how hard is it to get into grad school for psychology?

Last Updated on August 30, 2023

There is a lot of stuff to know concerning the psychology graduate programs. Tons of psychology undergrads are often concern about getting into masters or doctorate programs in this field. Here you will get more answers about psychology grad school requirements, how to get into grad school for clinical psychology and also tips for succeeding at graduate school.

Since psychology is a popular major, admissions for graduate study in psychology can be highly competitive.

Having strong academic qualifications—such as a higher GPA and a competitive GRE score—could be one aspect of a stronger application. Many psychology grad programs also require relevant work experience.

There are many factors, though, that can come into play in the admissions process. It’s beneficial to consider how you square up with a school’s posted admissions requirements. In addition, you might also want to identify schools with program goals and faculty specializations that align with your own professional interests.

Graduate schools can have their own visions and values, and they often have a more tight-knit culture than undergraduate programs. When you find a graduate school that’s a good match, highlighting those alignments in personal statements and admissions interviews can be a helpful approach.

Careers in Psychology

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While there are many branches and areas of specialization in psychology, there are two overarching pathways to consider, regardless of specialization. These two paths are applied psychology and research or experimental psychology.

Careers in applied psychology are those related to the delivery of psychotherapeutic care and services. Careers in research psychology involve clinical lab experimentation or the use of observational data for the advancement of psychological science.

The fact is that there is a demand for people with training in psychology in a wide variety of careers, particularly for those with advanced degrees. Let’s take a look at just some of the careers in psychology available to the expert in psychology.


If you are particularly passionate about questions of psychology for their own sake, then you might be interested in becoming a full-fledged researcher or university instructor in psychology. Virtually all careers in psychology doing active research require many years of education and advanced degrees in psychology. Researchers develop psychology experiments and theories and often publish their work in leading scholarly journals. University instructors are expected to produce high-quality research and also provide high-quality education to university students. Researchers often work at universities as professors or instructors, though there are private firms that hire psychology researchers, as well.

Counseling or Therapy

Many people who study psychology in the U.S. are interested in helping people improve their psychological well-being. Psychological health problems can arise for many reasons, including biological injury or malfunction, stress, marital troubles, the death of a loved one, or experiencing traumatic events. Those interested in helping people cope with these issues, develop mechanisms to remain psychologically healthy, and help provide stable marriage and family relationships might be particularly interested in studying counseling or therapy. Some of the careers in psychology in this area include marriage counselor, child or school counselor, or personal therapist.

Organizational/Industrial Psychologist

International students might be interested in applying principles of psychology to the workplace. Many institutions and organizations can be made more productive, efficient, and the people within them made happier using the tools one learns in psychology. Industrial psychologists study aspects of psychology that relate to keeping workers happy and hard-working, along with applying principles of psychology to help managers more effectively facilitate workers’ needs. If you are interested in working with businesses organizations to run better and more smoothly, then you might be interested in organizational or industrial psychology.

Educational Psychologist

Beyond giving advice to individual students, international students who are interested in the psychology of development and learning in order to maximize students’ potential in the classroom. Those who have an interest in helping to develop effective teaching strategies for students of all ages might be particularly interested in a career in educational psychology. Educational psychologists apply their knowledge of how memory works, effective methods of teaching students to read and learn mathematics, how to design lesson plans, and many other aspects of teaching to ensure teachers provide students with the best educational experience possible. If you would like to maximize the potential of students, educational psychology might be right for you.

Because of the variety of careers available to those who study psychology in the U.S., it is not possible to give specific details regarding salaries one can expect. However, many of them pay quite well even at starting positions. International students who have an interest in a career in psychology have many exciting options.

psychology grad school requirements

Psychology Graduate School Application Requirements


As you begin to apply to graduate school, know that schools look at the whole person in the decision-making process. This begins with an assessment of an applicant’s academic performance using school transcripts. Schools will review your college transcripts to identify coursework you took, grades you received, and your overall pattern of performance. They pay particular interest to the last 60 credits of your undergraduate degree. This comprises your junior and senior years when you take upper-level courses in psychology or another major. Generally, graduate schools in psychology want to see an average 3.0 cumulative GPA.

