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Reflections & Advice from Fall 2020 cycle


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Hey all! Last year, someone started a reflections and advice thread, and reading it gave me valuable perspective as I went through the process this past fall/winter. Now that we're all one year older and wiser, I was thinking we can share some insights for next year's batch of applicants!

 

These are some things I learned from this process:

- Don't do this alone.  Looking back at my first draft of my SOP versus the final draft after months of meeting with one of my professors for feedback, it's night and day. I would have been so lost if I had insisted on doing everything by myself. Having a good support system is so, so, so important.

- Publications are overrated.  My biggest anxiety during the app process was that I was at a major disadvantage because I don't have any publications. However, I was pleasantly surprised that PIs seemed so interested in my prior research despite never publishing. I really do think they care more about experience and potential than publication record.

- Recommendation letters matter WAY more than you think they do.  I was shocked by how often my letters were brought up during interviews. The non-academic content of these letters also carries a surprising amount of weight. PIs are looking for genuinely decent people that they can get along with, and they get information about your character from your LORs. 

- Interview visits aren't meant to be formal/stressful.  Every one of these visits was so fun and relaxed. I was shocked by how few candidates were left at that point and how informal everybody was. It was great just to meet so many interesting people and gain the insight I needed to make my decision. 

- You're going to end up where you belong.  I always assumed it would be impossible to get into my top programs. What I didn't realize was that since my top programs were the ones where I had the best fit with PIs' research, I would actually be more likely to get into those programs than ones where I was less of a fit. I found my perfect program match, and they found their perfect match in me!

- You DESERVE your success.  Ultimately, as competitive of a process this is, people do succeed. That person will (at some point, if not this cycle) be you, and when it is, be proud! You've earned it. 

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9 hours ago, imemine said:

Hey all! Last year, someone started a reflections and advice thread, and reading it gave me valuable perspective as I went through the process this past fall/winter. Now that we're all one year older and wiser, I was thinking we can share some insights for next year's batch of applicants!

 

These are some things I learned from this process:

- Don't do this alone.  Looking back at my first draft of my SOP versus the final draft after months of meeting with one of my professors for feedback, it's night and day. I would have been so lost if I had insisted on doing everything by myself. Having a good support system is so, so, so important.

- Publications are overrated.  My biggest anxiety during the app process was that I was at a major disadvantage because I don't have any publications. However, I was pleasantly surprised that PIs seemed so interested in my prior research despite never publishing. I really do think they care more about experience and potential than publication record.

- Recommendation letters matter WAY more than you think they do.  I was shocked by how often my letters were brought up during interviews. The non-academic content of these letters also carries a surprising amount of weight. PIs are looking for genuinely decent people that they can get along with, and they get information about your character from your LORs. 

- Interview visits aren't meant to be formal/stressful.  Every one of these visits was so fun and relaxed. I was shocked by how few candidates were left at that point and how informal everybody was. It was great just to meet so many interesting people and gain the insight I needed to make my decision. 

- You're going to end up where you belong.  I always assumed it would be impossible to get into my top programs. What I didn't realize was that since my top programs were the ones where I had the best fit with PIs' research, I would actually be more likely to get into those programs than ones where I was less of a fit. I found my perfect program match, and they found their perfect match in me!

- You DESERVE your success.  Ultimately, as competitive of a process this is, people do succeed. That person will (at some point, if not this cycle) be you, and when it is, be proud! You've earned it. 

I think generally this is a nice/accurate reflection, but from my understanding only parts of these apply to social and don't apply to other areas (e.g., clinical).

 

For example, in an increasingly competitive pool of applicants, pubs/posters do matter (they are not a guarantee of acceptance and not going to sink you if you don't have them, but they are a huge pro). Similarly, in clinical programs, the interviews should be enjoyable, but interviews should be viewed formally and treated with a healthy degree of stress. I can think of several students that have interviewed for our program that have made bad impressions for being too informal with current students or faculty. 

 

Again, I think this list is nice and helpful, but I wanted to chime in about this not necessarily generalizing to all areas of psych. 

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1 hour ago, Clinapp2017 said:

I think generally this is a nice/accurate reflection, but from my understanding only parts of these apply to social and don't apply to other areas (e.g., clinical).

 

For example, in an increasingly competitive pool of applicants, pubs/posters do matter (they are not a guarantee of acceptance and not going to sink you if you don't have them, but they are a huge pro). Similarly, in clinical programs, the interviews should be enjoyable, but interviews should be viewed formally and treated with a healthy degree of stress. I can think of several students that have interviewed for our program that have made bad impressions for being too informal with current students or faculty. 

