For some, graduate school is no more than an escape from the so called "real world," where disappointed and discontent college grads seek to prolong their dreams of the institutionalized college life. For others, grad school is the Ivory Tower with the shimmering light of knowledge and scholarship. Then again, grad school is also just a stretch down the road called "career" that is in a sense similar to an internship, or entry level position. But no matter how you perceive graduate school, every year there are many of us stepping down the path with anxiety, and hoping to one day open a letter with "acceptance" written in bold. Now the summer is over, and it is that time of the year once again. For those who are applying to graduate school in Psychology, this is going to be a stressful Autumn. I empathize with your stress, and hope that I can give you a little help.
The first step of applying to graduate school is to identify a program that suits your interests and career goals. There are many different focuses in the field of psychology, such as neuro, cognitive, experimental, clinical, counseling, applied, etc. Each of the programs will lead you onto a different career path, and your graduate school training and experiences will be completely different depending on the program.
Depending on the program to which you are applying, you may need to take the GRE. If you can, take it early. Why? Because you can take it gain if you are not satisfied with your scores. Do keep in mind that it takes a few weeks for the ETS (the organization that administers the test) to deliver your official scores, so make sure your tests scores can be mailed to the schools before their deadlines. Also, at least for clinical psychology doctoral program, schools are required to publish their enrollment statistics that include the GRE scores of their current students, so you can get a good idea of what kind of GRE scores you need.
Personal statement and Curriculum Vitae
Most programs would require a Curriculum Vitae (C.V.) and personal statement of some sort. A C.V. is like a resume with a specific focus, which in this case, is academic. There are plenty of online resources for examples, and many professors and graduate student also have their C.V.s posted for public access. In general, your C.V. should include everything that is relevant in your pursuit of higher education, such as academic achievement, research experiences, professional experiences, and publications (or presentations).
Personal statement is a center piece of your application. In many cases it is the only part of your application materials that allows you to speak for yourself to the reviewers (until you get that interview invitation!). Those short 2 to 3 pages carry a huge responsibility. Although everyone has a different opinion on how to write a personal statement, in general it needs to deliver the message that you are a passionate, competent, and compatible candidate. You should also tailor it to the needs of different programs, and address yourself specifically to each program.
Letters of recommendation
If you haven't identified all the people who are going to write a letter of recommendation for you, you need to act now. Professors are busy. They need to know now that you would like a letter of recommendation around the end of November. It also takes time and effort for a good letter. Give them as much time as possible, so they can produce a quality letter for you. Ask them now, then gently remind them in October.
Fees and deadlines
Most Ph.D. programs set their deadlines on Dec. 1st. Some other Ph.D. programs and Master's programs may have late deadlines such as Dec 15th or Jan 1st (some Master's programs have deadlines in the spring). Since almost all programs have an online application portal, absolute last minute submission is possible, although it would require enormous emotion regulation and anxiety management skills to cope with the stress produced by such a strategy. Early submission would be good, but the whole application process is tedious and complicated. Also, there could be experiences and opportunities between now and December that may boost your C.V. and potential. So take your time, but don't wait until the last minute. Give yourself a week or two for faxing missing documents, mailing additional forms, and hustling letters of recommendation (hopefully you won't need this, because you asked and reminded your professors in September).
Oh, and there are fees. There are many ways to get application fees reduced or removed, and the easiest way to find out is to go on the program's website or give them a call. Well, if you are like me and many others who had no other choice but to pay the full fee, hey, at least that means you are only one step away from the finish line.
Once you are done, stop thinking about how impossible it is to pay back your credit card debt. Congratulate yourself for this accomplishment, because soon you will agonize over the stress of waiting for interview invitations. But that will be for another time...