Secrets of Standing Out From the Pile: Getting Into Graduate School
(full story below)
The following article by Matt Huss (published in the Spring, 1996 issue of the Psi Chi Newsletter) was written when he was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It provides some very valuable lessons that Matt learned as a result of his ultimately successful acceptance into the graduate school of his choice.
If you are beginning the process of applying to graduate school, you are realizing it's not easy. You are learning schools are looking for GRE scores of 800, GPAs of 4.5 on a 4.0 scale, at least two dozen publications, and a letter of recommendation from Sigmund Freud. Maybe not, but you probably felt as if this were at least close to the truth at times. I had similar thoughts when I was just applying to PhD programs, especially after I didn't get into a school the first time around. As a result of my first-time failure followed by my later success, I learned there were more factors involved in getting into graduate school than grades or GRE scores. I hope what I have learned can help those of you just starting the process.
When people speak of the keys to getting into graduate school, GRE scores and grades are usually the focus. They are seen as first-order criteria. They are referred to as first-order criteria because schools often look at these particular aspects of an application first. While this is true—and the importance of such criteria cannot be overemphasized—they are simply screening mechanisms for most schools. Schools have certain minimums or average scores they have found are characteristic of successful students. If programs advertise that their students’ average GRE scores are about 650 and their average GPA is 3.75, realize these are only averages. There are students who were accepted with 800s and 4.0s, but there are also students who were accepted with 550s and 3.3 grade point averages.
Depending on the area, a graduate program may receive anywhere from 50 to 500 applications in any given year. Most of these applicants are going to have high GRE scores and good grades or they wouldn't be applying to graduate school. All of these applications are going to be thrown into the pile. As long as your scores are around these averages, you can stay in the running (i.e., you can stay in the pile). The longer you stay in the pile, the better your chances are of getting into the school. If you have the basic credentials, the things that enable you to stick out from the rest of the applicants are going to get you admitted into the program.
One of the best ways to stand out from the rest of the pile is research, research, research! Most graduate programs are at large universities where faculty are under pressure to publish. Prospective applicants who have demonstrated they are capable of undertaking research projects—and have acquired a number of research skills—are very attractive to a program. These are skills faculty members won't have to spend time teaching a new student.
So how do you get involved in research? There are a number of ways. You can begin by looking up your undergraduate professors' names in the literature and seeing what types of things they are interested in, asking other students around the department, or simply going up to your professor and asking. Ask the faculty at your undergraduate institution for help on a research idea you have developed. If you don’t have an idea, even a rough one, ask to help your professor with entering data, searching the library for relevant literature, or collecting the data on one of their projects. None of these are glory jobs, but they get your foot in the door. If your professors are unable to help, and you are at an institution with a graduate program, ask one of the graduate students. As a graduate student, I can tell you that I have never turned away an undergraduate who was willing to make my life easier. Again, you may not be involved in the glory-filled aspects of the research, but you will get your foot in the door. After you have learned some of the basics of psychological research, maybe you will progress to analyzing some of the data, helping design the next study, or helping with the writing of a publication. You will learn enough to design and complete your own research project. Remember, the little mundane things can lead to some really great experiences.
Maybe you have contributed enough to a project to submit it to a research conference as a paper or poster. Submitting proposals and attending these professional conferences can be another way of sticking out from the pile. These experience can be invaluable. You may be intimidated initially by the thought of presenting at a conference and speaking in front of a group of people. However, there are student conferences and Psy Chi sessions at the six regional conferences and at the annual meetings of APA. These opportunities may prove to be less anxiety-provoking while still allowing you to get to meet other students (graduate and undergraduate) and professors whose research you are interested in or have read about in your classes. A student who has several conference presentations and a publication or two is definitely going to stand out from the pile. A school is going to perceive you as someone with a number of skills who can make a unique contribution. Conferences can also be sources of the newest research in the field and for information about the program in which you may be interested. Approach faculty or graduate students and ask them about their programs. You may stand out in that pile because a faculty member recognizes your name and can put a face with it. A graduate student may be the best and most honest source of information about a particular program. They know what it is like working with Dr. X and what the expectations are in terms of research and class work. If you can communicate in a personal statement or an interview that you have done your homework, it is going to impress.
Many times professional conferences help with another facet of standing out from the pile. Know your goals and your credentials. It is important that you have a goal in mind when you apply. Graduate school is not an end, but a means to an end. You attend graduate school because there is something you want to do or want to be that requires you get advanced training. It may be as specific as wanting to obtain an academic position at a major university doing research about hormones that influence human mating habits, or you may simply want to be a child psychologist. The more specific it is, the better able you are going to be at communicating your intentions to a program. Having that goal in mind is going to carry you through a lot of long nights filling out phone-book-sized applications and putting up with the garbage that comes along with getting into graduate school. This doesn't mean your goals can't change later, just that you have a solid idea for why you are entering graduate school now.
Knowing what your credentials are is also very helpful. Examine your strengths and weaknesses thinking about what you need to do to stand out. If you are interested in doing clinical work with battered women, then volunteer at a community shelter. If you are considering teaching at a college or university when you finish school, concentrate on getting involved in research if you aren't already. If your GRE scores weren't so hot the first time you took the exam, use one of the many study guides or computer programs for review or attend one of the GRE preparation classes. If you have a great research or clinical experience, make sure you emphasize that in your application. Be aware of the basic skills you have acquired over your life. Accentuating these skills is going to help you stick out from the pile.
Much of what has been discussed can be captured in two very important secrets to getting into graduate school. First, acquire all of the knowledge you can about getting into graduate school or a particular program. Knowledge truly is power. This may mean reading articles about getting into graduate school (hey, good idea), looking through PsycLIT for the names and research interests of certain professors, attending sessions devoted to the topic at professional conferences, asking your own undergraduate professors, and talking to graduate students and faculty from other universities. Do anything you can to find out about the process. Ask the same questions of a number of different people to get a perspective you may have missed. There are a variety of things that have not been touched upon that can be instrumental in helping you stand out.
Secondly, individuals with the ability to propel themselves through all of the hard work involved in getting into graduate school are going to stand out. It has been called motivation, enthusiasm, fire in the belly, or (my personal favorite) the eye of the tiger. Students who have the energy to work harder, do more, and get excited about what they are doing, are going to be noticed. Professors enjoy working with students who possess an energy and a curiosity about the field. These are the types of students who are always seeking out additional opportunities to get involved. These are the types of students who stick out from the pile. If you are one of these students, then you possess another characteristic that is going to put you ahead.
Though it is becoming more difficult each year to gain admittance into a graduate program, there are a number of things that prospective students can do to increase their chances. Besides getting the best possible grades and doing well on the GRE, students need to work on the things that will make them unique and stand out from the group. The more secrets you learn, the greater your chances.
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