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Applying to Graduate School: Strategies and Time-line

The following schedule is a sample from one school and one academic term. Needless to say, details will vary at other schools, so consult your school's online academic schedule and course catalogs for appropriate alterations.


Students at our school should complete Careers in Psychology (PSY 210), which is required of all psychology majors.


Complete required courses in Statistics, Research Methods, and the social/personality/developmental grouping


Graduate schools will look especially closely at your grades in Statistics and Research Methods, so you will want to do very well in these courses.

You can also enhance your application by completing a research project. You will do one in Research Methods and also in the laboratory course required of all majors.

Taking a Directed Research course—in which you carry out an independent research project under the supervision of a faculty member—no later than during the fall quarter of your senior year—is also an excellent idea.

Students at our school should complete Statistics and Research Methods by the end of the fall quarter of the senior year. These courses will help you improve your analytical reasoning abilities.

The History and Systems course is essential if you are to do well on the psychology test of the Graduate Record Exam (which some schools may require you to take).

Remember that graduate schools will be evaluating your transcripts in January and February of your senior year so they won't know about your work in the winter and spring quarters.

Plan to take one or more courses from the professors from whom you will want recommendations by the fall term of your senior year (this may require pre-enrollment during your junior year). Also, take time to talk with them outside of class so they can get to know you. This will ensure that they will be familiar with you and your work before they write letters (typically in January).

You will usually need letters of recommendations from three faculty members. See the web page titled "How to Get Good Letters of Recommendation" for more advice.

Strive to meet the requirements for membership in Psi Chi, the national honor society in psychology, in your junior year so that you can list this on your application materials. (See What is Psi Chi? at the organization's home page.)

Read about selected occupations in the Occupational Outlook Handbook or OOH published online by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. This book is a comprehensive guide to occupations. It includes job descriptions, education and training requirements, salaries, advancement possibilities, and employment outlooks for hundreds of occupations.

Go to the OOH index and look up the page references for the occupations you are interested in, such as psychologist, social worker, or counselor. Note the titles of related jobs listed at the end of each occupational description. Find these job titles in the index if they interest you, and read about them.

Begin some serious reflection on the areas in psychology that most interest you. When you apply to graduate school, you must apply to programs in specific areas (clinical, developmental, experimental, social, etc.) so you will need to be clear about your focus. See the web page on "Areas of Specialization in Psychology".

Read all or part of the book, The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission: Psychology and Related Fields. (The link is to Amazon's used book inventory.) Students at our school can check this out from the secretary in the Psychology Department Office. This book will help you decide whether you want to apply to graduate school in psychology and inform you about the various things involved in this process.

Review the latest edition of the book, Graduate Study in Psychology. The link is to the APA's book page, where new copies are for sale. Our students can check out copies of this book from the department office. This book describes the programs, admissions requirements, and application deadlines for almost every graduate school in the U.S. and Canada.

You can save yourself a lot of time by using Graduate Study in Psychologyto review all the possible programs in which you might be interested. Include schools that represent a range of quality and level of degree (doctorate/master's). The widely-cited rule of thumb for graduate school applications is "apply to the best school you might get into, the worst you would accept, and several in between."

At this point, early in the process, you can afford to make a large list. When you have a list of 10-20 schools, go online to each school's admissions department and examine the latest information for prospective grad students about the school's programs and deadlines. The school might organize this into a package of documents you can download. The summer is a good time to begin collecting this information.

Don't hesitate to talk with your faculty advisor about specific questions that arise.


Start to narrow down the number of schools on your list to about 10, if you initially identified more possibilities. Two should be programs that are "long shots" (schools very desirable to you whose entrance requirements—GRE and GPA—you don't meet).

Two or three applications should be to "borderline" programs (you meet the GRE requirement, but not the GPA or vice- versa). Three to five should be "good match" programs (those whose average scores match yours); and one or two should be "almost sure bets" (programs whose requirements you clearly exceed).

Once you know the schools to which you might apply, start an information storage document such as a word processor or spreadsheet to list all relevant deadlines plus application materials required for each school (application form, GRE scores, autobiographical statement if required, letters of recommendation, financial aid applications).

