Same Personal Statement For Different Schools Of Psychology

Applying to graduate schools in psychology
(revised October 6, 2004)

Alvin E. House, Ph.D.
Coordinator of Clinical-Counseling Psychology
Illinois State University

You're earning your undergraduate degree in Psychology and have really enjoyed your exposure to the field. You have decided that the next step for you is going to be a graduate program in Psychology. What to do next? Here are some thoughts and suggestions for you to consider. Be aware that it has been many, many years since I applied to graduate school. Most of my experience is from the "other side": evaluating application to the Clinical Psychology master's sequence at Illinois State University for 25 years and applications to the Clinical-Counseling Program for the past five years. When students at ISU ask me questions about applying to graduate schools, one of my standard responses directs them to also ask the same questions of other professors here. You should seek multiple sources of input and thoughtfully evaluate the ideas that have been exposed to. Some of the same principles of formulating questions and evaluating data that you have seen at work in your undergraduate classes can be put into action here. While I have sought the input of other faculty members, what you read below basically represents my opinions. I hope you find these useful in furthering you efforts. Please send any feedback regarding these ideas to my e-mail address below.


When should you begin applying?

Early

This question actually has several answers. You will probably be mailing out your applications between late November and late January. You want to make sure each school has all your application materials before their deadline. Some schools have a date they don’t want to receive application materials before--typically sometime in the fall of the year prior to when you would begin classes. Most, possibly all, schools have a deadline date they want your application completed by (They usually mean not only your application but also all supporting materials: letters of reference, GRE scores, etc.). One basic rule:Do as you are told. The large majority of graduate programs evaluate applications once a year, in the spring, for admission the following fall semester. Some programs might let you take a limited amount of course work as an “unclassified graduate student” prior to gaining admission to a degree program, but you should be cautious about this option—taking graduate classes from an institution usually has little or no influence on your chances of admission to a degree program.

Mailing out the applications, however, is actually near the end of the process. Your work at applying began much earlier--when you began to consider programs, gather information, consider who could write you letters of reference, arrange for any required testing. You hopefully began thinking seriously about graduate study early in your junior year or sooner. This gives you time to not only think about who you would like writing letters of reference but making sure you had the time to give them useful things to write about: research projects, applied experiences, independent studies. You can begin researching the schools, programs, and faculties you are interested in working with. Think about applying for graduate study in the same way you thought about a major paper you wrote—it took planning, some sustained effort, and (for a really good grade), attention to the finishing details.


What programs do you want to apply to?

The ones which fit your interests

Sure, but how do you decide which these are and what your interests really are? Psychology has several areas of specialization. Part of the attractiveness of psychology for some of us is the wide range of activities it allows within the role of “psychologist.” As a university professor of psychology I have an opportunity to teach, to do research, to write and publish papers, and to see clients for psychological assessment and counseling. Other psychologists consult with agencies and businesses, design evaluation instruments, administer government and private programs, and participate in medical education and training. You have probably been exposed to many or most of these roles in your undergraduate classes. The task for you is deciding which area you would most like to work in—this directs you choice of programs to apply to. Hopefully you have found some faculty members in your undergraduate psychology department you have a good relationship with and can talk with them about your interests. You have, no doubt, found a great deal of information about psychology on the web. The American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Psychological Society (APS) have a good deal of information about psychology as a science, profession, and career. Your undergraduate institution may have vocational counseling services (Often offered by a psychologist.) available which could assist you in evaluating your options. Hopefully you are beginning this process fairly early in your undergraduate career (See above), and have plenty of time to gather information, consider, and choose the direction which seems most satisfying to you.

