compensating for poor grades

Not all experience is created equal: What kinds of experience counts as relevant when applying to graduate or professional school

Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need for graduate  or professional school, and there can be confusion about what types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. They should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should also be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study. Academic advisors might also be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale, or they might be able to direct you to someone who can provide you with this type of information. Check out this article on what you can expect from your college career center.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you. Some professors never solicit students to help them with their research, but instead wait until volunteers come knocking at their door.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs that integrate classroom studies with paid, real-life work experience in a degree-related field. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A prospective graduate advisor might also view positively the co-op experience of a graduate-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the “real world”, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path for them. This can make them seem “less risky” from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, the majority of them fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. One reason for looking for these opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year.

If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience needed.

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

Getting Into Grad School Without Top Grades: One Student’s Amazing Story

My last two posts have been aimed at explaining how grades come in to play in the selection process, and the main message has been: You don’t need to have the top grades to get into grad school, because that’s not what the decision-makers care most about. To help prove my point, I have reproduced, below, an email message I received a few years ago from someone who had been an undergraduate in Psychology at Concordia University, which is where I am a faculty member. I did not know the student while he was at Concordia, and I still have not met him in person, although we have had some email correspondence in recent months.

You will no doubt notice that he makes a few kind remarks about a book I wrote, but I want to assure you that the reason I am showing his entire unexpurgated message is for the sake of authenticity, and because he says a few other things that are more important, and which I want to say a few more words about, afterward.

———–

Dear Dr Mumby,

As of May I have not been a student at Concordia but I keep getting e-mails about your grad info-sessions. Although I never attended your grad info-sessions I DID read your book and the e-mails have egged me on to contact you. I did not have particularly fantastic marks. Keeping this in mind, I followed all of your instruction and managed to get accepted into a Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) degree at Alliant (previously California School of Professional Psychology; birthplace of MFT and has had Carl Rogers among its faculty). I was packed and ready to go to California when I got a notice that I had been accepted into a masters in Criminology program at Cambridge UK. So here I am, a student who did not even make the academic cut-off for application, sitting in Cambridge (ranked second in the world, surpassed only by Harvard, third is Oxford); I am on the faculty/student liaison board for my course and am also the captain of my rowing crew (very big competitive sport here). My supervisor is very happy with my hard work and the faculty is amazing. Our library supposedly has the largest criminological collection in the world. I am confident that following the procedures in your book helped me get where I am today and I encourage you to read this letter, or part of it, at your lecture (although I would appreciate remaining anonymous). This just goes to show that marks are not everything to everyone and I caused myself large amounts of undue stress over them. Thank you,

P.S. I did get some lab experience in my undergrad and finished with my PSYC400.

D.

———–

This happy story is only a single anecdote, but it is highly useful because it refutes a couple of misconceptions I notice being frequently expressed by undergraduate Psychology students (and even by many academic advisors who don’t know better):

1. Many students place tremendous stress on themselves because they believe that they must attain top grades in almost every class in order to get into a good graduate school. Near the end of his message, this student admits that, in retrospect, he experienced much unnecessary stress over his grades. It is pretty obvious that this fellow was accepted at Cambridge, and at the professional psychology program in California, for reasons other than his undergraduate grades. It’s not in his email, but I can tell you that his GPA at graduation was slightly below the level required to be in our Honors program (3.30). As he indicates, it was also below the “academic cut-off” for application to Cambridge. That did not stop him from applying, and it did not stop him from getting in. Do you think he got in because of his GPA? Obviously, he got in because of other factors, which made up for the relative shortcoming in his GPA. I have emphasized this point many times during the past 2 years of writing this blog: There is so much more to preparing for graduate school and putting together a successful application than just getting good grades in your undergraduate program.

2. Students often tell me they need to be in the Honors program because they plan to go to graduate school after the baccalaureate. Although the Honors Psychology program in my department is intended to facilitate students’ preparation for graduate school, it is by no means necessary that a student be in that program in order to get into grad school. The student in this story was not in the Honors program.

