try not to panic and change plans impulsively, give serious thought to issues such as a gap year or a terminal masters before jumping into something else.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At the time you are reading this, you have probably just finished your applications and are in the beginning of the waiting phase–so just wait patiently. Yes, this is stressful, but you can handle it! It only takes one “yes” for you to have succeeded.
Best of luck to you all!!!