A core differentiation among graduate training programs are those in applied areas, such as clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and neuropsychology; and those in basic science areas of psychology, such as developmental, social, cognitive, personality, learning, and neuroscience psychology. All of these areas see themselves as a part of psychology (with the possible exception of neuroscience, which is often viewed, as an interdisciplinary area), using basic psychological knowledge and theory as a foundation for further work. Applied areas, as the name suggests, tend to focus on the application of this knowledge to address human concerns, as well on the expansion of our applied understanding of human functioning and adjustment. The more basic science areas of psychology focus on the foundation of psychological knowledge; attempting to expand our understanding of the fundamental basis of behavior and interaction. One of your real tasks is to decide whether your interests and goals lie more with furthering the growth of experimental knowledge, or in the application and use of this knowledge. “Wanting to help people” is a fine motivation, but not really sufficient to power a journey of several years and a great deal of work. You need to carefully examine your ambitions and decide what path best serves your goals. Most doctoral level clinical psychologists, for instance, may spend little of their time engaged in direct psychological service to clients. A terminal master’s degree or a degree in a related discipline, such as social work, may provide a career that spends much more time engaged in psychotherapy or consultation. These are issues it is important to discuss with your advisor as you consider graduate programs. The psychology department at your school may present programs on these issues which would help your deliberations also.

Another important decision you need to make is whether you are going to apply to doctoral programs, master’s programs, or both. Many doctoral programs in psychology do not require you to have previously earned a master’s degree, some actually prefer that you have not—they would rather address these training issues themselves. If you do not have a master’s degree, a doctoral program will often have you complete an “equivalency project.” Sometimes this leads to the actual awarding of a master’s degree, but often not. Entering a doctoral program with a master’s degree may save you a little time in completing the terminal degree, but seldom is the savings substantial. Why would anyone bother to complete a master’s degree then? Several reasons, among with the two most important are that a master’s degree often lets you work as a professional and the activities that earned you the master’s degree may also help you gain admission into doctoral training. Doctoral programs, even in applied areas, are fundamentally preparing individuals for a career of research. The usual “objective measures” evaluated in applying for graduate study (grades, GRE scores) are being considered not only from the perspective of whether you are capable of succeed in graduate studies but also your potential to contribute to the science of psychology. Your past research activities are very important in earning admission. A doctoral admission committee may not be terrible impressed that you completed a master’s degree, but they may be influenced by the thesis research you carried out to earn that degree.

A master’s degree in psychology also can prepare you to function in an applied human service occupation. Some states license master’s level psychologists for counseling and assessment work within agencies and school systems. Most others have human service careers (such as the Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Illinois LCPC) for which a master’s degree is required. Direct human service activities, such as psychotherapy or employee assistance programs, are the goals of many students entering the field of psychology. Most direct human service activities are carried out by professionals at the master’s level of training.


What about private practice?

Ain’t what it use to be, maybe it never was

The popular mental image of a “clinical psychologist” is someone in solo private practice, seeing an assortment of wacky clients, doing individual and group counseling. In matter of fact, I know some psychologists whose professional lives resemble this model but it is not necessarily an accurate picture of how most psychologists operate today and may be even less so in the future. APA provides a great deal of information about psychology as a career and you should consider this data carefully. The subspecialty of clinical psychology has changed a great deal over recent decades. Establishing a private practice, especially an independent practice, is a major undertaking. Usually a doctoral degree is necessary to operate privately as a psychologist, although this varies with state laws. A good deal of business sense is necessary for success and your graduate education in psychology will not provide you with this. This is another good topic to discuss with your undergraduate faculty and with private psychologists in your community if opportunity presents itself.


What schools do you want to apply to?

The best you can get into to

But how do you know which schools are good? Again, you can consider the information made available on graduate programs in psychology by APA. You should talk with your advisor. Schools have a number of features which contribute to the quality of their programs: The faculty who are actively involved in graduate teaching, the experimental and clinical resources, the resources of the larger university (libraries, computing facilities, allied institutions such as hospitals and schools), the reputation of the program. There are also practical matters to be considered: how much does the program cost, how available is financial support, how long does the program require, where is the school?

If you are applying to doctoral programs in applied areas (such as clinical, counseling, school, community mental health), you will want to see if the program has APA accreditation. A school might not yet have APA accreditation if it is a relatively new program, but this is a factor to weight. Gaining acceptance into an APA approved internship program (there are more applications ahead) is probably easier if your doctoral program had accreditation. Completing an APA internship has potential employment implications for your future. APA, however, only accredits certain types of programs—those in applied areas. Doctoral programs in basic experimental psychology have no comparable external review. Also, only doctoral programs in applied area can obtain APA accreditation; not programs which offer terminal master’s degrees. Talk with your advisors about the programs which best fit with your career interests and your developing theoretical orientation.