3. Finally, he mentions in the postscript that he got some lab experience while an undergraduate. He refers to PSYC 400, which is a 6-credit course in which students do a research project under the supervision of a faculty member and write a thesis to report the findings. It is equivalent to the 6-credit project and thesis undertaken by students in our Honors program (ie., the Honors thesis). Importantly, however, the PSYC 400 thesis is an option for students who aren’t in the Honors program. The student in this story obtained ample undergraduate research experience, mostly by virtue of completing an undergraduate research thesis. It did not matter that it was not the Honors thesis, per se.

So, how did things work out for this person? Things have worked out very well for him, indeed. He sent me this email in November 2006, and he is now a practicing marital and family therapist.

[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

The only thing you’ll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide the most accurate and actionable information and advice, all in one location. It will take me several more months to spin out commentaries on all the things I think are worth mentioning. I don’t get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I will make a few dollars. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly been happening a lot! Ah well,… if you read through the archives and my more recent posts, and keep checking back over the next year, or so, you eventually get everything I have to offer, for free! ]

What if the Guru is Wrong About That?

A short article was recently posted on the MyGraduateSchool website, written by Dr. Laura Buffardia graduate admissions consultant for the popular magazine Psychology Today. I do not know her personally, but a cursory search on her background reveals that Dr. Buffardi received her Ph.D. in 2010, and now she has a postdoctoral research position, and a cool gig with Psychology Today. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has other impressive accomplishments and ongoing projects. She certainly offers valuable advice to students who are thinking of graduate school in Psychology. In fact, most of her advice and insight also applies to the graduate-school application and admissions process in other disciplines within the social sciences and natural sciences. If you are thinking about graduate school, you should check out the resources she has to offer, even if you are not in Psychology.

Despite my sincere advocation, I will use the rest of my commentary to refute a statement Dr. Buffardi makes in the MyGraduateSchool article. She writes:

             “GPA is consistently the most critical factor in admissions decisions.”

Like many other well-meaning consultants and advisors, Dr. Buffardi may in fact be perpetuating a popular misconception about the factors that determine acceptance or rejection by graduate programs in Psychology. Most people think the selection process should work in a way that emphasizes past academic performance, but the truth is, most Psychology graduate programs make selections in a way that bears little resemblance to common assumptions. You really have to be an insider to appreciate the way it works. Getting into graduate school and making it through does not make someone an insider to the graduate admissions process (unless they have become professors and supervise their own graduate students). It may make them insiders to what it’s like to be a graduate student or former graduate student, but as I have described in a previous post, grad students are not always a reliable source of good advice about what it takes to get into graduate school.

In a recent video-interview, which you can view on her Psychology Today site, Dr. Buffardi correctly asserts that there is a positive correlation between academic performance in undergraduate school and subsequent performance in graduate school. The best predictor of your performance in grad school is your performance as an undergraduate, and committee’s know this” It is true, in general — students who achieve higher undergraduate grades also achieve higher measures of performance in graduate school. Although this relationship exists and the people on an admissions committee probably know about it, however, this does not mean that an applicant with a 3.80 GPA has a better chance of getting into a particular Psychology graduate program than another applicant who has a GPA of only 3.50.  It sounds contradictory, but it really isn’t. It all has to do with the way most graduate programs in Psychology (within the U.S. and Canada) make their selections.

Grades are not tokens that can later be cashed in for something

Before I go on to describe my insider’s view of the graduate admissions process, I want to point out that the positive relationship between undergraduate and graduate-school performance is demonstrated by a post hoc analysis of what are, essentially, historical academic records. It is only a correlation, and it does not mean that getting higher grades will make an individual more likely to get into graduate school and succeed once there. It is necessary to have good grades if you want to get into graduate school; without them you have little chance of success. Importantly, what I really mean by good grades is good-enough — and for grades to be good-enough, they do not have to be as high as most students assume. If your grades are good enough to get into graduate school, you probably won’t significantly improve your chances of being accepted any further just by getting even higher grades. [There is one important exception to this, but it would be too much of a sidetrack to completely explain that here. Instead, I will cover it in my next post].