 

Again, I think this list is nice and helpful, but I wanted to chime in about this not necessarily generalizing to all areas of psych. 

Honestly, I disagree. I had a lot of formal research experience and no posters/conferences/first author pubs. It wasn’t a big deal because of my experience and what I wanted to do. It varies, and I think this forum can push publications excessively at times. 
 

 

 

On the original topic, my advice would be to never undervalue research match. Really try to nail down what you want to do, more than “work with kids with trauma.” Have some idea that you can talk about, show where it came from and why it interested you. My most successful interviews and offers came from schools where I spent half an hour geeking out with the professor about ideas we both thought were good. 
 

Also, if something feels off, or you have a small worry about a school/POI....listen to that voice. I had that experience with one school I interviewed at and the outcome was bad all around. You know when something isn’t right. 

Edited by andhowdoesthatmakeyoufeel
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Some of my key reflections after a second painful, arduous, and frustrating time, albeit rewards and insane amounts of pride and accomplishment:

1) This process is incredibly frustrating and often very arbitrary. I applied a second time to my top program and wasn’t invited for an interview both times. When speaking with a professor I’ve been in contact with who works in the program, I learned the decision of who to invite was like “splitting hairs.” Basically like comparing an A to an A+. Someone might have one or two small (but apparently big enough) advantages over you. I felt far more qualified for this program as compared to my first time applying and I learned I made my PI’s short list for interviews but still did not make the final cut. The difference might come down to a PI having space to only invite four people, and you happen to be the fifth. Thus, you’re not invited. It’s all incredibly painful but I’ve had to remind myself that I’m still a qualified and hardworking person. I could never lie and say it didn’t hurt my soul to know I was very high on my very top PI’s list but wasn’t invited. Doesn’t mean I’m not a good candidate and don’t have a bright and successful future ahead. Just means this process is unimaginably competitive and, again, might sometimes boil down to a couple factors. 
 

2) If you don’t get in the first time, try again! During the time, reflect on what you can improve, build connections with mentors, expand and also narrow in on your research interests. Take the awful GRE again if you truly must. I took it a third time for second app cycle and as much as I hated every minute studying for that exam, my verbal score was much better and I think that’s the score PhD programs value the most. I know it sucks to retake but sometimes you gotta do the shitty things that are eventually (and hopefully) worth it. 
 

3) Interview day is a formal thing that should be taken seriously. Although tbh I really didn’t see or interact with anyone at my interviews who was informal, unprofessional, or uninteresting. I think if you make it to an interview, you clearly have what it takes. Now faculty just want to see how you are as a person. Do you listen to other applicants talk (if in a group interview) or do you look too busy thinking about your own response? Do you ask questions? Are you kind, respectful, easy to talk to, personable, hardworking? All traits of a quality psychologist. Be yourself, respect others, and show them who you are as a lovely, smart, determined person. 
 

I’m sure I have more reflections in my mind somewhere in the distance... after all, my second time applying felt that much more important to get in. If this is something you can see yourself spending your life doing, you’ll do the things to accomplish your dreams. 

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My background: applied to counseling and clinical fully funded Doctoral programs. Some PSYDs are emergency schools
 

my experience:

Research match is EVERYTHING in these programs (not PSYDs). It doesn’t have to be word for word but if you can articulate how your research to this point can transition well to the POIs work, that will impress during statement reading and interviews. Publications and presentations help but you don’t NEED them to compete with others.

Interview day is formal. I went through multiple interview through out this process and watch many applicants shoot themselves in the foot by over sharing, asking questions that you can find online, and did I mention over sharing. Also, if your staying with someone or get chances to talk to people in your POIs Lab, ask about their research and go into detail with them. This is very important. I have 4 different POIs ask during the interview, did you get a chance to talk to anyone in my lab, did they tell you about their work with me and their own, what did you think of it and how does that fit with what your wanting to do?

be realistic, some schools are too hard for you to get in. if you don’t match the averages the accepted students have significantly then X out the program. If you get that through your head now, it will feel better than later down the line when you get 5 rejections from “reach” schools in the first week of December.

Big picture Idea:

the acceptance Stats to funded R1 programs are very low. Like as low as 3% and maybe as high as 12%. No luck is involved! If you got the interview you passed the “are you worthy phase”. Means your qualified, competitive, and unique. Good luck to everyone next year who didn’t make it.