How many programs/schools do you want to apply to?

Several

Applying to graduate schools is expensive. Most schools have application fees. Transcripts cost money. GRE and other test scores cost money. Even the cost for letters of reference (see below) can add up. Obviously, applying to more than one school multiplies the cost. So, why should you apply to more than the one program you think you're the most interested in?

The answer is that admission into most graduate programs in psychology is a highly competitive process. Even very good students often receive more rejection letters than offers of acceptance. Applying to more than one program increases the chances you will have at least one positive response to consider. I always recommend that the students I advise apply to more than one program, even when this is a student I would very much like to see attending our sequence. My opinion alone doesn't guarantee their admission into our program, and each year we have to turn away a large number of qualified and well-motivated students. You should definitely discuss this with your advisor at your undergraduate institution, but it is almost never a good idea to apply to a single program.

So, how many programs should you apply to? There is not a simple answer: More than one, less than 50, maybe 10, at least 5. Talk with your advisor, take a look at your list of possible programs, take a look at your budget. This is part of the reason your application process needs to begin early—you have to support it. Also, we are talking about applying to programs where you have a chance at being competitive. Graduate programs often provide data on the average GRE and grade point averages of incoming classes. You should carefully review this information. While most programs do not have absolute criterion for these types of student characteristics and do consider other features of your record, it is also true that these scores usually do influence decisions to some degree.

For instance, you might have very good grades, low GRE scores, several extracurricular activities relevant to psychology, and good letters of reference. Perhaps one of your references makes a point of stressing how the GRE scores are not reflective of your academic performance or potential. Such communications are usually taken very seriously by admission committee. However, that committee may have 30 other records of applicants with similar characteristics. They are assembling a class of 15 students. Ten of the positions have been assigned to students having very good grades, high GRE scores, several extracurricular activities, and good letters of reference. You are now vying with 29 others for the 5 remaining spots—and they all look just like you to varying degrees! The chance the committee selects you instead of someone else is approximately 1 in 6. There is nothing wrong with going after your dream program, but you also want to apply to a number of schools where your record is clearly competitive.

Another reason to start considering graduate school early is that it presents you with the greatest degrees of freedom in making your record more competitive. Many of us find it is easier to focus of motivation and energy if we have clear and specific goals in mind. If obtaining graduate study in psychology is one of your goals, start planning and making choices with this in mind. This is another good topic to discuss with the faculty at your school.


How do I get good letters of references?

Choose carefully, ask questions, be helpful, follow through

Hopefully you have gotten to know several faculty members at your school well. If you haven’t, this is part of the process of applying to graduate school—you need references. Your reference needs to be able to say good things about you—you have to give them the material to work with. Faculty from which you have taken several classes know more about you than professors you have had only one class with. Some instructors are easy to approach outside of class with questions and enjoy discussing psychology with students. Professors who know about you from different types of experience—you’ve taken classes with them, done research with them, served on committees with them—have a better basis to write about you from. Student organizations such as Psy Chi or a Student Psychological Association provide other opportunities to meet professors and for them to get to know you.

Talk to the faculty member you may seek a letter from. Ask them if they feel comfortable writing you a letter in support of your application to graduate school. Listen carefully to what they say—a cautious and guarded reply suggests that at best you are going to get a cautious and guarded endorsement. You want the most positive letters of support you can get. Talk to several potential referees and make your best choices.

Give the people who are going to write letters of reference for you a written copy of information about you: The correct spelling of your name as you would like it used in the letter, a list of classes you have taken and your grades, information about other research, undergraduate assistantships, special projects activities you have been involved in. There’s no problem with giving them more information than they need; there is a problem if they lack information that would help them write a stronger letter for you. Give them a copy of your personal statement.

It is customary for you to provide your references with all the forms they will need, as well as addressed and stamped envelopes for each of the applications. You are expected to bear the cost of mailing the letters of references.