As long as you are achieving grades of B, B+, along with some A- and As, your grades are good enough for most graduate programs. It is wiser to focus ones preparation for graduate school on other things, where it can make a bigger difference, instead of just doing whatever it takes to get an A or A- in every class. The prevailing notion seems to be that if you get enough of the really valuable tokens (grades in the A range), you get to cash out at the end of undergraduate school and receive some type of more tangible reward in exchange; like an acceptance letter from a graduate school. It just does not work that way.

I have already written about how the graduate admissions process tends to work in Psychology graduate programs and, in fact, it is not much different from most other Master’s and Ph.D. programs within the social sciences and natural sciences. I won’t bother to repeat all the important aspects of graduate admissions here, but I’ll just make the key point that decisions about individual applicants are ultimately made by a particular faculty member who the applicant has indicated he or she would prefer to have for a graduate supervisor. To put it in even more simple terms: Psychology professors choose their own graduate students, and they usually only consider applicants who have already chosen them. In most Psychology graduate programs, admissions decisions are not made by a committee. This is true both for master’s and for Ph.D. programs in Psychology. (Psy.D. programs, and master’s programs in allied fields, such as Counseling, Social Work, and Educational Psychology, are more likely to make admissions decisions as a committee).

It’s all about the research

It is important to understand the motives psychology professors have for accepting new graduate students. Every professor is an individual, and each will therefore have his or her own set of personal criteria and methods for reaching decisions about whether or not to accept a new grad student. But despite the individual variations, there is a certain common interest shared by most university psychology professors, which is also the most important motive most of them have for taking on a new grad student. A vast majority of university psychology professors do research, and they supervise graduate students because doing so is necessary in order to accomplish their research goals. In simple terms: Most psychology professors accept a new grad student only if the following four conditions are met:

1) the professor currently has a need for additional research trainees in order to carry out the research agenda over the next few years.

2) there is evidence that this particular student will be a better researcher than the others who have also applied to work with this professor.

3) there are no reasons to suspect that the student will have any significant problems with the academic or clinical-training aspects of the program.

4) there are no reasons to suspect that the student has any kind of personality or character flaw, or interpersonal inadequacies, that could make it unpleasant to work with them for a few years, or that would spoil the environment for the other students who are part of the professor’s research team.

What do the insiders think about GPA and GRE scores?

Most university professors who have been involved in selecting and supervising graduate students will tell you that they don’t usually care much whether a particular applicant has a GPA in the B+ range (say, in the low 3s on the common GPA scale that goes from 0.00 to 4.00, or they have a GPA that is more like A- (mid 3s), or even close to A (upper 3s – 4.00). (By the way, not all universities use this grading scale, and there are a surprising number of different scales in use, but this is the most common one and I think most readers of this blog are at least vaguely familiar with it).

The reason why most psychology professors do not care about the particular GPAs of their potential graduate students is because it is not relevant to the primary motivation for supervising graduate students. Grades are not usually a major consideration in admissions decisions because grades have little to do with the applicant’s potential as a researcher, and they usually have almost no relevance to determining whether or not the student will be a pleasant person to supervise. As I mentioned above, the most important thing for a professor is that their graduate students contribute to the operation and development of the professor’s research program, and the second most important thing is that the student is not a pain-in-the-ass to supervise.

Dr. Buffardi claims that an applicant’s GPA and GRE scores are the most influential factor in determining whether they are accepted or rejected, followed by letters of recommendation, the personal statement, and past experience. She has it backwards. The letters, personal statement, and previous research experience are much more influential in the eyes of most professors, especially those who have more than a few years experience at selecting and supervising graduate students. GPA and GRE scores receive significantly less consideration — as long as they are good enough.

