Want Help With Your Applications to Grad School? I Wish You Had Come Sooner

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I love the wisdom of these words, in both a literal sense and as a metaphor for many situations encountered in life. In a literal sense, the proverb has personal relevance for me, as my wife and I have been growing vegetables in our backyard garden for many years, and I have often yearned to also have a small orchard of apple and cherry trees that would provide a bounty of fruit. I have had this longing for many years, but did nothing about it until I finally planted several apple and cherry trees, two years ago. Pondering this Chinese proverb – especially the second part — helped motivate me to stop delaying and finally plant those trees. We don’t expect significant amounts of fruit for another few years, because trees do not tend to produce very much until they are several years old. But the time will come when our trees are mature and we will have lots of cherries and apples to eat.

The proverb is also a good metaphor for an issue that many college and university students run into when they start preparing to apply to graduate school. Most wait until a few months before applications deadlines before thinking about how they might gain some advantage in the competition for admission, and although it might seem like 4 to 6 months is ample time to put together a winning application, certain essential extracurricular elements can take more like a year or two to put in place.

The best time to begin preparing for graduate school applications is last year

One of the main reasons why certain grad-school applicants are accepted while most are rejected is because the successful ones have effective letters of recommendation from the right people. Most unsuccessful applicants are rejected in part because their letters of recommendation were ineffective. As I have explained in another article, letters of recommendation are highly influential in determining the fate of most graduate school applications – even more so than the applicants’ grades. A professor who only knows a student from the classroom and exam performance will not be able to provide an effective letter recommendation for graduate school. A professor may very well be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who earned an A+ grade in a course, but if the professor knows only about the student’s academic strengths, then there will be very little relevant substance to the letter.

The best time to start taking steps to prepare for grad school is when you still have at least 2 years before you will be applying to programs. This time should be used to acquire relevant experience and set the groundwork for letters of recommendation that will eventually help you get in.

As I have discussed many times before on this blog, the benefits that come from getting relevant experience for grad school preparation usually go far beyond any skills or knowledge that are gained from the experience. Even more valuable is the opportunity to be seen in action and evaluated – to have your best qualities discovered by someone who will later be able to endorse your graduate school application with an effective letter of recommendation.

Everyone knows you need some relevant experience to have a competitive grad-school application, but too many people mistakenly assume the important thing is simply to be able to show evidence of having relevant experience in a CV, in a cover letter, or on an application form. This is a mistake. Just having some amount of seemingly relevant experience does not put anyone ahead in the competition to get into a graduate program, because every applicant will have some.

The most significant benefit that potentially comes from getting the right type of experience is that it’s the best way to set up the influential letters of recommendation. Those recommendation letters should describe how the applicant has demonstrated skills, abilities, and character attributes that are essential for success in graduate school. (Read more about the importance of applicant-evaluation forms (more…)

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GPA Has Little Influence on the Outcome of Most Applications to Graduate School in Psychology

One of the recurring themes on this blog is that getting into graduate school requires more than just a good GPA. We have previously explored reasons why grades are only a minor determinant of what happens with most applications to grad school, and we have discussed other key aspects of preparing a successful application.

Today, I will use actual data to show just how little influence the GPA had on the outcome for one large sample of applicants to a particular graduate school in Psychology. In the process of analyzing the data, I will attempt to dispel two widely cited myths about what is needed to get into grad school in Psychology:

Myth #1:  Someone with a GPA around 3.8 has a substantially better chance of being admitted than someone with a GPA that is closer to 3.5. This seems like it must be true, but as you will see in the data, it is not necessarily so. The particular GPA values being contrasted here (3.80 and 3.50) are rather arbitrary, as the point will simply be to show how little influence the GPA has, unless it is an exceptionally high GPA and the student is awarded a scholarship.

Myth #2: Higher grades are needed to get into a clinical psychology program than to get into a non-clinical or experimental psychology program. Most psychology students and many professors hold this common misconception. I used to believe it, too. So, for many years, I was just another misguided psychology professor when it came to this issue. That changed one day when I tried to confirm the rhetoric with some real data.

