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Applying to Graduate School

While earning a Bachelor´s degree in psychology can provide you with a number of career opportunities, many of the most interesting careers in psychology require you to attend graduate school and earn an advanced degree (such as a Master´s degree, a Ph.D., a Psy.D., or an Ed.D.).

Getting through the graduate school application process can be complex and grueling. Some applications include clear and explicit instructions; others seem like an aptitude test in analytical reasoning. However, you are not alone! The psychology department advisor is available to help you with the application process, and faculty members are always happy to answer any questions you might have. Further, this web page contains information and links to numerous resources on the internet which can help you decide which graduate school to apply to, how to make yourself a competitive candidate, and how to get through the entire process in one piece!

How to Apply to Graduate School
Choosing an Area of Psychology
Making Yourself Competitive
Deciding Which Schools to Apply to
Applying Now vs. Later

Making Yourself a Competitive Candidate

Generally speaking, getting into graduate school is partly a game of chance. Many programs are very competitive and there is no guarantee that you will get into the exact program at the exact university that you want. You can improve your chances, however, by understanding what it is graduate programs look at in applications, and trying to strengthen your application in these areas.


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, while less competitive programs may accept 3.O or a bit lower.

Letters of Recommendation

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! Do everything you can to get to know the faculty -- talk to them after class, participate in research labs, join Psi Chi or the Psychology Club. The better the professors know you, the more likely they can write a strong, convincing letter for you. When you ask a professor to write a letter for you, be sure to give the professor some written information about yourself, such as the courses you took from him or her, your grades, any activities you undertook in the department or on campus, etc. One of the best ways to get a good letter of recommendation from a faculty member is to do research with him or her!


In our department you have the unique opportunity to work closely with professors on research projects. Take advantage of this! 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 participating in a research lab also demonstrates to graduate schools that you are a motivated person who can work independently.

In the past students have presented papers at conferences or published articles with the faculty based on such projects. Most 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.

Nearly all of our faculty members allow undergraduate students to participate in their research labs. You can earn both Direct Learning and Psychology Elective credit toward your major by assisting with a research project. Simply talk to the faculty member you wish to work with and, if he or she agrees, get the call number from the faculty member to register for undergraduate research credits (either PSY 275 or PSY 375). Three credits of either PSY 275 or 375 will fulfill the Direct Learning requirement of the major, and you are allowed to take up to 6 credits of each course. If you are serious about attending graduate school, you are encouraged to get as much research experience as possible!

To find out which labs in the department are currently looking for undergraduate assistants, check out the Psychology Department bulletin board on the 1st floor of Mack Social Science (just to the right of the elevator). You may also contact the department advisor for more information.


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 GRE consist of three sections: verbal, math (quantitative), and analytic (which measures abstract thinking). Some schools will also require you to take the GRE Subject Test in Psychology (which 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", a book from APA which provides a listing and description of many of the various psychology graduate programs available in the U.S., lists the average GRE scores for students who are accepted into a program. The information a program send you will also usually contain information on average or minimum GRE scores. 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. You can also take GRE prep classes, such as UNR´s four-week GRE Preparation Workshop. A good way to study for the Subject Test in Psychology is to get a good intro psychology textbook and memorize as much of it as you can. Another way is to serve as a proctor for PSY 101 (contact Dr. Houmanfar for more information) or work at the Academic Skills Center on campus as a PSY 101 tutor -- there´s no better way to learn a subject than to teach it yourself!

The GRE General Test is now offered only via computer-based testing, but the Subject Test in Psychology is still given in the paper-based format (for now!). To get more information on the GREs, including registration materials, you can check out the GRE web site.

Personal Statement

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, professors, and/or the department advisor for comments on what you have written.

Field Work and Other Practical Experiences

Many 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.

You have several options for obtaining practical experience. One way is to register for a Field Experience course, such as PSY 439: Field Experience in the Teaching of Psychology, PSY 440: Field Experience in Behavior Analysis, or PSY 447: Geropsychology Field Experience. Three credits of any of these courses also satisfies the Direct Learning requirement of the psychology major. Most of the field experience courses will involve you working for one of the department´s applied projects, such as the Early Childhood Autism Program or our Pre-vocational Assessment, Treatment, and Habilitation (PATH) project. After working for credit, you can often continue your work for the project as a paid student employee!

You also can volunteer on your own or look for part time/summer jobs. It should be remembered that there is no guarantee that a graduate program will highly value field experience. Those programs that emphasize research training (including clinical psychology programs) may be more concerned about your academic achievements than your practical experiences. However, anything you can do to make yourself a more attractive candidate and stand out from the crowd, such as by gaining field experience, can improve your chances of being accepted to a program.


A "vita" is like a resume for the academic world. It includes sections on your personal history, educational history, professional positions, memberships in professional organizations, professional activities, editorial activities, grants, presentations, publications, projects, professional interests, and professional references. You will need to produce a vita if you plan to apply for most graduate schools and professional positions.


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!

Definitely try to visit the programs that accept you! Talk to the faculty, find out everything you can about the program. Do they seem 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.

University of Nevada, Reno - Department of Psychology/296
1664 N. Virginia Street Reno, Nevada 89557