I direct all my students to give each of their references of list of the school they are applying to, indicate where there is a reference form or whether a reference letter alone is asked for, and list the deadline dates for each school. Ask your reference writers when they would like you to check back to see if the letters have been mailed. Professors can get very busy and their desks can become very cluttered—you need to check to make sure their good intentions got translated into finished letters which were mailed.


What's important in a personal statement?

Let your light shine

The personal statement portion of the application is your opportunity to give the application committee a picture of yourself: your interests, ambitions, goals, and strengths. Take advantage of this and do so in a way that is easy for the application committee to use. If the school has a form for sending in this material—use the form. Do not say: “See my attached personal statement.” It certainly is a pain to deal with 10 or 15 different applications, all of which ask the same questions in slightly different ways, and give you different spaces in which to reply. But do you want to make it a pain for the person reading your application, having to jump back and forth between their form and your attached documents? If you are going to go to the expense and time of applying, apply in the manner the school asks (See basic rule above: “Do as you are told.”).

If you are applying to some schools with doctoral programs and some schools with master’s programs, you will definitely want to develop different statements. It doesn’t help your application to a master’s degree program to be talking about you immediate goal of going into private practice—you won’t be able to do this with a master’s degree. The committee may think you are poorly informed, they may think that you were too lazy to direct your comments to the specific programs you are applying to, they may make some other attribution. Probably none of the likely attributions will be positive or help your application to that school.

Proof read you statements carefully. It would probably be a good idea to type them out separately, run a spelling check, and possibly have a friend or professor read critically what you have written. Make your application as neat as possible. Some people are going to be viewing these pieces of paper as reflective of what kind of student you will be. Another basic rule: Appearance counts.

Don’t forget to tell them positive things about yourself and include relevant experiences. If you won awards for your writing, community service, or scholastic activities—this will be of interest to the application committee. If you are applying to an applied area (Counseling, Clinical, Community, School), they will be interested in volunteer and paraprofessional activities and jobs you have been involved in. Don’t just tell them you worked as a volunteer for a telephone crisis line—tell them you completed a two week training program, worked as a volunteer for your junior and senior year, serving a monthly eight-hour shift that gave you the opportunity to respond to callers with a variety of personal crises and needs. Give the application committee enough information to see what this experience really involved.


What do I do after the applications are sent in?

Follow up, follow up, follow up

Check back with your referees to make sure the letters of reference went in as needed. At some point well before the school’s deadline you should check with the graduate secretary to ensure that your application is complete—if not you then have time to get whatever is missing attended to. Remember:The school will not consider your application until they have everything—your application, letters of references, test scores, any other required documents.

Be prepared to receive a telephone call from someone on the admission committee. The director of training or coordinator, or another member of the admission committee might call you for a variety of reasons. Some schools like to do telephone interviews of the final round of candidates prior to making admission offers. Some programs interview students placed in an “alternate” category to have more information about them. Many program administrators make initial notification of offers of acceptance by telephone. It is useful to consider in advance what you might want to say under each of these scenario. Intelligent questions, which show you have done your homework and know something already about a program, never hurt the opinion others have of you. Hopefully you have learned as much as you can about the programs you have applied to; keep this information and any questions you have about the school at hand near your telephone.

You should also begin considering what your options will be if you don’t gain admission into a graduate program this year (see below).


Suppose I get accepted to a program, what should I do?

Be happy, be gracious, ask questions, don’t sign anything just yet

Sometimes you will get news though the mail, sometimes you may get a call from the director or coordinator of the program you have been accept to. Happy news is always nice to get and give. Along with your rejoicing, ask some questions: Are you being offered any financial assistance? This could come in the form of an assistantship from the department or university (Work for money, often with an attached tuition waver), a scholarship (money straight to you), a tuition waver (often very important if you are going to be an “out-of-state” student), as well as other arrangements. Sometimes financial aid decisions are know at the same time as acceptance decisions, sometimes these decisions are made latter. What is your situation with respect to financial assistance? How soon does the program need to know your decision? The program is now recruiting you, and they would like to know as soon as possible (They have an alternate list in case you turn them down.), but you might be waiting to hear from some other programs you have applied to. It is alright to expect some time to consider their offer. If you have made up your mind it is considerate and professional to let everyone know, this allows backup plans to be put in motion.