The table below shows three columns of GPAs. The first thing I want to point out is that some are higher than 4.0, which might seem strange if you are used to seeing GPAs only on the familiar and widely-used grading scale that ranges from 0.0 – 4.0. A variety of grading systems are used in North American colleges and universities, including percentages, A – F letter grades, the familiar 0.0 4.0 scale, and others. The data in this table are from Concordia University, in Montreal, where the grading scale ranges from 0.0 – 4.3. No matter where grad-school applicants did their undergraduate studies, their transcript grades will be converted to this scale when they apply to any graduate program at Concordia. Details of how the conversion is done are beyond the scope of this blog post. But, a GPA on the standard 0.0 – 4.0 scale is not much different when converted to the 0.0 – 4.3 scale, so you can just think of those GPAs that are higher than 4.0 as being roughly equivalent to a GPA near 4.0.

gpa-data-for-clinical-and-non-clinical-applcants-to-psychology-programs

GPAs of applicants to the Master’s Psychology program (clinical and non-clinical) and rejected applicants  

The data are from a single season of graduate program admissions to the master’s and PhD programs in clinical psychology or non-clinical psychology (ie., research). The size of the total pool of applicants that year was somewhere between 120 and 150. The first column shows GPAs of the 12 students who were accepted into the master’s program in clinical psychology that year. The second column of GPAs belong to 12 students who were accepted into the non-clinical master’s program in the same year. The third set of GPAs is from 12 randomly-selected applicants from the same year who were not accepted to either program.

What do you see in these numbers? One thing you should see is that although the average GPA for those who got into the clinical program is nominally higher than the average for those accepted into the non-clinical program, the difference is small and non-significant. But what about the limited sample size? After all, there are only 12 individuals in each group. What if much larger samples collected over several years of graduate admissions continued to have a mean GPA of 3.85 for applicants admitted to the clinical program and 3.75 for applicants admitted to the non-clinical program. Would it not confirm that you really do need higher grades to get into the clinical program? No, it wouldn’t mean that at all. The average GPA is just that – it’s an average.

If we are interested in what sort of GPA was required, it makes more sense to look at the range of the GPAs for those admitted to the two programs. Both ranges are similar. Applicants didn’t need higher grades to get into the clinical psychology program at Concordia University than to get into the non-clinical program, at least not in this particular year. A GPA around 3.30 was sufficient for either program.

Myth #2 is in fact a myth.

Now, look at that third column of GPAs. They represent applicants who applied to either the clinical or non-clinical psychology programs, but were not accepted. The average is slightly lower than for the other two columns, and the lowest end of the range is a bit lower, as well. But the differences are marginal. We can’t reliably distinguish between successful and unsuccessful applicants on the basis of their GPAs! Whether a GPA is 3.5 or 3.8, it is well within the range of GPAs for either the successful or unsuccessful applicants. Several applicants were admitted with a GPA lower than 3.5, and several failed to get in with GPAs much higher than 3.8. By itself, GPA seems to poorly predict the outcome of applications to graduate school in Psychology.

Look again at that third column. Some rejected applicants had very high GPAs. This just goes to show that truly outstanding grades do not guarantee a successful application to grad school. For some readers this means another myth is busted.

Finally, you might be wondering why there are no really low GPAs in the sample of rejected applications; by that I mean no GPAs below 3.0. This is simply because very few people with grades below that level end up applying to graduate school. Most wouldn’t even consider it, as they correctly assume that their grades are too low. Of course, a GPA below some level is likely to correctly indicate that someone should not be in graduate school and they probably wouldn’t make it through certain programs. That level is much lower than 3.5, and it’s probably a little below 3.0 for most graduate programs in psychology.