[ Read a letter from a psychology student who graduated with a B+ average and was accepted into a master’s program at Cambridge University, as well as at one of the most prestigious professional psychology graduate programs in the U.S. ]

GRE scores are becoming less and less important in recent years. As part of a trend that began more than a decade ago, many graduate schools no longer require applicants to submit GRE scores. This trend seems to be more prevalent in Canada, but it is also happening in the U.S.  This trend toward a diminishing role for standardized exam scores is exemplified by the Psychology graduate programs at my university — Concordia University.

About 12 years ago, we decided that we would no longer require applicants to submit GRE scores. By “we”, I mean the all the fulltime faculty members in our department who supervise graduate students voted on whether we should drop the requirement or retain it (basically, all 40+ of us supervise graduate students). Most applicants to our graduate programs still submit GRE scores, and there is no problem with that, but none of them have to submit GRE scores. Why did we get rid of the requirement? The same reason that dozens of other Psychology graduate programs have made the same move: Because a huge majority of the faculty members in our department do not believe GRE scores are useful when it comes to discriminating between applicants who are likely to be good graduate students and those with less promise. I can’t remember if it was just a huge majority of us, or whether the vote against the GRE requirement was unanimous. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that no one made an argument in favor of keeping the requirement.

Let’s put this in perspective to show that it wasn’t just a strange decision by a small group of idiosyncratic psychologists at some small university. Concordia University has a large Psychology department, with over 40 tenured professors along with a few more-junior faculty members who are on the track to a tenured position. We offer four different graduate programs — master’s and Ph.D. programs in both clinical psychology and nonclinical (ie., experimental and research) psychology. Our programs are CPA and APA accredited, so there is nothing unusual about how we do things in our graduate programs. I would wager that in the Psychology departments that still require applicants to submit GRE scores, a large proportion of the faculty members don’t really use GRE scores to decide whether or not to accept a particular applicant.

Importantly, I still advise all students who are planning to apply to graduate school in Psychology to write the GRE General exam, even if they happen to know the graduate program that interests them the most does not require GRE scores. This is simply because, if a student is doing things right, he or she will probably be applying to more than one program, and it is likely that at least one of those programs, if not most, will still require GRE scores. It is fallacy, however, to assume that if they want to see your GRE scores, then those scores must play an important role in the decision-making process. I admit that I sometimes check to see how an applicant did on the GRE, but only because I’m curious to see how their scores compare to my GRE scores from 25 years ago!

Do the foregoing points mean that all psychology professors will give only secondary consideration to a grad-school applicant’s GPA or GRE scores? No, it doesn’t mean that. It just reflects how the majority of psychology professors view GPAs and GRE scores. There is still much variation among individual professors, and it is still possible to find veteran professors who look to GPA and GRE scores when they make decisions about who to take on as a graduate student. The fact that there are still professors out there who care a lot about grades when they are choosing grad student does not change the fact that most do not. The lack of uniformity isn’t really surprising, when you consider that we are all allowed to make our own decisions concerning grad school applicants. New faculty members are not told how to select grad students; so understandably, we all start off doing it in a way that makes sense to us. Over time and with experience, many professors change their tactics as they discover that the criteria they used during those first few years were not reliable way to distinguish really good graduate students from average ones. Remember, most psychology professors judge how “good” a graduate student is by their research abilities and accomplishments, work ethic, and interpersonal and communication skills.

