Tips for Applying to Graduate School

By Kirsten Hughes

Are you thinking about going to graduate school? There are so many things to consider in the process of applying to graduate school that it can start to feel overwhelming. Here we break the process down into easy to follow steps with points of consideration for each step. Follow this guide for support as you navigate and work through the application process for everything from choosing which degree to work towards to financing your education.

Determine the degree you would like to earn and the program type you would like to complete:


Choose the degree and program type that best matches your career and personal goals. There are numerous degree and program options available. While a number of degrees (M.A., M.S., M.Ed., Ph.D., Psy.D.) may allow you to practice as a counselor or therapist, the specific program you choose to get your degree in, within the field of counseling and psychology, will determine the specifics of your career. The degree you earn in your program will determine everything from the setting you work in to your income earning potential. Now is the time to determine if you want to work as a therapist or if you would prefer to teach or do research at the university level. It is possible to use your degree to work in several areas; for example, many people teach at the university level and also have a private practice. But it is a good idea to have some professional goals to guide you in the process of determining the degree you want to complete. Possibly the most important step in the process of applying to graduate school, is making sure that you are choosing the degree and program that is the best fit for you.

Degrees

  • Master’s Degree: M.A., M.S., M.Ed.: Completing your master’s degree typically takes 2-3 years of full time graduate work. A master’s degree supports you in becoming educated in a specialized field. Master’s degree programs emphasize preparing students to become clinicians that provide direct services to clients.
  • Doctorate Degree: Ph.D., Psy.D.: It typically takes 2-8 years of full time graduate work to complete a doctoral program depending on if you already have your master’s degree. A person with a doctorate degree has become an expert in the specifics of a specialized field. Doctoral programs emphasize science and research and prepare their graduates for professions in academics, research or roles of leadership to influence the field of psychology and counseling.

Programs

  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling (M.A., M.S., M.Ed.): Clinical Mental Health Counselors work with individuals, couples, families, adolescents, and children most typically in private practice or community mental health agencies. The American Mental Health Counseling Association (AMHCA) is the professional organization that represents the clinical mental health profession. A master’s degree in counseling or a closely related field is required in order to begin the process of becoming licensed as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. To complete the licensure process two years of post-master’s supervised clinical work and the passage of a state or national exam are required. All 50 states license or certify Clinical Mental Health Counselors. The majority of national managed care companies reimburse clinical mental health counselors for services.
    • In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected an employment growth of 28.5 percent over the next decade for clinical mental health. At that time the BLS reported the current median salary for mental health counselors as approximately $40,000.
  • School Counseling (M.A., M.S., M.Ed.): School Counselors work in elementary, middle, and high schools with students to provide academic support and personal/ social development. The primary focus is to provide direct services to students such as individual and small group counseling, crisis support, family intervention, and conflict resolution. System support (indirect service) through program management, and consulting with teachers, parents and administrators, is also a part of the job. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) is the professional organization for school counselors. Certification requirements vary by state. Typically a master’s degree, practicum experience, and two or more years of teaching experience are required to become a certified school counselor.
    • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11.9% employment increase for school counselors by the year 2022. The median salary is reportedly $53,610.
  • Marriage and Family Therapy (M.A., M.S., M.Ed., Ph.D.): Marriage and Family Therapists work in a variety of settings from private practice to community mental health agencies. Marriage and Family Therapists work with children, adolescents, and individuals and have specialized training in family systems to work with couples and families. Marriage and Family therapists provide psychotherapy to treat a wide range of problems from anxiety and depression to marital conflict within the context of the family. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) is the professional organization for Marriage and Family Therapists. In order to become licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist a Masters or Doctorate degree is required along with post degree supervised clinical experience and passage of the state or national licensing exam conducted by the AAMFT regulatory board. All 50 states support and regulate the profession.
    • The median salary for marriage and family therapists is $46,670.
  • Counseling Psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D.): Counseling psychologists work with individuals, couples, families and groups through all stages of the life cycle. The focus is often on difficulties in adjusting to life circumstances. They provide psychotherapy to support people in navigating challenges in anything from career changes to substance abuse to improve personal and interpersonal functioning. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the professional organization representing psychology in the United States.
    • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median wage for counseling psychologists is $67,760. The salary range is significantly impacted by the area of specialization, the setting that the psychologist works in as well as the region of the country where they live and work.
  • School Psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D.): The majority of school psychologists work in K-12 public schools. In addition to working in the schools and providing direct services, school psychologists often provided assessments, conduct research, analyze data, and work to impact policy at the district level and higher. The National Association for School Psychologists (NASP) is a professional organization providing training and education to school psychologists.
    • In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salary for school psychologists as $67,500. However, school psychologists typically make significantly more than that and are considered to be the highest paid profession in the social service field.
  • Clinical Psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D.): Clinical psychologists have their doctorate degree from a clinical psychology program and work to understand various aspects (emotional, biological, social and behavioral etc.) of human functioning across the lifespan. The focus is often acute and chronic mental health issues. Clinical psychologists do everything from scientific research to teaching to developing public policy. They work in settings from private practice to university to governmental organizations.
    • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median wage for clinical psychologists is $67,760. Because clinical psychologists can work in such a broad variety of settings their salary is significantly impacted by the type of work they do and who they work for.

