How can I enhance my application to a Graduate program?

To begin, you should talk with your advisor about your interests in graduate school and professional goals. Don’t wait to have this conversation until you are a senior. Acceptance to graduate school can be very competitive, so thorough preparation is a must. Your advisor will discuss with you general strategies and opportunities that our program provides for enhancing your graduate school (or employment) application. For example:

  1. Take a challenging curriculum. Strongly consider courses such as Advanced Research Methods (PSY 401), Advanced Physiological Psychology (PSY 481), and other “majors-only” seminars. Also consider taking a 500-level graduate class in psychology. You may do this if you are a junior or senior psychology major with a 3.0 or higher GPA and have permission of the instructor. Consider going well beyond the minimum 43 credits required for the major. Discuss with your advisor your choices for “University-Wide” electives.
  2. Actively seek out research experience. You may get research experience by working with faculty members or graduate students. It is possible to earn elective credits for the major by participating in research through a Directed Study (PSY 422) or Practicum (PSY 493). In discussing a research opportunity with a faculty member, ask specifically about the possibility of making a presentation based on your work at UNC Research Day or at a regional psychology conference (e.g., Rocky Mountain Psychological Association conference). You may also acquire valuable research experience as part of UNC’s Honors Program and McNair Scholars Program.
  3. Select a Field Experience (PSY 491) placement that is appropriate to your goals and interests. Your field experience can provide valuable training, and insights regarding psychology-related professions. When you discuss possible placements with the field experience coordinator, make sure he or she is aware of your graduate school and career interests. The coordinator will help to find a placement that is supportive of your goals. Remember that, while 3 credits of field experience are required for the major, a maximum of 6 credits is permitted.  Consider working at a couple different sites to broaden your skills and experiences.
  4. Become an active member of Psi Chi. Psi Chi is the national honor society for psychology students. Psi Chi members are involved in preprofessional, social, and philanthropic activities. These are students who have a passion for psychology and are considering psychology-related careers. Whether or not you join Psi Chi, plan to attend their annual workshop on preparation for graduate school.
  5. Choose your references carefully, following the directions of the programs to which you are applying. Select those professors who best know you and your work. These are not necessarily the professors from whom you earned your highest grades.  Provide them with enough information (a resume, a statement of your goals, and information about the programs to which you are applying) so that they can write letters that are specifically about you (not ones that are full of vague generalizations). Give your references plenty of notice about writing letters of recommendation. Do not approach them at the last minute and remember that you are requesting a letter; it is not a right that results, say, from doing well in a class.  Provide your references with a complete list of programs to which you are applying with clearly indicated deadlines for receipt of reference letters. If the programs to which you are applying provide a form for your references to submit, it will frequently have a portion to be completed by the student. Make sure you have filled in the requested information. If given the option, it is often recommended that you waive your right of access to the reference letter. This helps to ensure a candid letter from your reference that may be taken more seriously by the programs to which you are applying. References will appreciate it if you provide addressed envelopes for their letters.

What about writing essays or goal statements?

Many programs require some type of written statement. These statements can be a biographical statement, a statement of your goals, an account of the important life experiences that resulted in you applying to graduate school, or why you are applying to a particular program. Some programs require you to write an essay on a topic they provide. This statement/essay is a crucial part of your application. It tells something about yourself and provides a measure of your writing skills and your ability to express yourself.
When writing these statements give yourself lots of time. Answer the question that you are asked. Think about what you want to say. Write many drafts. Have others, especially your advisor, read and comment on it. Proofread it carefully after you have typed up the final version.

What if an interview is required?

Prepare for the interview. Read up on the program including its goals, faculty, and curriculum. Be prepared to articulate why you are a good fit to a particular program. Be on time. It may sound contradictory, but be yourself while also dressing, speaking, and acting professionally. Make sure to have thoughtful questions prepared. The questions you ask may be just as important as the answers you provide to the questions you receive.

Note that UNC’s Career Services Center can assist with interview preparation, including arranging videotaped mock interviews.

and then there's the GRE?

Many programs require the Graduate Record Exam, either the GRE General (verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking and analytical writing skills) and/or the GRE Psychology test. The GRE is given by Educational Testing Services only on certain dates. Results are mailed out approximately six to seven weeks after the testing date. Therefore, you need to ensure that you take the test in sufficient time to meet the application deadline of the programs to which you are applying. Check with Career Services on campus for a GRE schedule. Some recommend that you schedule your test so that you can retake it, if necessary, before the scores must be submitted to the graduate programs.
Psychology programs use the GREs in several ways. Some programs place a great deal of emphasis on the GRE and rate it highly as a selection device. Other programs use the GRE more as a proficiency test--if you score above a predetermined level then you move on to the next stage in the selection process where the remainder of your application materials are evaluated. Still other programs rate the GRE no more highly than any other piece of information. These programs try to select applicants based on a picture of their overall qualifications. Sometimes, when two applicants are similar to each other in many areas the GRE provides an objective way to "break the tie."
Students on financial aid can have the GRE fee waived. For more information on the GRE, visit ETS's GRE site.

How do I do my best on the GRE?

Preparation is the key for both the General and the Psychology tests. Practice. Practice. Practice improves performance by familiarizing one with the types of items on the test and by building confidence. There are self-help books and classes that may be useful in preparing for the General Test. The Career Services Center has a computer program for preparing for the GRE that you may find to be valuable. Self-help books also exist for the Psychology Test. Rereading introductory and history and systems psychology texts is recommended.

What about Financial Aid?

Graduate school is a rewarding, though expensive, endeavor. You should ask financial-aid related questions of every program to which you are thinking of applying. Find out what types and how much financial aid they have to offer. Apply for all possible types of aid that you do not have to pay back! Several types of non-loan financial aid exist:
Scholarships and fellowships are grants awarded to students. You do not have to work for these. Research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and traineeships require the recipient to work in research, teaching, or in some other program activities.
Another important question deals with the length of time for which a student can hold a particular type of financial aid. For example, how long does a fellowship last? Also, if possible, find out how students currently in the program finance themselves.
Some universities allow the application fee to be waived. Contact the graduate school of the university to which you are applying.

More Information

Seek out more information on Graduate School. Check out the information available at UNC’s Career Services Center.

Other good on-line sources of information include

Dr. Kristina Phillips developed a useful PowerPoint presentation focusing on applied psychology graduate programs: Graduate Study in Psychology and Related Fields: Focus on Applied Programs PowerPoint presentation (PDF)