 

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1 hour ago, andhowdoesthatmakeyoufeel said:

Honestly, I disagree. I had a lot of formal research experience and no posters/conferences/first author pubs. It wasn’t a big deal because of my experience and what I wanted to do. It varies, and I think this forum can push publications excessively at times. 
 

 

 

On the original topic, my advice would be to never undervalue research match. Really try to nail down what you want to do, more than “work with kids with trauma.” Have some idea that you can talk about, show where it came from and why it interested you. My most successful interviews and offers came from schools where I spent half an hour geeking out with the professor about ideas we both thought were good. 
 

Also, if something feels off, or you have a small worry about a school/POI....listen to that voice. I had that experience with one school I interviewed at and the outcome was bad all around. You know when something isn’t right. 

I have to agree with this too. I had a very niche research interest, and had only done work with adjacent populations (disordered eating instead of eating disorders). I had an interview with one of the leading eating disorder researchers in the field, and was heavily intimidated by the other applicants on interview day who had years of experience with eating disorders. However, the PI and I hit it off during the interview and despite my lack of in depth research in the field, she sensed my passion and loved my proposed dissertation topic. I ended up getting the offer without a single publication or poster on Anorexia.

So for future applicants, research experience is obviously important. We all know this. But if you don't have the most pubs or most posters, it is not the be all end all. Just display your passion and knowledge and hope for the best. Its all you can do.

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1 hour ago, andhowdoesthatmakeyoufeel said:

Honestly, I disagree. I had a lot of formal research experience and no posters/conferences/first author pubs. It wasn’t a big deal because of my experience and what I wanted to do. It varies, and I think this forum can push publications excessively at times. 
 

 

 

On the original topic, my advice would be to never undervalue research match. Really try to nail down what you want to do, more than “work with kids with trauma.” Have some idea that you can talk about, show where it came from and why it interested you. My most successful interviews and offers came from schools where I spent half an hour geeking out with the professor about ideas we both thought were good. 
 

Also, if something feels off, or you have a small worry about a school/POI....listen to that voice. I had that experience with one school I interviewed at and the outcome was bad all around. You know when something isn’t right. 

You are free to disagree and, again, I don't think it's a requirement, but I would not underplay the importance of research products. I, too, did not have published papers (several posters and awards) when I got into my clinical phd, but it helped that I had two papers in revision that got published shortly after starting. Technical skills in research are extremely important, as is the research match, but I think the icing on the cake (but not 100% needed) is showing that you have experience to push things across the finish line. 

 

I agree with your points, too, that are important about narrowing down your research scope. I know a lot of people start off really broad in the hope of being of value to more PIs, but this can actually backfire pretty easily. 

 

 

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My two cents from applying to clinical psychology programs FOUR times and having a wholly different experience this time around:

  1. Selecting Programs
    1. Apply to the maximum number of programs for which:
      1. You can make a compelling argument for research fit with a faculty member (see below for further fit discussion).
      2. You can honestly imagine yourself attending. Do not overthink this one, but don't under-think it either. If you find yourself considering something as a "safety", but when you imagine yourself only getting that offer, you feel like you would consider reapplying, you might want to drop that one from your list.
      3. Your individual budget/finances allow.
    2. If possible, do not geographically limit yourself.
    3. Apply to fully-funded, accredited (APA and/or PCSAS) programs. If you stray from this advice, your mileage may vary and the rest may not apply.
      1. Attempt not to "pre-rank" the programs in your mind, either by your own assessment of who/what/where you think you'll like, or by relying on some external ranking system. PhD programs are not "ranked" like undergraduate programs. 
      2. Beyond funding, consider the research productivity (quantity and quality) of the particular lab you are entering and the post-docs/tenure-track positions achieved by recent grads.
    4. Review program and faculty websites to ensure your intended mentors are considering taking students this round. Unless the faculty member’s web page specifically says they do not want applicants to reach out, send a brief, polite e-mail expressing your interest in applying (and/or inquiring as to whether they are reviewing applications for their lab). 
      1. If you find yourself at a conference or talk with faculty members to whom you are applying, you may make a polite, quick introduction there instead (or additionally). You want your name to ring a bell when they read applications.
  2. Applications and Interviews
    1. Fit is everything. 
      1. Research fit. Do your research on your research interest. As others have said above, there is a huge difference between a candidate who can talk about how they want to work with "kids with anxiety" or "study drug use", and a candidate who is familiar with the specific literature in their area of interest (especially that of the faculty member to whom they are applying to work with). It is even better if you can prove your ability to conduct research in this specific area. (More on that in a later section.) 
        1. Re-iterating from above, but don't apply to programs you (or others) perceive to be "high-rank" or "prestigious". Apply to work with individual mentors who happen to be employed by specific institutions.
        2. Consider the fit of "your list". This is something that I personally really struggled with in my previous application cycles. While it made sense to me why I was applying to so many "different" programs/mentors (I was originally interested in the forensic area, which is admittedly not as well defined as others), I know that it made it harder to tell a clear story about what I saw next in my life. Don't present yourself at a fork in the road--know which path you're traveling down. If an interviewer (or application) asks you to list other programs you are applying to, you want them to say "Oh yeah, that makes sense, my colleague so-and-so is there."
      2. Personality and attitude. You will be spending more (waking) time with the folks in your lab than probably anyone else in your life for the next 4-6 years, so both your potential mentors and lab mates are considering this. They want a sure thing. This means walking a fine line so that you're not too stiff and formal and hard to read, but also that you avoid any sort of faux pas. 
        1. Be you. Don't be afraid to mention hobbies or interests outside of academia. There are labs/mentors out there who really want someone who has no life outside of their research, but if that isn't you, don't pretend it is. Don't be formal, don't be informal. Be appropriately collegial. 
        2. Be the best version of you. My recommendation is to talk to those who know you best. Ask about how you present yourself. Ask for honest feedback about things you typically do and say that may not bother them, but that they can probably see as red flags. My friends and mentor both heard from me, "Be completely honest. Is there anything you see me do or say that you want to say, 'Oh no don't do that in an interview!', even if you really think I know better than to do that." The answer will hopefully be something small, like "you wring your hands when you're nervous" or "sometimes you talk too quickly", but even if it's big business, you'd rather know sooner than later. 
    2. Scores open doors, but your CV is the key.
      1. I think everyone knows that you need to have a good GPA and GRE to get into grad school--but this is really only important in the first stage of application review. I think (hope) it will become less important there too--and have seen movement towards that as programs begin to realize that these scores (especially those from standardized tests) do not uniformly reflect potential to succeed in graduate school and have systematic biases that work against individuals who have already been marginalized in other ways (i.e. racial minorities, low SES).  Some universities say that they holistically review all applications and have no strict cut-offs. This might be nominally true, but I don’t think it changes the base advice.
        1. If one of these scores is particularly low, you're going to want to have an explanation if asked in an interview. You additionally will want at least one of your letter writers to be able to speak specifically to how it is not a true reflection of your performance and potential (more to come below).
        2. This is one place where connecting with faculty before submitting your application can also help—essentially you want to have a reason to be pulled from the initial pile of applications into the smaller pile that undergoes full review. 
      2. More important in showing your ability to be a productive, successful graduate student is proof that you are already producing and succeeding. While it is possible to gain admission to a Clinical Psychology PhD program without presentations or publications, applicant pools are becoming increasingly, almost impossibly competitive. The vast majority of fellow applicants on my [ten] interviews this season were Master’s degree students/recipients or laboratory managers/research staff in positions which allowed for independent research contribution.
  3. Choose your letter writers wisely. 
    1. Anyone can write a nice, positive letter that suggests you’re a relatively stable, capable human. Do not include more than 1 letter of this generic quality. For at least two of your letters, you want a writer who can and will go above and beyond to provide specific examples that show your potential and indicate true enthusiasm for your future career.
      1. Relatedly, do not choose writers solely based on the prestige of their position or institution, or even their eminence in the field if they cannot speak specifically about you. The admissions committee is reviewing your CV, not theirs. For example, you should choose the pre-tenure, direct supervisor for your undergraduate honors project instead of the famous emeritus professor whose class you took alongside 250 other students. 

I’ve got lots of insights on this, but these are the main points. Feel free to PM me with any questions about this grueling process.

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All of this :) 

Research fit is everything. Every. Thing. It doesn't matter how awesome your GRE score is, or if you have a half dozen presentations on your CV, if the research fit isn't there, you're not likely to get an interview, much less an offer.

Relationships are next. No one likes to hear it, but it's true in life, and it's true in applying for grad school.

Reach out to POIs well before the application cycle starts. Don't wait to email til you submit your application. 