Decide which schools you will apply to:


Applying to graduate school is a lot of work. Before you even begin the application process you need to decide where you want to apply. Several considerations need to be made at this time as you determine which schools you are most interested in pursuing.

  • How many schools should you apply to?: Applying to graduate school is time consuming and expensive. It is to your advantage to do your research on the front end and choose the best schools that fit what you are looking for so that you do not waist your valuable time and money. The general consensus is to apply to five schools. Two should be schools that fit what you are looking for and that you are confident you will be accepted to. Two should be schools that you would like to go to but that have more challenging acceptance criteria. And finally one school should be your dream school. Go for it!
  • In-state/resident vs. Out-of-state/non-resident: In general, in-state tuition is more affordable than out-of-state tuition. However, you should not assume that going to school in a different state will be more expensive than attending schools in your home state. Several factors can impact the cost of tuition. Some schools provide reciprocity between states; this is when neighboring states agree to mutually allow students to attend schools in either state for the same cost as residents would pay. Additionally, some schools make it easier for students to apply for and become eligible for in state residency than others. Many schools, looking to attract students, simply waive out-of-state fees for students that meet minimal qualifications. Additionally, some schools that have a younger program in a particular field will waive or significantly reduce tuition in an effort to attract quality applicants as the program works to establish itself. To determine if the school you are interested in offers any of these benefits visit the bursar’s office (online) of that school.
  • Location: When looking into graduate schools an important factor to consider is the location of the school, not only for cost of tuition purposes as listed above, but also for quality of life issues. Is the school located in a town or a city that you could imagine living in? Does the region offer things that are important to you living the quality of life that you want to live. For example if skiing is really important to you, even though you might be so busy studying that you can only get to the mountains a couple of times a season, is good skiing in driving distance? Or, do you really dislike the cold or wet weather? Is having good public transportation a priority? Does the community offer cultural diversity? It is a good idea to consider what makes you comfortable in your day to day life and prioritize those things when considering relocating for graduate school.
  • Accreditation: Evaluating the accreditation status of any graduate program under consideration is important. Accreditation ensures quality in higher education. In general, accredited programs develop their curriculum and practicum experience with state licensing boards. Programs that do this ensure that their graduates will be able to successfully navigate the state licensing process as professional counselors and therapists without needing to take additional coursework following graduation. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) oversees the accreditation of master’s degrees in clinical mental health and school counseling. The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Accreditation (COAMFTE) reviews graduate programs in marriage and family therapy at a master’s and doctoral levels and grants accreditation to programs that meet and/or exceed accreditation standards. The American Psychological Association (APA) Commission on Accreditation is the national accrediting authority for professional education and training in psychology.
  • Faculty: The faculty in the program at the university you choose will likely impact your education more than any other factor. For master’s programs the overall quality of the faculty is important. Faculty will develop and deliver curriculum. In the field of counseling, university faculty will serve as your direct supervisor in clinical work. The skills and techniques you use in your practice as a counselor will be strongly influenced by the strength of the faculty in training, coaching, supervising, and evaluating your work as a therapist. I a doctoral program you will be paired up with a specific professor as a mentor. You will work closely with your mentor for several years as you work towards your Ph.D.. Your mentor should be someone you respect who can both support and challenge you in your graduate career. Consider the research that each faculty member is pursuing and look into if their areas of interest to see if they match your own research interests.
  • On line graduate school: While there are some degrees offered fully online, it is more common in the fields of counseling and psychology to have the opportunity to take some but not all of your classes offered in the online format. This is because so much of a graduate program in counseling or psychology involves the practicum experience of working with clients under the direct supervision of the faculty. Some colleges and universities do offer the opportunity to complete a handful of classes online. This seems to be an option more and more as schools work to support their students with families and/ or careers to successfully navigate graduate school. The online option is not necessarily more affordable but it could provide some financial benefit in terms of not needing to pay for transportation or childcare and other incidentals. Consider if the availability of online coursework is something that will impact if a school makes the list of the ones you will apply to. Some students may prefer to have all courses in class with peers if they prefer to consult and collaborate with fellow students on a regular basis.