Suppose you receive an offer of acceptance from one school and are still waiting to hear from another program, a program you are still very interested in. You might consider contacting the program you have yet to hear from and inquiring into your status in their evaluation sequence. Since you haven’t heard from them, it is possible you are on their alternate list. Be polite and reasonable, but also let them know what deadlines you are now under.

In general, once you make a decision you are expected to stick with it. The school whose offer of acceptance you accept will want you to send a letter of acceptance. The programs I am aware of want an actual letter, with your signature; not just a “Yes!” over the telephone or an e-mail. Once they have this letter, you and they have a formal commitment to each other. It is considered a serious breach to withdraw from a formal acceptance without the permission of the school you had agreed to attend; there could be consequences from doing so. You want to be as sure as you can when you make a formal acceptance that this is the decision you want to go forward with. If your situation changes, you may wish to counsel with your faculty advisor on how best to proceed. In many ways academic psychology is a small community and you do not want to bruise the feelings of people you will be working with in the future.


Suppose I get placed on an alternate list, what should I do?

Be patient, keep in touch, consider alternatives

Being told you are on an alternate list for one of the programs you applied to is a “good news, bad news” kind of situation. The good news is that they have decided you are the kind of student they want for their program. Graduate programs in psychology typically receive more applications from qualified students than they can accept. If the admission committee was not sure you showed potential to succeed in their program and was the kind of student they wished to have in their program--you would not be on the alternate list, you would have received a rejection letter. So, you are really in the running. The bad news, of course, is that someone else is ahead of you and your fate now depends on their decisions. If you are on an alternate list the decision making process has passed out of the hands of the admission committee. You are probably not going to know more for some period of time, while the individuals who received the first round of offers ponder their decisions.

Is there anything you can do to help yourself while waiting on an alternate list? Yes, a few activities are advisable. Keep in touch with the admission officer or faculty member who informed you of your earning a place on their alternate list. Don’t call them every day, but do let them know you are still interested. Ask if there is any additional information the committee would like to have. If you should be moving or changing telephone numbers or e-mail addresses, be sure to let the school knows how to reach you.

You should also begin seriously considering your alternative plans. No matter how impressive your undergraduate record, your experiences, the glowing letters of reference about you; it is possible you will not move off the alternate list this year. Up until the point the applications were mailed your primary focus was probably on attending graduate school next year. After the letters are off and before you have been offered an acceptance is a good time to begin serious consideration of alternatives. You could consider working in an allied area and gaining experience which may augment your applications next year. You might consider other career options. It is always useful to have backup plans.


Suppose I get turned down from all the schools I apply to, what should I do?

Sulk for a little while and then move on to Plan B

None of us likes rejection and it is no fun to seek admission to graduate study and fail to gain a position. I know this from personal experience, the first time I applied to graduate programs none of my applications were accepted. After feeling sorry for myself awhile I spoke with one of my favorite professors. He pointed out several things I could have done differently to help my chances of success and encouraged me not to give up. I spent the next year working as an aide in a state mental hospital and completing a research project I had started for one of my professors. The next year I applied again and was successful; in part, I believe, both because I had heeded my teacher’s advice and because the experiences of the year contributed to the strength of my application.

It’s normal to feel bad when we are disappointed, but you wouldn’t want to let this disappointment be the determining factor in your life. As is implied by my “one line” answer above, you ought to have a “Plan B” to move on to. As much as you plan to begin your postgraduate education the next year, you should also be making some alternate plans in case you education is postponed by various events. Talk with your faculty advisors; ask them (again) for an “honest” (i.e., blunt) assessment of your record and you potential for success in graduate school. Do they think you should make another attempt? The ultimate decision is yours alone, but it doesn’t hurt to have as much input to consider as possible. Carefully consider this question:What can I do to enhance my future applications?

Whatever your final decision and outcome turns out to be, my best wishes to you.