When you do reach out, have something to talk about besides asking if they will be accepting a student. Do your research, read a few of their papers, find out what they study and indentify how it matches to your interests. Have a couple of intelligent questions about their studies to ask. Be able to carry a conversation.

Talk to your letter writers well in advance too. Discuss the program and POI with them, and make sure they are going to write the glowing letters you need.  Give them every tool you can to write the best possible letter - your CV at the very least, but maybe they could use some descriptions of the research you've been doing, or the populations you want to work with, anything to give them some real depth to write about

Talk to grad students in the programs you want to apply to, before you apply. I was able to remove a couple programs from my list before I paid all the monies to apply after chatting with grad students and getting their perspective on the department, lab or university culture. This also helped me prepare for interviews and visits, because I already had a friendly face who was somewhat invested in seeing me do well.  Grad students see everything, take advantage of that.

When you get an interview: Be social and friendly, but not obnoxious. Get to know the other candidates. You never know who might end up in your cohort, but you also should remember that academia isn't that big - you will likely be bumping into these people again and again in other places. Don't leave a bad taste in their mouth because you feel the need to be uber-competitive.

As for the actual application materials- write them, set them aside, and then revise them. And then do it again . 

Go to your mentors, your letter writers, a trusted GA, and ask them to tear it up for you and make suggestions. Then seriously consider their suggested edits - after all, they clearly made it into grad school, so something must have worked right :) 

Before you submit your personal statement, have someone outside of your field read it.  Does it make sense to them? Does it read intelligently? Most importantly, does it "sound" like you? Your personal statement needs to be an accurate reflection of your personality as well as your research interests. A personal statement that is painful to read will get your application sent right to the garbage bin.

Oh! And don't accept an offer that is not fully funded, at least not for PhDs! If they want you, they will pay for you. Don't sell yourself short. You are a brilliant scientist with worthy ideas, and do not settle for less than fully funded.  There is no reason to take on tens of thousands in debt (in America at least) for a job that will very likely never pay you that much!

This process is emotionally grueling, not to mention expensive.  Don't waste money and energy on programs that aren't a great fit, have a difficult culture, or won't communicate with you.  You're going to spend the next 4-6 years with these people, so set yourself up for success from the get-go.

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10 hours ago, EmpatheticMastermind said:

Thanks so much for all of this, it's been incredibly helpful!

@Randi S I had never thought of reaching out to grad students. What's generally the etiquette for doing this?

I reached out to a few grad schools this cycle and the etiquette seems to be about the same as it is for reaching out to faculty. Make sure you have actual, interesting questions for them. Ask them about things like the POIs mentoring style, the lab culture, what their day to day in the program looks like. But also be extra mindful of their time. They have a lot on their plate, and they should be able to respond to your email easily and clearly. I also didn't bother sending follow up emails to those that didn't get back to me because I figured they were just too busy and I didn't want to be a nuisance. Hope that is helpful!

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11 hours ago, EmpatheticMastermind said:

Thanks so much for all of this, it's been incredibly helpful!

@Randi S I had never thought of reaching out to grad students. What's generally the etiquette for doing this?

You can go about it a couple ways, but in general, the same way you would a POI. Get to know their work first, most schools post info about their grad students on webpages somewhere.  I aimed to talk to people who were at least 2-3 years in, to get a real feel for the culture and attitudes there. 

Universally, I had no problems getting grad students to talk to me.  Yes, they are busy, but I never had to wait more than a few days for an initial response, and once we started talking they were pretty quick to respond. And none of them had any problems shooting straight, you know? I had a couple of f2f-style Zoom meetings with some, which was a nice way to build familiarity. They also were my "inside" when I went for visits or interviews - they all freely gave tips on how to interview well, who likes what, things to think about, and I already had a friendly face on campus when I toured, so it was very much like already being part of a team. Grad students are an under-utlilized resource in this process, I think!

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Great advice & reflections so far.  Many of the points mentioned by @imemine @Modulus @Randi S are solid and don't require reiterating, however, I would like to elaborate a bit on one piece I think has been overlooked thus far, and that is clinical experience. I've also included some reflections from my own experience.

For some background, this was my second time applying to clinical psych PhD programs.  I was a drastically different candidate this time around and I can attribute that and my success to several key improvements I made in the two-year gap I took between application cycles.  I hope this is helpful & adds something to this thread!  I admittedly have many more tricks & reflections and I am happy to chat in more detail if anyone has questions-just PM me.  