Students who thought they were unqualified for grad school because their grades are not outstanding should be encouraged by the data. You don’t need an outstanding GPA that’s almost at the top of the scale – you can get into a top-rated graduate program with grades that are very good, which tends to mean equivalent to an average letter-grade of around A- or B+. Importantly, your chances will only be realistic if you have all the other essential elements the admissions committees and prospective graduate supervisors are looking for. It happens all the time. If you haven’t already seen it, check out this previous post about a guy who got into Cambridge University with a GPA of 3.27 (on the 0 – 4.3 scale).

Meanwhile, many students with stellar GPAs mistakenly believe that’s all they need to get in. But, check that assumption against the data shown here; notice the high GPAs among the sample of rejected applicants. Some individuals were passed over in favor of others who had considerably lower grades. Most likely most of the rejected applicants were missing key elements, so despite their outstanding grades, they were not among those applicants deemed most likely to succeed in the program. Just as likely, some of them might have requested the wrong professors to have as their supervisor, without realizing that in almost any graduate program the professor who an applicant requests to have as supervisor will be the one to decide who to accept or reject. There are many reasons why a professor might not be interested in an applicant, and any one of them is sufficient to thwart an application.

 

Getting Into Graduate School With or Without Excellent Grades

Many factors determine whether someone will be accepted into a graduate program, but most students who apply to grad school are completely in the dark about how the process of selecting applicants works. As a consequence, most applicants will make a number of missteps that hamper their success, due either to miscalculation or naivety.

A great deal of confusion surrounds the role that grades and GPA play in determining the outcome of an application, and most students overestimate that role. Meanwhile, most students underestimate the importance of how they come across as a person, along with other factors that can sometimes weigh more heavily than grades. Few students realize that their letters of recommendation will be the deal-maker or breaker in most cases, and even fewer know how to make sure their letters are actually helpful rather than a hindrance to their acceptance. How important is the personal statement? How long should it be, and what should be in it? What about standardized test scores (e.g., the GRE)? How high do they have to be?

There are a lot of issues that must be addressed along the way to a successful grad school application. Many questions must be answered, and critical decisions made. And there is no shortage of people who are happy to give advice on how to handle it. Problem is, most people give bad advice on how to prepare for graduate school and how to put together a winning application. This includes the majority of academic advisors, career counsellors, most professors, and many people who were successful themselves at navigating the application process and getting in. It’s true – even the people one would expect to give the most solid information and advice are more likely to give you vague, generic, or inaccurate information and advice. The most well-prepared students sometimes fail to realize why their applications to graduate school were successful, and those that are rejected will never be told why.

The remainder of today’s post consists of a comment left by a reader a few years ago, along with my rather long reply. I think her confusion will seem familiar to some of the students reading this blog, today. Hopefully, my reply will help clear up a few things. This is especially likely if readers take the time to read the other content to which I have provided links.

D.L. asked the following:

“Hi Prof. Mumby,
I find this whole grad school thing very confusing actually…simply because so many people give such different opinions and “scare stories.”

I used to be under the impression that getting into grad school was notoriously difficult and that it was a fight to the death.

I have since chosen to work as a full-time RA first instead of going straight to school. Besides gaining more experience, I also figured I wanted to know if I could stomach doing this for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the faculty I intend to do my grad studies in and imagine my surprise when I was almost assured I would get in, as opposed to the usual “oh you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out” kind of talk.

True, I have a 4.0 GPA (the grad chair took one look at my transcript and said: “you’ll get in and it would surprise me tremendously if you didn’t. I also suspect you would be quite a popular candidate among the faculty”), but I have always been given the impression there is more to getting admitted than grades. After all, don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?

Now, I’m just…confused :p

Cheers!”

My reply:

“Thank-you for the comments, DL. The process of applying to and being admitted to grad school is like no other process we are familiar with, and I often hear from students who feel somewhat confused. I’ll try my best to clarify it all for you.

I’ll start by pointing out that your experiences provide good examples for some key points I made in some previous posts. The following post What if the Guru is Wrong About That? should be read along with this post Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA in order to get all the related points on the role of grades in the grad-school admissions process. 

