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

Posted on March 7th, 2017 by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.

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.


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.

Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services. We can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes!

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.

Paying for graduate school

Let’s face it, graduate school, in most fields, can be expensive and working full-time while in grad school is definitely not recommended. Aside from asking your parents for support, there are many other great sources of income available to graduate students, many of which do not require too much work or time. Here are the ways that you can pay for grad school:

Scholarships, grants, bursaries and fellowships

Scholarships, grants, bursaries and fellowships are essentially the same thing, in that none of them requires you to pay back any amount that you are awarded.  They are usually very competitive and are awarded based on merit, especially grades.  In some respects this is unfortunate, because undergraduate grades are not always the best predictor of success in graduate school.

Private Scholarships

Unlike scholarships awarded by the government, another option may be private student scholarships, which are awarded by professional groups, banks and non-profit organizations. These awards vary in eligibility criteria and application deadlines.  Many have citizenship restrictions and some must be held at a school within the student’s home state or province. This is important information to have before applying, because there is a good chance that you will be choosing between graduate programs located in regions far from each other. Also keep in mind that unless your have a large amount of money set aside, it is strongly recommended that you apply for as many grants, scholarships and fellowships that you are eligible to receive.


For the most part assistantships such as teaching assistantships (T.A.) and research assistantships (R.A.) require that you perform certain tasks, such as teach a class, perform certain duties on campus or assist professors in their work. Assistantships are excellent sources of funding, because they provide a steady paycheck, but more importantly because they give you experience within the field that you are studying. Although the salary will vary a great deal from one university to the next, in general, these types of positions generally carry a lighter workload and are better paying than many part-time jobs off-campus.

Tuition and other fee waivers

This type of financial support comes in the form of covering specific costs, such as your tuition and is usually provided by the graduate program in question. International students, for example, sometimes receive special consideration by receiving a student fee remission, in which they are charged academic rates as the same rate as a student with domestic citizenship. Some schools are more generous than others. It’s your responsibility to contact the financial aid office at your school for details and deadlines.


Unlike scholarships or other similar types of aid, loans are calculated based on financial need. They must be repaid, plus interest. Many students begin their financial planning for graduate school by assuming that loans will constitute the main part of their support. It might turn out this way for some graduate students because this is precisely the way that they planned it! It can be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, students sometimes fail to educate themselves about the many potential sources of financial support for which they can compete and find themselves having to borrow money for graduate school. Loans are usually easier to qualify for as a grad student than as an undergraduate, because in most cases, you will no longer be living at home. As an independent student, your assets and income are probably substantially lower than those of your parents, so your financial need will be much greater. It is important to make sure that your parents are not claiming you as a dependent for tax purposes.

There are 2 types of loans:

Subsidized loans mean that the government will pay any interest incurred on your loan for the time that you are in school and often include a deferral period of up to 6 months after graduation. Most loans have a 10 to 30 years payment plan.  Subsidized loans are awarded based on financial need.

Unsubsidized loans mean that you are required to pay interest right from the time that you receive the loan. All students are eligible for this type of loan.

Loan support does offer at least one advantage over some of the alternatives, such as T.A. and R.A., because they do not require any effort or dedication. Graduate students are often very busy and you may be glad that you don’t have to earn your money by correcting papers or spending hours washing test tubes as a research assistant.

Employment subsidies for education

This type of support comes from companies, firms or organizations, which encourage their staff to become better educated. Some companies will allow you to both work and study on a part-time basis, while others may grant you a leave of absence in order to pursue full-time studies. In either case, it is very likely that you will be asked to stay with the company in question for an agreed period of time (usually varies between 4 and 5 years). How much support you receive as well as the process by which you are reimbursed will vary considerably between companies, so it is really important that you are aware of all the restrictions and commitments that you are agreeing to prior to accepting this type of support.

Whatever your financial situation, remember to start searching for funding opportunities and applying for them as early as possible. Arranging for scholarships and grant applications can be quite variable, some requiring lengthy preparation, including letters of recommendation or letters of purpose. It is important to be organized and keep track of the various deadlines, as most awards are competitive and few exceptions are made for late applications. Also, some schools will automatically consider all their applicants for funding, while others require separate paper work. Don’t get caught by surprise. For more info on applying to graduate school, visit