2 Key Improvements worth noting: if you read nothing else, read this :) 

  • Clinical Experience!!! - I found as many ways as possible to get formal clinical experience.  If you are applying to CLINICAL psychology programs, the top programs that specialize in training scientist-practitioners want to see that you have experience working with some type of clinical population or in a clinical setting.  Candidates with substantial clinical experience absolutely have a leg up.  This can be in any area or with any population, as long as it's valid, relevant clinical experience.  There are creative ways of doing this--e.g., I work in a neuroscience lab based in a research hospital, and I put time into networking with the neuropsychologists connected to our unit which led to incredible opportunities to be involved in patient clinical care in ways I didn't think possible at my current level.  I loved it, I learned a ton, and as a bonus, it really impressed interviewers.  

 

  • Majorly beefed up my research experience - I took a full-time position in an academic hospital setting. I interviewed at several very highly competitive programs & in mingling with other candidates found that almost ALL of the most competitive candidates had full-time research experience outside of an undergrad, casual/volunteer position.  Not only does this demonstrate your skills in data collection, grants, data analysis (whatever the case), but this gives you a real life introduction to what a life in research would look like, and a chance to think about what type of questions you want to try to answer as a researcher--THAT'S what future PI's are looking for.  

 

Also of Note:

>> Fit, seriously, fit.  You don't realize it until you are in it, but fit it so powerful.  This is also not just fit, as in them accepting you, but also fit, as in you accepting them.  I have a quite specific clinical neuroscience/imaging/specific-clinical-population background that finding a good fit for while applying was a challenge, but during interviews I started to see where I would be happy and flourish and where I would feel confined and limited; that was very important for me.  One last thing to consider in this realm, specific to clinical psych people, do you want to be primarily a clinician (who conducts secondary research) or a researcher/academic? Choose your program wisely...         

>> Don't overlook the importance of your CV!  Your CV should be organized, succinct, detailed, and highlight all of your best features.  Send it out, have people read it, make comments, change things, and shape it up. My CV came up over & over again at interviews- POI's, interviewers, and students all referred to my CV.  Your CV should work in conjunction with your personal statement-don't be redundant.    

>> Another tip re: grades (GPA), GRE scores, & other formalities such as writing samples; these are the things that get you in the door-put the work into it.  Many top R1 programs receive between 300-650+ applications for, on average, 7 spots; they make cuts from the jump and that's just the way it goes.  If you score in the 70th+ percentile on the GRE you are in the clear & you can rest knowing your application should at least get reviewed- you owe it to your mental state & your wallet to ensure you get this far. 

>> Finally, on interview day-yes, dress & act professionally (clinical programs are evaluating your capacity to be a professional, so demonstrate that)but don't be afraid to show your real self (within reason 😉).  In addition to all of the important points made by other posters, I will just add a couple of thoughts  

  • Chat with other candidates, get to know their interests and backgrounds (even if you are interviewing to work with the same POI).  If you are both there, you are both qualified, there is no need to act as if they are your opponent.  I ran into a few people at multiple interviews & I have stayed in touch with some candidates I met along the way about acceptances, plans, etc.  THESE ARE YOUR COLLEAGUES!  Some may even be in your cohort.  Start making connections now. 
  • As mentioned above, assume you are being evaluated throughout your entire interview (social events, lunches, everywhere--all the time).  Ask thoughtful questions, listen to current students when they talk, make small talk with other PI's during lunches (ask about their work, what it's like to live there..ect.)--showcase the many shining parts of your personality-it goes a long way.  

**This process is definitely stressful & so much of it is out of the applicants control.  Find things about it that make you laugh or smile, find people to lean on and commiserate with when things get tough, i.e., peers who are also applying or recently admitted grad students.  Feel proud when you submit your apps- it's a lot of work!  Get excited about checking out new cities during interview time.  Take time to get a massage, or go to the park, or just shut your brain off when you need it (and you will need it!!!).  In fact, the question of how you cope with pressure and stress will come up at interviews, demonstrating that you have already started working out these skills is bonus! Lastly, good luck to all!  Remember, if it doesn't work out the first time, that's just an opportunity to come back 10x stronger the next time.      

Edited by MrsDoubleE
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Hi everyone, I hope that you are all doing well! I feel like I've learned so much from this past application cycle and wanted to share it just in case those applying next year (or beyond) can find it useful. Everyone who has commented on this post has made some great points that I will be echoing in my own post, so I hope that's okay! 