In might come as a surprise, but most psychology professors won’t pay much attention to how their grad students do in the few classes they take. Did the Ph.D. student get a B or an A in this or that graduate seminar? It really only matters to the student. By the way, one does not have to be in graduate school for long to realize that most classes are graded as simply PASS versus FAIL, and that it is rare for a graduate student to FAIL a class. Some graduate classes might involve a letter-grade evaluation (the student receives an A, A-, B+, etc), but it makes no difference to the main concerns of most professors if their grad students get Bs or As. Typically, a professor supervises graduate students because these students are essential to accomplishing the professor’s research mission. There is nothing in it for the graduate supervisor if the graduate student gets an A in some seminar, and there is also no cost to the supervisor if the student’s grade is B-.

By the way, Dr. Buffardi’s Psychology Today webpage includes an informative interview with a Psychology professor who has a lot of experience with the graduate admissions process. If you pay close attention to what this insider says, you will notice that he confirms several of the key points I have just made, including:

1) Grades and GRE scores do not trump other factors like letters of recommendation, personal statements, or the degree of ‘match’ between the student and the program. Although he states near the end of the interview, “…good grades and strong GRE scores will earn you serious consideration,” this is not the same as saying they begin with the grades and then move on to other considerations. I suspect he may also agree, if asked about it, that nearly all applicants have good grades, and most of them have strong GRE scores. Importantly, he doesn’t say anywhere that higher grades and stronger GRE scores are more likely to result in acceptance.

2) Individual faculty members make their own decisions about which applicants to accept, place on a wait-list, or reject. Only the individual faculty member knows how he or she weighs the different elements of a complete application.

3) Most individual faculty members base their decisions on their general and overall impression they have of an applicant.

There is no standard protocol according to which all graduate admissions committees operate, but the Psychology Today interview with the graduate-admissions insider gives a good picture of one common variant of the general process in Psychology departments. Note his comment about how, in years long past, he would meet with his colleagues and they would discuss individual applicants as a committee, but nowadays the decisions are left up to individual faculty members. It is not stated explicitly in the interview, but it is implied, that individual faculty members decide whom to accept and supervise based on the match between the research interests of the applicant and the faculty member’s particular area(s) of specialization… if there are no deficiencies in the applicant’s overall profile.

There are many more key aspects of the graduate admissions process that go unmentioned in the interview, but that is understandable considering there are obvious limits to how long an interview can be. As another true insider to graduate admissions in Psychology, I try to fill in those gaps with this blog, in my book, and through the seminars I conduct with undergraduate students.

Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

My choice of topics to write about today was inspired by a conversation I had with a student during a recent academic advising session. She is a Psychology major, about halfway through her program. She said she hopes to go to graduate school, and she wants to know if her prospects of getting in will be jeopardized if she takes a break from school, next semester.

 

I could see from her transcripts that she has good grades, but not excellent by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly though, I noticed that since she began her program, she had been taking only 3 courses each semester, rather than the normal full-time course load of 5 courses per semester. She explained that she has difficulty handling a full course load, but she can get good marks if she has a lighter load. It’s not that she has other things going on that compete with school for her time. She doesn’t have a job, or a time-consuming hobby, or anything like that. She just needs to be able to take her time to study and learn, she explained.

 

She feels she’s been putting everything she can into school, and now she needs a break because she has never really had one. Lately, both she and her family are worried that she will experience burnout or a have breakdown if she doesn’t take an academic break.

 

To be frank, I think she should take the time off. It’s not worth it to push oneself to the point of exhaustion or exasperation. She should take the break, and come back to complete the program when she feels ready.

 

But, really, she needs to forget about graduate school in Psychology — not just for now, but also for good. And that would be my advice to her, even if she decides not to take a break from her studies, next semester.

 

If that seems harsh, let me explain why it is really just realistic for this young person to start making a move to join the workforce, and plan to complete her degree program, on her own terms, and within a time-frame that will enable her to finish with good grades, and without undue stress or anxiety along the way.