Summary: Gather information, organize, plan, execute, monitor

Applying to graduate school is a major undertaking. It involves a good deal of your time and a significant amount of expense. Work at getting the most out of your time and money by carefully preparing for this task, going about it in a methodical and careful manner, and following up to make sure everything has been received by the school you are interested in. It is really helpful to have a faculty member you know pretty well to help you with the process. I look forward to meeting some of you in my classes.

Alvin E. House, Ph.D.
aehouse@ilstu.edu

personal web page: ../aehouse



What is the Personal Statement?

Graduate schools, fellowships, grants, and other competitive programs often require each applicant to submit a short essay about her history and goals. These essays are sometimes written in response to very specific questions; sometimes, they’re written in response to a generic prompt. In both cases, the good personal statement carefully balances its author’s history and aspirations.

Unlike much academic writing, personal statements are not necessarily thesis-driven. They tend to offer instead a narrative of development or illustrate a match between applicant and program. This does not mean the statement should narrate the applicant’s resume. Applicants should ask instead how the statement can enhance a particular element of the resume. Each applicant should ask how she might tell a compelling story about how and why she was drawn to a particular field of study, program, or career path.

How to Write a Personal Statement

The Basics

Start by examining the prompt. Oftentimes, applicants are asked very specific questions about why they are applying to a particular program and what, specifically, qualifies them to be part of that program. Think about the question you’ve been asked. Also, no matter how tempting it is, do not submit the same personal statement to multiple programs if those programs are asking different questions. Tailor each statement to each question.

Decide how your experience is different, interesting, or special. Personal statements succeed when they are specific. Don’t say you want to go to medical school because you want to help people or you want to be a veterinarian because you like animals. Instead, tell a story about Megan, the seven-year-old leukemia patient you met when you volunteered in the cancer ward of Boston Children’s Hospital in April 2008. Or, instead, describe how you watched Dr. Phillips, the local veterinarian in the Chicago suburb where you grew up, reset the broken leg of your neighbor’s Irish Setter, Morris, after the dog had been hit by beat-up Camaro on Oak Street.

Research the program. The program you’re applying to is also unique in some ways, and you should make it clear that you chose it carefully from among its competitors. Think about how your goals will best be served by this particular fellowship, internship, or university. Again, be specific. Any MBA program will grant you the “skills you need” to succeed in the business world. What will this specific MBA program do? Is the actuarial class taught by the president of the Casualty Actuarial Society? That would be important if you’re more interested in becoming a casualty actuary instead of a pension or health actuary.

Make your goals clear. Just as your past is interesting and specific, so is your future. What do you plan to do, and how will this program help you do it? Do you want to develop long-term convection models for the eastern seaboard? Or become a choreographer for a major ballet company? How do you plan to get there, and how does this particular program fit into that plan?

Drafting

Once you’ve thought about your history and your goals, start writing. It’s often very tempting to put this off. Writing a personal statement is stressful. But it’s important to start writing as soon as possible—especially because you’ll be revising again and again. Show how your personal history relates to your goals, and how you’re a good fit for this particular program. If your first attempt looks halting and a little half-baked, don’t worry. The first draft is supposed to look this way.

Revision

Revision is where the real work begins. Read through what you’ve written. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t:

  • Are you answering the question you set out to answer?
  • Are you specific enough?
  • Are you spending too much time on your personal history (this isn’t an autobiography, remember; only relevant information here)?
  • Is your tone consistent throughout?
  • Does your first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
  • Do you make it clear why you’ve applied to this particular program?
  • Do you have too many things competing for the focus of the statement? What should you consider cutting (even if you want to include everything)?

After looking over your writing, rewrite. Then, rewrite again.

More Revision

Once you feel the personal statement says what you want it to say, show it to somebody.The Writing Center can be useful here. It might also be useful to get feedback from a professional in your field. Many personal statement conventions are discipline-specific. What works in the hard sciences might not work in the humanities; what works for business majors might not work for artists.

Examples

Social Psychology Ph.D. Personal Statement (pdf)

Medical School Personal Statement (pdf)

School of Pharmacy Personal Statement (pdf)

NEAG School of Education Personal Statement (pdf)

English Ph.D. Statement of Purpose (pdf)

Links

Instructions on personal statements from other universities

Purdue

Indiana University

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