1. A low GRE score will NOT always lead to the rejection of your application. Now let me preface this by saying that I applied to a mix of programs (i.e., Developmental Psychology, Human Development, and Communications) with a low GRE score (149 V/148 Q) and fully expected my application to be thrown out immediately. I prepared quite a bit for the exam, but it never really panned out the way I was hoping for the two times that I took it. However, the rest of my application was pretty strong, so I think that helped me out a lot. The applicant profile for a few of the programs that I applied to consisted of GRE averages well into the 160s, so I thought that I had absolutely no chance. Definitely strive to get a high GRE score if you can, particularly if you are applying to competitive programs, but don't beat yourself up if that doesn't happen.

2. Quality of your research experience is important! The kind of research experience that you have when you apply is HUGE and really makes a difference. A little background about me is that I didn't start doing research until the summer before my senior year (really late compared to most applicants). This was mainly because I had no idea that you needed research experience to get into grad school (particularly PhD programs) and didn't find out until I entered a program as a sophomore that helps URM (and often first-gen, which I am as well) students with navigating the application process. Also, my undergrad institution never really promoted research as a thing to do. When I applied, I had two years of experience including an REU at a large R1 university and being a research assistant in an independent research lab. I also took basically two years off after I graduated to gain more experience because I knew there was no way that I could be a somewhat competitive applicant if I didn't. I was able to do my own projects on topics that I was interested in and got to be part of all aspects of the research process including manuscript writing (with my REU project). From what I heard during my interviews with faculty members, that initiative really stood out. Don't be afraid to take a few gap years! 

3. Get multiple people to read your application materials (especially SOP). Your statement of purpose is probably one of the most, if not the most, important piece of your application. Once you feel like you have a solid draft ready, send it to as many people as you can to get their feedback. For example, my grad student mentor from my REU program was instrumental in helping me fix my SOP. He told me that I should be letting the admissions committee and my POIs know about what I will bring to their research if I was in their program as opposed to just restating the work that they did. This would look like me saying "I want to work with Dr. Brown because she does research on minority youth development" vs. "I hope to expand on the work of Dr. Brown by looking at how racial stereotypes in the media affect minority youth". Out of the two options, I chose to do the latter for my SOPs and I think that helped them to stand out for the most part. 

4. Organization is key! The grad school application process can be very long and stressful, especially if you are applying to multiple programs like I did (8). I believe that the main reason why I didn't get completely overwhelmed is because I stayed organized. Some of the resources that I used were Trello and Microsoft Excel. When I started researching programs, I created a detailed spreadsheet on Excel that included application fee amounts, whether the program offered a fee waiver, necessary application materials, etc. It was nice to have all of the information in one place instead of having to go back to the program website each time to find the info that I was looking for. To keep track of whether my letter writers submitted their LORs and when I uploaded different aspects of my application (e.g., SOP, personal statement, writing sample), I used Trello. This is a great tool to use as you can keep a running checklist going of when everything gets sent in, so you don't have to worry about something missing from your application.

5. Apply for fellowships! Don't be afraid to put yourself out there when it comes to applying for fellowships. Admissions committees like to see that you are trying to get external funding and you never know, you could actually get it! I went back and forth on whether it was a good idea for me to apply for the NSF GRFP because I didn't think I had a chance at all. I decided to just go for it and I ended up getting honorable mention! Also, since the GRFP application was due before PhD applications, I was able to use those essays as a template for the ones I wrote for grad school. If you feel like you can put together a solid application, why not do it and see what happens? You could surprise yourself.

6. Interviews are not as bad as you think they will be. I know that the thought of being interviewed by a faculty member can cause a lot of stress and anxiety because of various reasons. You have no idea what questions you will be asked, you don't know if you are answering the questions in a way that shows that you know what you're talking about, and you don't know what impression your interviewer has of you. I went in to my interviews thinking that I would be grilled about everything that I have ever done, but it was the total opposite! I actually really enjoyed all of my interviews because they felt more like conversations. I never got a trick question or one that I couldn't answer, which I was quite surprised about. My advice for interviews would be to definitely prepare (maybe even overprepare) for all of them. Once you get your interview schedule, be sure to know a bit about the work that each of your interviewers do. For your POIs, you should definitely know most of the work they do and have read at least one article of theirs. For non-POIs, I would say to read abstracts of their work instead. By doing this, you will be able to show them that you took the time to actually do research on them and will also be able to steer the conversation in a new direction. My other advice for interviews would be this: HAVE QUESTIONS READY! The main thing that you will hear over and over is whether you have questions, so you need to have some! I created a master list of interview questions that I compiled from r/gradadmissions on Reddit, posts on GradCafe, and ones that I thought of myself and split them up into three sections. One section included questions that I wanted to ask my POIs specifically, the other section had questions for non-POIs, and the last section was for questions that I wanted to ask grad students. I was told at all of my interviews that I had very thought-provoking questions and I think that really helped me stand out as an applicant! I also made "profiles" for each faculty member that I interviewed with that included their picture, their research interests, some info about a project or article that I liked of theirs, and a few questions that I wanted to ask them. You definitely don't have to do this, but I used those when I didn't want to go through my long list of interview questions as a kind of "snapshot". Overall, when interviewing, just be yourself and everything will turn out fine! 