 

In most Psychology graduate programs in North America, an applicant is accepted if, and only if, a faculty member indicates an interest and willingness to supervise the student’s graduate research. Psychology professors supervise graduate students because they need the help of graduate students to accomplish their own research objectives. In most cases, a professor will agree to accept a new graduate student only if he or she believes this applicant is the one who is most likely to benefit the research program over the next few years. Only the most promising applicant will be selected from among those who indicate they want this professor as a graduate supervisor. That is, if the professor chooses anyone at all.

 

An undergraduate student who is unable to handle a full course load and get solid grades, semester after semester, is unlikely to be able to handle the high demands of graduate studies and research. Professors only want to invite hard-working people who can deal with a full load, all the time, over a period of years — because this is what professors need from their graduate students.

 

Hopefully, a time will soon come when the student in my story has gainful employment with some sense of job security, and also a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. One might not know exactly when good, long-term employment will actually come along, but in the context of today’s rising unemployment levels and struggling economies, it might be a while. Her best strategy would be to drop graduate school from her long-term plans, and focus on goals that are realistic in light of what she is willing or able to do.

 

There has been a trend for some years now, at least at my university, of undergraduates enrolled as full-time students taking course loads that are less than completely full. Many students are willing to take an extra semester or two to complete their degree, if it means they can avoid feeling overwhelmed with school work and get good grades along the way. Lightening one’s course load is a sensible way to achieve that goal. But, there might be a high price to pay, later on, especially if one is hoping to proceed to graduate school.

 

Students often tell me: “I have a job, and I need to work so many hours a week, and I just can’t deal with a full course load.” That’s too bad, because there are a lot of other people out there who also have a job, and who work a similar number of hours each week, and who have a full course load and still get excellent grades in all of their classes. And those who can handle it are not doing something above and beyond normal expectations, either. In fact, taking a full course load in each semester, and getting good grades in every course, is the bare minimum of what is expected of all undergraduate students (except for those who are expressly enrolled on a part-time basis, and those with disabilities that would normally preclude such expectations).

 

That last point about minimum expectations is an important one, so I’ll repeat it: If all a student does is take a full course load every semester and get good grades, he or she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. Someone who is enrolled in an undergraduate program as a full-time student, but who is taking less than a full course load — whether they began the semester that way or else dropped a course along the way — are doing less than the minimum of what is expected.

 

Note that the minimum required is far less than the minimum expected. There are no immediate negative consequences for a student who is doing less than expected. As long a student meets or exceeds the minimum requirements in terms of academic performance, the school will happily continue to accept tuition payments. So, most students just continue along until they eventually complete their program of study. Most will attempt to then join the workforce. But, a significant proportion will apply to graduate school, hoping that an advanced degree will bring greater opportunity.

 

Few, if any, professors are interested in accepting as a new graduate student someone who was an ordinary undergraduate. This means that students who are hoping to go to graduate school need to do more than just take a full course load and get good grades. They need to stand apart from the crowd. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. For example, one could volunteer to be a professor’s research assistant, or regularly attend symposia or workshops in the field of interest. If a student’s current school has a work-study or co-op program, that might be a good way to get valuable work experience and begin establishing a network within the field.

 

There are other ways to stand out from the crowd, but that is the topic of another column, so I won’t get into all the options, here. I think you get the point: Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special. This is one reason why only a small fraction of college students end up in graduate school. Few are exceptional enough in terms of work-ethic and readiness to make personal sacrifices.

Undergraduate Research Experience: Not Only Valuable for Students Thinking of Graduate School

I was compelled to write today’s blog because I was discussing academic matters with a student this morning, and an issue came up that I just had to write about.

The student I was talking with is in a Psychology Honors program, but she wants to get out. She still wants to get her baccalaureate in Psychology, but she does not plan to go on to grad school, so she has decided that there is no point in doing the research thesis that is part of the Honors program. She just wants to graduate as a Psychology major, then go out and get some kind of job. She has no illusion about the unlikely chances of ever having a job in a psychology-related field — she knows you have to go on to grad school and get a Ph.D. to become a psychologist. She feels that she has been in school long enough, and its time to join the “real world.”