Application process:


Now that you have chosen the top five to six schools you are interested in applying to you are ready to get to work on the application process. There are several steps to take to complete your application packet. All of them are important. Some will take more time and energy than others. It is imperative that you carefully follow the application instructions for each institution you apply to. Most schools will want everything submitted at one time. It is a good idea to follow up with the program before the application deadline to double check that they have received everything they need for your application to be complete.

  • Deadlines: Most graduate schools start in the fall, the following deadlines apply to fall start programs. Ph.D. programs typically have an early to mid-December deadline. Masters programs typically have a January to late February application deadline. However, there are many schools that offer winter, spring, and summer starts and have rolling application dates, even with rolling application dates you will want to get your application in as soon as possible because they typically accept students as applications come in. You will have to check on the specific deadlines for your school. Schools will not accept material after the application deadline. Because there are so many steps to complete; take GRE, order transcripts, get letters of recommendation it is best to start the process as early as possible.
  • Personal Statement: Your admissions essay or personal statement for graduate school is an important piece of the application process. This is your chance to stand out from the crowd. The personal statement will get the attention of the admissions committee and give them a glimpse into who you are and most importantly explain why you have chosen this field of study. You want to be specific but be careful not to simply sum up your resume. Your personal statement is also giving the reader a sample of your writing ability, so it should be clear and concise and free of any errors.
  • Resume: Your resume for graduate school is an important piece of your application material; it is similar to a first impression. It will set the tone for how the selection committee looks at everything else in your application packet. It can be longer, two pages is fine, and include more information than your resume would when you are applying for a job. This is your chance for you to share an overview of your accomplishments and experiences, in a way that would be hard to do in your personal statement, and show what assets you will bring to graduate school.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Most graduate schools will want three letters of recommendation. The writer should preferably be someone qualified to evaluate your ability to work hard and to be successful in graduate school. Former or current professors and supervisors are considered the gold standard; friends and family should not write letters of recommendation. When requesting a letter of recommendation you should make the request in person and ask at least a couple of months before you need the letter. Additionally make sure that when requesting the letter you are able to articulate to the writer why it is you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree. Providing the writer with a portfolio of information, including recommendation form, statement of purpose, transcripts, and a resume, will also help them in writing the letter.
  • Interview: If you are contacted for an interview, congratulations! This means that the graduate program is genuinely interested in having you be a part of their incoming cohort. The interview process is not something to be anxious about, but just as you put time and energy into preparing your materials for your application packet you should spend time preparing for your interview. The interviews for master’s and doctoral programs in counseling and psychology will likely be in the group format. Because of the nature of the field, one of the primary factors faculty will be evaluating is how well you interact with others. Typically there will be a large group, small group and dyad interview. In all the interview settings you want to be a supportive group member and still let yourself shine through. This can be a tricky balance; you want to share about yourself, but not in a way that you are talking over or interrupting others. You want to show that you can be a supportive classmate and that you have good listening skills.
  • Be yourself!: Through the entire application process one of the most important things to do is to be yourself. Applying to graduate school is a time for you to think about your future, set goals, and begin the steps of working towards those goals. You want to make sure that when you complete the process you are somewhere you want to be, doing something you are passionate about. In order to ensure this you need to be true to yourself. This will help you to get into the graduate school, with the program, the peers and faculty that are the best fit for you.