7. Trust your gut. This is a HUGE one. If you go to an interview/recruitment weekend and don't feel great vibes about the program, lean into that. My top program ended up changing quite a few times because my original #1 didn't give me the best feelings when I went there. One of the things that I did when I went on visit weekends was that at the end of each one, I wrote a little blurb related to how I felt about each school and that really helped me to come to terms with which program was the best fit for me. The program that I will be attending in the Fall is definitely not the one I thought I would be going to, but it is the one that is for sure the best fit for me and my goals. Don't be surprised if your top school becomes the last school on your list and vice versa. Being able to speak with students in each program was very beneficial in helping me make my final decision, so don't be afraid to talk to them! 

8. Be proud of yourself! Last, but not least, be proud of yourself! Applying to grad school is not an easy task by any means and if you are able to prepare even one application, that's amazing! Even if the application cycle doesn't go the way you want it to, you should still be proud of everything that you have accomplished up to this point! I never thought this cycle would go well for me, but I'm so grateful that it did. I don't think it has really sunk in yet that I will be headed to a PhD program in a few months. If no one ever tells you that they are proud of you, I just want to say that I'm proud of you! You are putting yourself out there and that in itself is a great achievement. 

I apologize for this long wall of text, but I hope that what I wrote is helpful! 

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1 hour ago, goldenxpenguins said:

Don't be surprised if your top school becomes the last school on your list and vice versa.

This is a HUGE one for me!! I almost didn't even apply to the school I'll be attending because I had preconceived ideas about what I wanted and about the geographical location. But after a visit, I knew that was where I belonged. My whole list got topsy-turvy'd!

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3 minutes ago, lunaura said:

This is a HUGE one for me!! I almost didn't even apply to the school I'll be attending because I had preconceived ideas about what I wanted and about the geographical location. But after a visit, I knew that was where I belonged. My whole list got topsy-turvy'd!

Visits really do help you see both what you want in a program and what you definitely don't want. Although I didn't get to visit the program I will be attending because of COVID-19, I still think it's the best fit for me after talking to my POIs and grad students! 

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My number one piece of advice for anyone participating in the application process: STAND OUT!!!! Literally hundreds of applicants are being reviewed by admissions boards and anything you can say in your personal statement to stand out from them is absolutely necessary for being noticed. Even if you 're GRE scores or GPA or research experience is outstanding, it may look extremely similar to another applicant's and you need that extra push to come off as the more unique candidate. Be yourself, but frame your application in a way that is as uniquely yourself as possible :) 

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1 hour ago, HopelesslyDevoted said:

My number one piece of advice for anyone participating in the application process: STAND OUT!!!! Literally hundreds of applicants are being reviewed by admissions boards and anything you can say in your personal statement to stand out from them is absolutely necessary for being noticed. Even if you 're GRE scores or GPA or research experience is outstanding, it may look extremely similar to another applicant's and you need that extra push to come off as the more unique candidate. Be yourself, but frame your application in a way that is as uniquely yourself as possible :) 

I will say that this is good advice if done WELL. This past cycle was my first time applying, and I decided to take a risk and start my SOP off by stating that I originally wanted to become a fine artist (to help explain my college trajectory but to also help my SOP stand out). Out of all the schools I applied to, only one decided to interview me--and I have a feeling it was because that PI had a similar fine arts/psych background. It ended up being an excellent research fit and I absolutely loved the program, but I also can't help but wonder if my SOP was the reason for the lack of other interviews (despite me having what I thought was near perfect research match & experience). 

So just be careful when considering ways to stand out! In my case, it definitely worked out because I truly feel I'm where I belong :)

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