I certainly understand her position. Grad school is not for everyone; in fact, it really only makes sense for a small minority of people, whereas most college-educated folks are better off just entering the workforce (or trying to) after they get a bachelor’s degree. I have no doubt that the student I was speaking with this morning is making the right decision about not pursuing grad school after she finishes her undergraduate program.

But, she is dead wrong about one thing, at least. She’s wrong about the notion that undergraduate research experience is valuable only for those who are planning to go on to graduate school. In fact, I would argue that the benefits of a substantial undergraduate research experience (like that which comes from doing an Honors project and writing a thesis) are just as significant for those students who simply want to find a good job after college.

Why? Because most employers are not only interested in finding job applicants with a college education, they are most keenly interested in hiring applicants with certain abilities or talents, a good work ethic, and strong interpersonal skills. There is no better way for students to demonstrate that they have these qualities than by getting involved in the research being conducted by their professors. When a student carries out an undergraduate research project and writes a paper or report, it usually provides at least one professor a chance to evaluate the student’s work ethic, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, emotional stability and maturity, integrity, intelligence, personality, and other good qualities that employers are looking for in job applicants. Without significant undergraduate research experience, on the other hand, most students who graduate with their baccalaureate will finish college and begin looking for employment with no advantages over their peers. And one definitely needs advantages in the job market these days.

Optimize What You Can For A Winning Graduate School Application

The various people looking at your application may differ in how they weigh its various components. Therefore, you should pay close attention to each one of them. At the same time, keep in mind that few applicants achieve excellence on all of the important dimensions, so you should not be discouraged if you think you come up a bit short on one or two of them.

Some shortcomings are easier to overcome than others. For example, if you lack work experience or research experience in your field of interest, you can probably fix that. Start thinking about volunteering in an area that is comparable to the graduate program and eventual career that you plan to have. For example, if you are planning on a career as a social worker or counselor, then you may want to consider volunteering in a women’s shelter or veteran’s hospital. If you are thinking of applying to law school, you should consider approaching a law-related organization or community center. If you are thinking of a graduate program in the sciences, consider a research lab at a university or hospital.

Remember that the point of getting volunteer experience is to be exposed to potential mentors and/or experienced professionals that can assess your skills, eagerness to learn, level of maturity etc… and that can eventually provide you with effective letters of recommendation for your grad school applications. This type of relationship does not culminate in a few weeks. Instead, you will have to dedicate many hours over the course of several months or years, so plan ahead. Once you have accepted a volunteer position, be proactive about how you spend your time there and make your goals clear to those who will be evaluating you. Otherwise, you may end up doing clerical or data-entry work that may not be especially beneficial to your long-term goals.

Some shortcomings that may be more difficult to overcome

If you have already written your standardized tests and obtained poor scores, there is nothing you can do to erase them completely from your record, but if you have the time and money, you may want to consider retaking the tests at a later date.  Likewise, there is little you can do to hide poor grades that appear on your transcripts. But you should consider retaking a class where you obtained a poor grade, if it is relevant to your long-term objectives. So for example, retaking a Psychology course on cognitive development may not be necessary if you are considering law or med school, but may be worthwhile to retake if you are considering psychotherapy or family counseling.

Preparing an effective personal statement (also referred to as a statement of purpose), is another way to overcome shortcomings in your grad-school applications. The personal statement provides you the opportunity to explain some of the shortcomings that may exist in your application, such as a period of poor grades, or lack of research publications. Be careful however, to not simply blame others for your limitations, as this will most certainly be looked upon unfavorably, and may also ruin your chances of getting into graduate school. For more advice on writing a strong personal statement, check out part 1 of a 5 part series on writing personal statements

As you will see, there are a multitude of other things that you can do to make yourself an attractive candidate. Do not worry about things you can do nothing about. Optimize what you can — it might make up for any irreversible weaknesses.