Financing graduate school:

Graduate school is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It is well worth your time to focus on researching, finding and applying for funding to help finance your graduate degree. Student loans are helpful, but be sure to exhaust all other options before borrowing money that you will have to pay back with interest. Following are several ways that you can help reduce the cost of graduate school.

  • Scholarships: In the process of securing funding for your education, remember that the financial aid office at your college or university is set up to help you find school and department specific scholarships. Most scholarships are awarded based on academic achievement and professional promise, however many scholarships are also awarded based on the diversity and experience you bring to the field. Funding sources frequently look to support specific populations. Diversity (ethnicity, gender, member of the LGBTQ community, military service member etc.), and experience in working with, or intention to work with, specific populations after graduation are all areas that can lead you to further funding for your education through scholarships.
  • Fellowships: Fellowships for graduate students are similar to grants or scholarships. Like scholarships, fellowships are often offered by organizations to promote specific areas of interest from diversity to further research in a specific field. Fellowships can last anywhere from a few months to several years. The money awarded through a fellowship can be used at the recipient’s discretion for any educational expenses. Fellowships can be searched through private organizations as well as your university.
  • Assistantships: Assistantships for graduate school are similar to a work-study program. Assistantships are typically teaching or research focused. Assistantships generally involve teaching undergraduate classes or working as a research assistant in exchange for free or reduced tuition along with health insurance and a monthly stipend. The number of hours required in exchange for tuition, health insurance and stipend vary by responsibilities and school. Assistantships are generally a significant amount of responsibility and work equivalent to a part or full time job.
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): Most students that fill out FAFSA are eligible for some type of federal aid or grants. Graduate students applying for federal student loans have access to the GRAD Plus loan which allows graduate students to cover the cost of their education without private loans. GRAD Plus loans have a fixed interest rate that may be higher than some variable private loans but you have the security of knowing that it is fixed. FAFSA can be completed online with prompts to help you in answering the questions correctly. The federal deadline for completing FAFSA is June 30th but many schools have earlier deadlines, it is recommended that you try to get it in as soon as possible after January 1st.
  • Employer: Up to half of all employers offer some type of educational benefit for their employees, typically for work related courses. Up to $5,250 of such tuition assistance qualifies as a tax-free benefit. The key to getting your employer to support you in your graduate education will be in helping them understand how your continued education benefits the organization.

After working through the steps of applying to graduate school you will likely find yourself faced with the important decision of choosing which school to attend. If you are accepted to more than one school you will want to closely compare the two schools on the criteria that is most important to you before you make your final decision. Take some time to review why you choose the schools to apply to that you did. This will help you remember what was important to you in the first place. At this time you can also look into the more intricate details of each program from class schedules to potential internship sites and evaluate if these things impact your final decision. Make sure to review the overall costs of tuition, fees, living expenses, etc., while taking into account any financial awards, and consider the financial aspect as you make your final decision.

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