To answer your question, “Don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?” — No, this does not describe the majority of grad school applicants. Of course, it depends on how one defines a stellar GPA. I indicate in the original post that by ‘stellar’ or ‘outstanding’ I’m referring to grades that are like yours — near or at 4.00. Many students have GPAs that are still very good or excellent, say, between 3.30 and 3.80, and they make up the majority of grad school applicants in most fields. The latter type of GPA is good enough for grad school, but not in the same league as a GPA between 3.90 and 4.00, which is highly likely to get the student some scholarship support (which is good for the graduate program and the student’s grad supervisor, not to mention a nice reward for the student’s own hard work and achievements). 

One possible reason for some of the confusion you describe is that you’re getting advice from many people, but some of them don’t know what they are talking about. You will hear a lot of people repeating the same misconceptions, and this can make those mistaken ideas seem valid. I’ve discussed the common misconceptions, before, and also the issue of getting advice from the right sources. I strongly recommend you read those previous posts.

You wonder whether it is really true that in order to get into a good graduate program “you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out”. Well, it’s not really about making your application stand out — it’s about making yourself stand out as an applicant. I would say that you are a good example of someone who is doing just that! You are doing certain things beyond having a stellar GPA that are probably contributing to a very positive impression, even though you might not realize what a large role those factors are playing.

For example, you worked as an RA before applying to grad school. This is a huge plus in your favor, for reasons I have previously discussed in this blog while writing about the importance of getting relevant experience before applying to graduate school (here is another link to a blog post on the difference between relevant and irrelevant experience). Moreover, you actually visited the program (at least one of them) that interests you the most, and spoke with faculty members there. I have previously discussed why making this kind of visit before applying is essential to improving one’s chances of getting in. Some faculty members, myself included, will never accept a new graduate student who has not made some kind of pre-application contact, and the in-person visit is the best type of contact. It shows a lot about the student’s good judgment, among other things. You might be surprised to hear this, but most grad-school applicants do not bother making that visit! Most applicants just send in their application materials and hope for the best. They have zero chance with some of those applications, but they don’t even realize it!

Visiting goes a long way to getting accepted, as long as you don’t make a flat or negative impression while you’re there. You might have said or done any number of things while visiting that made you stand out from a typical grad school applicant even more than your super-high GPA. As I have discussed on previous occasions, one’s character and personality, various social skills, and work habits tend to determine success or failure in graduate school. Someone might have already surmised some of these things about you by the time they looked at your transcript. You might be assuming they saw straight As and thought something like, “this person will ace all her graduate courses and therefore she will be a great graduate student.” But, it’s unlikely the actual thought process was anything like that.

So, I’m not at all surprised that you were basically told you would almost certainly be accepted. As I have mentioned before, this happens a lot, and a significant proportion of grad students are implicitly accepted before they even apply. This is what is happening with you.

You seem to be well on your way to being admitted to a graduate program of your choice. But, you will still need to make some important decisions. Are you applying to the best program for you? Will you need to choose a supervisor at the outset of the program, or is it a program in which you are assigned to a supervisor only after some time? In either case, you will need to know how to choose a supervisor. Other than yourself, your grad supervisor will be the most important person in determining what you get out of grad school. Are you prepared for the stark differences between undergraduate school and graduate school? Do not make the mistake of assuming that grad school is all about taking advanced courses that deal with more complicated subject matter than undergraduate courses. It’s not like that at all, in most disciplines (apart from a few sciences, like physics and mathematics).”

A person can get a lot of consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of this blog, and by visiting the MyGraduateSchool website. Much of this advice is also available in one place — my handbook, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. You can purchase it at amazon.com for a small fraction of the cost of a grad-school application, and it’s also available as an e-book or kindle. Graduate-school application fees are always non-refundable, so it’s easy to waste a few dollars on unsuccessful applications. The book will pay for itself many times over.