A spreadsheet is the best tool for this. Every college student should know how to use spreadsheets anyway, so if you have not used one in a while, this a good time to brush up your skills. Use Excel or Google's free online spreadsheet app or any similar program. (All the free office software suites include spreadsheet programs as well.)

Put a list of schools in one column Put relevant deadlines in the second or adjacent column. Then make columns labeled at the top for each typical requirement graduate schools make during the application process, such "application form, GRE scores, autobiographical statement, letters of recommendation, financial aid applications."

That would be 5 columns, but there might be more for requirements like the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) or the Michigan Test for English as a Second Language if needed.

Put a blank column beside each "requirement" column. Use the requirement column to indicate if a school requires that type of information, then use the column next to it to indicate when you have completed that part of the application process, for that school. When you are done with your applications, you should have many double checks (in adjacent columns) indicating required submissions now completed.

Of course, there are many ways to make a checklist. The important thing is to be systematic. You could do it in a word processor by creating a table, changing text from red to green as you finish each step, or whatever works for you.

Use the summer months to prepare for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) if you need to take it. More than anything else, your admission to graduate school will depend on your scores on the verbal and quantitative sections of the GRE, not the Subject Test in psychology. To do your best on these exams, you must prepare for them. For additional information, see the page titled, "What Is the GRE?."

Use the summer months to prepare a draft of your personal/autobiographical statement. Most schools require such a statement as a way to find out about your personal and educational background, your interests in psychology, the reasons you want a graduate degree in psychology, and your career goals. Strive to be honest, objective, and brief (1 page single-spaced). See the page titled, "Preparing a Personal Statement.")

Take the GRE by late August. To monitor registration deadlines, check the GRE Information and Registration Bulletin online. Not all schools require applicants to take the Subject Test in psychology, but if you need to take it, you might consider doing the verbal and quantitative tests in October and the Subject Test in December. This will lessen your fatigue and also allow you to use the fall quarter to take psychology courses such as History and Systems and laboratory courses that might enhance your performance on the Test.


You should complete the Statistics and Research Methods courses by the end of the Fall Quarter of your senior year. Graduate schools will be evaluating your transcripts in January and February of your senior year so they won't know about your work in the Winter and Spring Quarters.


If possible, take a Directed Research course Fall Quarter and submit your paper to one of the undergraduate research conferences. Work on your autobiographical statement.


Take the verbal and quantitative sections of the GRE. (If you have decided not to take these in October, then register for the GRE given in December.) Ask faculty members to review the draft of your autobiographical statement. Make revisions as necessary.


Give recommendation forms to the faculty who will be writing recommendations for you. Provide a pre-addressed, stamped envelope for each recommendation. See the page titled, "How to Get a Good Letter of Recommendation."


Take the verbal and quantitative portions of the GRE if you have not done so in October. (If you registered to take the Subject Test in December, take it now.) Request that transcripts from all colleges you have attended be sent to programs to which you are applying (that should be an item on your application checklist for each institution, along with deadlines.

Complete applications with January deadlines. Use your check sheet to be sure that you have supplied all necessary information. Add a column to your check sheet for verifications you receive by email or messaging from each school, indicating your application is complete.


Check off the "application complete" column when you receive notifications. Contact any departments to which you made a complete application, if you have not received a verification that your application is complete. Most schools will not consider incomplete applications.

If there are any outstanding letters of recommendation, check with faculty to be sure that they have been sent.

Once you have made a decision about accepting admission to a school, be sure to tell other schools you will not be coming, so they can offer your place to another student. This is an important courtesy, so consider adding another column to your checklist where you can verify you have completed this step.

If all of your applications are rejected, consult with faculty about your options. You might: (1) work for a year, prepare for the GRE, and re-apply to psychology programs, (2) enter a master's program in psychology, re-take the GRE, reapply to doctoral programs, or (3) think about applying to degree programs in fields similar to psychology such as social work (M.S.W.) or education (M.Ed. or Ed.D.) if you have not already explored these options.

APA-style reference for this page:

Lloyd, M. A. (2008, August 12). Applying to Graduate School — Strategies and Time-line. Retrieved from:

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