While many graduate schools in psychology will not consider a student with less than a 3.0 GPA, competitive GRE scores override a lower GPA. Find out the expectations of each school and try to exceed them or provide supplemental evidence of your readiness for graduate school. If you attended more than one college, present all of your transcripts to each graduate school unless they say otherwise. You can order transcripts in person, online, or in writing. Graduate schools generally want official transcripts. Some schools provide them for free. Start the ordering process early to avoid any delays that could hamper your progression through the application process.

Test Scores

ETS allows test takers to designate up to four recipients of your GRE general test and/or subject test scores. The organization provides this service as part of your test fee. You submit the request at the center when taking the computer version or at the time of registration for the paper version. You pay $27 for each additional recipient.


The selection committee for graduate students at each institution appraises all aspects of their educational and professional life. They review your resume to measure your accomplishments since you left college, and they look for any experience in psychology that might bolster your chance of admittance.

A strong resume makes up for lackluster academic performance or poor GRE test scores. Some programs require specific experience, depending on the needs of the professors and department. Emphasize the most relevant and recent work experience applicable to psychology. If you do not boast experience or you have an employment gap, remember that skills from other professions can transfer over. Your research and data analytics skills as a marketing associate matter to a professor seeking a research assistant.

Those with no experience should find volunteer work, community service, or internships applicable to responsibilities in their area of psychology. High-impact volunteerism over the summer could likewise make the difference to a selection committee. Psychology majors need a desire to help others and an ability to juggle work, family, and community.

Essays and Personal Statements

Admissions committees review information from piles of applicants before they make a decision. Your job remains to stand out in the crowded field, a task facilitated by a personal statement or essay. Some people get confused about the difference between a statement of purpose and an essay or personal statement. A statement of purpose answers specific questions about why you chose psychology, your interest in the particular program, your proposed plan of study, and your short-term and long-term career goals. An essay outlines your experience and qualifications in the field, as well as how you fit in the program.

Always submit an essay even if it’s optional; essays allow you to personalize your application in a way that other materials in the package cannot. Think about the essay as a marketing tool. Before you start writing, think about the main takeaways. Why should they choose me? Why do I fit into this department? What will I accomplish with this degree from this department? In your preliminary notes, structure the essay with a dynamic and coherent theme or narrative, and begin the essay with a hook that grabs the attention of the reader. Highlight your strengths, give specific examples of coursework or research, and succinctly discuss your relationships with faculty mentors. Keep the essay to the established length. Use as many credible resources as you can find to complete a winning essay.

Case Study Analysis

As you study how to apply for graduate school, consider that schools may require you to craft a case-study analysis as part of their application. First, follow their guidelines. The case study may focus on a real or imagined individual, group, or event. Alternately, they may focus on a particular research area or topic. The graduate school may require that you provide a background history and present a diagnosis using the relevant Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. In the second part of the analysis, you will outline the needed intervention. This case study provides the admissions officer with some insight into you and your expertise. It highlights what you know, your analytical skills, and where you fit within the particular program.

Letters of Recommendation

Schools request two to four letters of recommendation from former advisers, professors, research mentors, or employers. Begin this process as soon as possible to give the people you asked for a recommendation ample time to write a letter on your behalf. Schools want to hear from those with experience working directly with you, so make sure to ask someone who can speak accurately on your behalf.

Once they agree, provide them with a packet of your application materials, which may include a personal statement and points that deserve inclusion, for their reference. Schools want to hear about your research experience, presentations, scholarship, and your overall performance as a student. You may certainly ask those giving you references to speak to certain aspects of your work. Check in with those recommending you a few weeks before the application deadline to ensure that they complete and send their letter.

English Proficiency Tests

English proficiency tests, such as the test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL), measure a test taker’s language skills. TOEFL remains the most widely used academic English-proficiency test. Schools generally request that students complete the test if English is not their first language. Two lesser known tests, the international English language testing system and the test of English for international communication, also test students’ and workers’ English language proficiency. The TOEFL, which is delivered online, tests reading and listening skills when test takers answer questions after they read sample passages. The TOEFL also tests speaking and writing skills when test takers vocally respond or express an opinion about a particular topic.

