This article, Psychology graduate school essay, was previously written to guide my undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon UniversityWhy do graduate school admissions committees ask for essays?
Contrary to popular belief, their intention is not to add to the torture-some, uncertain graduate application process. Most members of these committees can still vividly recall the anxiety associated with the application process. They remember what it was like to be uncertain about the future. They may recall the anxiety inherent in the prospect of choosing between career and loved ones. Some may even remember having felt, “my self-worth can be measured by the outcome of this process.” So anxious were they that, in an effort to avoid the final judgment, many, if not most, “put off” writing their applications until the last possible moment.
If they recall the anxiety and the pain, why then do graduate committees insist, year after year, that another cohort of anxious undergraduates endure this process? At most institutions, the committee is providing the applicant with a chance to become more than “just a number”. Although many schools do have “cut-offs,” they may still have a mechanism for identifying the extremely promising exception. Those who do have rigid “cut-offs” use the essay to help identify which applicants they will invite for interviews.
How can you use the graduate essay to your advantage?
It may sound trite, but the essay is a place where you can help the committee to understand, “who you are”. What are your special, unique qualities? And, what struggles have you overcome? If your application has some apparent deficiencies, such as a bad year–a puzzling hiatus in your education–or low GRE’s, the committee will be trying to justify overlooking these weaknesses. In your essay, you provide a realistic, mature rationale for your “difficulties.”
So, for what exactly are graduate committees looking?
While the answer to this question varies from school to school and faculty member to faculty member, some general statements can be made. The committee is using the application to understand how you comport yourself. Just what does the application look like? Is it neat? Is it proofread? Is it clean? Despite the all too common anxiety endemic to the application process, committees tend to assume that applicants are “putting their best foot forward” when they write their applications. After all, committees know that you know that they use the application to get an “impression” of you.
Is this psychology graduate school essay well written?
People who write well tend to think well. Moreover, graduate students are required to do a considerable amount of writing in a short period of time. So, the committee will want to know, can you complete the writing requirements in a timely fashion? Obviously, this is more problematic for people who have difficulty writing.
Is your decision to enter graduate school an informed one?
The process you used for making the decision to go to graduate school is relevant for two reasons: First, it is indicative of the kinds of processes that you will use in making other important decisions. Second, a carefully informed decision is more likely to be a correct decision. Regarding the former, clinical psychology graduate students are required to make many important, even at times critical, decisions regarding the welfare of others. Therefore, it is important to admit graduate students with good judgment. Regarding the latter, graduate education is extremely costly. The general attitude at graduate schools tends to be to support students in completing their degrees. Nevertheless, some students do not complete their training. Often these are students who naively entered their training with very little understanding of the field. Students without experience have no basis for an informed decision. The committee will want to know that you have had more than a cursory experience with research and clinical work and that you derived a great deal of value from your experiences.
Is this student an enjoyable person with whom to work?
A graduate student and his/her advisor often have a close, in some sense intimate, relationship. The committee will want to know, is this person stimulating, challenging and enjoyable to have around? Is this person someone who I would like as a colleague?
Will this student help me get me research done?
Graduate faculty are devoted to carrying out programmatic research. Many graduate students are funded as research associates. Faculty will want to know, does this student have the requisite technical and creative research skills to be a meaningful collaborator? Can s/he help me get my papers out in a timely fashion? Can s/he make a meaningful contribution to my research program? Is s/he entering graduate school with any well developed research skills?
Can I trust this student to develop into a thoughtful, responsible, respectful clinician?
Is she knowledgeable about ethics and thoughtful in his/her approach to clinical situations? Does s/he have any clinical skills? Does s/he know what she is getting into? Does s/he appreciate the limits of her skills? Is s/he able to operate independently when appropriate, and to seek out supervision when necessary?
Most universities require 3 recommendations, and prefer them to come from faculty members who know you to some extent. Some mention that they'd accept recommendations from people who worked with you for a long enough while. They prefer not to hear from family members - which is a shame, since I bet my mom would've written me a knockout recommendation ;-)
One professor who was kind enough to explain the entire application process to me (over the phone) told me that recommendations are important, but that I really just needed one very enthusiastic/impressive recommendation, and two others that basically wouldn't object to my joining a PhD program :-) This was, probably, a slight exaggeration, but made me much calmer: I had only one contact in the academic world - the professor at whose lab I was volunteering.
It wasn't easy to get a recommendation out of him. I just didn't realize that at the same time, he was besieged by about a zillion other applicants who were hoping for his recommendation as well. I had to badger him a little - sometimes through the post-doc I was working with in reality, who was extremely helpful and kind.
I decided to also ask for a recommendation letter from a senior officer who worked with me for a few years in the Israeli army. The next letter I got was from a co-worker (clinical supervisor) with whom I've worked for about 6 months - he had a MA in psychology, so I was hoping his recommendation would help.
The universities allow you to either waive your right to see the recommendation, or not. Obviously, waiving it means you trust the recommendation writer to write something nice. This means that the recommendations need to be either sent to the universities by the writer, or be given to you in a sealed & signed envelope, which you will send in with your application. I chose to do it the second way, just to avoid having to worry about whether or not they sent out the letters.
I printed out the recommendation forms that the universities provided and filled out all the parts that I could, and then printed envelopes for the recommendation writers. I put little post-it notes on the forms and on the envelopes, so they would know where to put each letter, and I would know where to send the envelopes :-)
Generally, each writer printed out a separate recommendation letter (identical for each university) that was attached to the university form, which was also filled out. Both of those sheets were returned to me in a sealed envelope, signed across the seal. Having the printed details of the writer and myself on the envelope just made everything look nice and official.
I estimated it would take me about one week to get the envelopes back. I was right, which was a good thing - it was getting really close to the deadline date. If possible, I would suggest doing it a little bit in advance, but not too far in advance.
The most important thing is not to be embarrassed when asking for a recommendation. Just ask if they'd be willing to write you a recommendation - and try to ask this of people who you know appreciate you and can write good things about you. It doesn't hurt if you can attach some sort of title after their name ("PhD", "Lieutenant-General" and "MA" seems to have worked for me).