Background Check

Schools may require you to submit to a background check for participation in internships, practicums, and other fieldwork, especially when working with minors; forensics; or in governmental positions at the local, state, and federal level. Schools may review driving records, criminal or court records, sex-offenders lists, and state licensure records. Some states may require fingerprinting. Make sure to mention any anomalies in your application.

how to get into grad school for clinical psychology

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Admission to PhD programs in clinical psychology is very competitive. Ratios of 300 applicants to 8 positions are common (though perhaps 10-15 people would have to be accepted to fill the 8 slots; some who are accepted decide to go elsewhere, or enter a different kind of graduate or professional program ). Different programs emphasize different characteristics, but it is safe to say that in all programs GREs and GPAs are examined closely. Graduate students in Northwestern’s program have averaged over 1400 on the GRE (Verbal plus Quantitative), with an average GPA of over 3.5. (GPAs for the last two years of undergraduate schooling are most important, so students with uneven early records have a good chance if they’ve improved.) There are respectable programs whose students score lower on these measures, but students who have lower than 1200 on the GRE or a GPA of less than 3.3 can expect to find it difficult to get into a top graduate program in clinical psychology without other special qualifications.

Regarding less standardized criteria, most graduate programs in clinical psychology will prefer that you have taken a course in psychopathology, e.g., our Psych 303. Introduction to Clinical Psychology (Psych 306) can also be useful, in part as a way to learn more about the field and your options within it. Most graduate schools also expect students to have obtained some research experience. The primary concern is that students should have conducted some psychological research in order to know whether they find it interesting. From an admissions perspective, it is less important that you have had clinical research experience than it is that you have had meaningful research experiences (e.g., not just entering data). It is also important that you be able to solicit a letter of recommendation from at least one research supervisor. This means that it is important to get involved in research before you do your applications. If you plan to apply to graduate programs during fall of your senior year, then you should begin your research involvement as a junior, or even earlier.

Northwestern’s psychology department offers many research opportunities for undergraduate students. Each quarter, many of our students do research for course credit through 399-Independent Study or the two-quarter sequence 397-Advanced Supervised Research. You can learn more about 399 and 397, including their requirements and the differences between them, by reading our webpage on research for course credit. This page also includes tips on choosing a professor with whom to do research. Other students obtain paid positions in the department, typically through the federal work-study program. You should make sure that your research experience provides you with an in-depth look at the nature of psychological research and at the theories and past research relevant for the questions under investigation. Entering data, scheduling research participants, and so on are integral parts of the research process, but it is important to do much more than that.

Some psychology students hope to do research that is outside the specific projects for which their faculty supervisors have funding. In addition, students who want to do research on campus during the summer may need to earn money for living expenses. Northwestern University, Weinberg College, and the psychology department all have funds available on a competitive basis to support student research. Guidelines for applying for the psychology department’s Benton J. Underwood Summer Fellowship are always included in the winter edition of our undergraduate newsletter, Swift Thinking. See the Weinberg College webpage on funds for undergraduate research and the university page on Research Opportunities for Undergraduates for additional funding options.

Many graduate schools give a great deal of consideration to the likely match between potential students’ interests and faculty interests. Students can convey their interests through the personal statements they include in their applications and in direct contact with relevant professors. If you have strong interests in a professor’s research, this will make you a much more desirable applicant to that person. But you must be able to convey that your interests are serious, for example, by discussing a specific study. Faculty will not be impressed if it appears that you merely scanned the departmental brochure searching for topics that sound interesting.

Students may also want to consider trying some hands-on counseling-type work. Many agencies accept and train volunteers. For example, volunteering at a teen drop-in center or a hospital, working as a camp counselor for special needs children, and answering phones for a helpline can all be relevant experiences. If your goal is to work with some specific population – troubled teens, the elderly, autistic children – then you should try to gain some firsthand experience with this population. In part, this may serve as a valuable credential when you apply for graduate training. Perhaps more importantly, it will let you know if working with this population is as rewarding for you as you expect it to be. Two student groups – Northwestern Community Development Corps (NCDC) and OASIS – are good sources of information about volunteer opportunities in Evanston and surrounding communities

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