Roadmap to Graduate School:  Finding Fit

It’s November, and chances are deadlines for graduate school are approaching fast.  But don’t panic – you’ve been following along with our blog, and you’re ahead of the curve (so to speak): In the first article we focused on why you want to go to graduate school, and in the second article we discussed how to research programs and narrow down your options.  In other words, you know where you want to go, and the way(s) to get there.

It’s time to start working on your application materials.  Programs use many different criteria to try and assess which applicants to admit:

  • Test scores & GPAs;
  • past course work and your academic performance;
  • research, work or volunteer experience;
  • letters of recommendation.

How each programs evaluates these pieces can differ (see this report by the APA on how departments rank the importance of the different parts of an application).  They request these items because they are trying to get a sense of who you are as an applicant, if you will take advantage of the opportunities they offer, and if you will excel (i.e., graduate and go do great things!).  In other words, they are searching for fit.

Here is an explicit example of fit:  Before coming to APA I was the director of a graduate program that was research heavy, and required students to propose and complete a research project in 12 months.  I knew that, without a certain level of competency and independence in designing and completing experiments students would struggle to get through the program.  So in our application materials we asked applicants to describe in detail their research experience, their research interests, and during the interview stage provide a 3-5 minute summary of what they expect to learn and what type of research they might see themselves doing if accepted.  If applicants could not describe their research experience or how coming to our program would help them become a strong researcher, I knew we were a bad fit for each other.  They would arrive on campus unprepared and would struggle to get through the program, and the requirements and training demands of the program would not help them achieve their career goals.

You Need to Demonstrate Fit in Your Application

So, how do you demonstrate fit in your application?  Let’s take a look at the parts of an application, and discuss how the concept of fit applies to each:

Course work, grades and test scores:  Programs require certain past coursework, solid grades in these courses, and test scores because they know this is your foundation for learning new concepts and ideas in psychology.  While grades, courses and scores are not the only part of an application, the closer your performance and preparation matches what programs request, the closer the fit.

Personal statements and training goals:  Programs ask for personal statements to learn more about your interests, if you understand what kind of training they will provide,  and about your writing & communication skills (So, triple-check your spelling and grammar, and no – Microsoft’s spell check is not enough.  Have someone read your statement, or if you have access to one, go to a campus writing center to get feedback).  This is your opportunity to explain who you are, how your past experiences and training prepare you for graduate school, what your career interests are,  and how this program helps to get you there.  Quite often, you will need to write a unique personal statement or essay for each program.  Besides the interview (which we will talk about in the next blog), this is YOUR BEST OPPORTUNITY to express why you think you are a good fit.  Use it wisely.

Letters of Reference:  The best letters come from individuals that know your academic, research, and professional experiences well, and can provide programs with an honest assessment of your potential.  This means asking a professor from one of your classes, a laboratory instructor, or someone that has supervised you in a professional setting.  Do not fall for the misconception that getting someone ‘famous’ to write you a letter is impressive.  Programs prefer letters from individuals that can objectively comment on your achievements, character and future goals.  When you are requesting letters, don’t be afraid to describe (briefly) why you are applying to graduate school, and what your career and training goals are while in graduate school.

Finding fit is one of the biggest challenges in applying to graduate school, but is also one of the most important steps.  Without considering fit, you can find yourself at the wrong program.  It will be unfulfilling, not prepare you for the career you want, and potentially cost you lots of time and money.


APA’s Applying to Graduate School:  This is your one-stop-shop for learning more about graduate study in psychology, researching your options, developing a plan for getting in, and actually applying!

APA’s Preparing and Applying for Graduate School in Psychology: This is a series of 12 videos that takes you through the preparation, application, interview and admission process.

APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology, a guide of with information on over 600 programs and 1600 degree programs.  Departments and schools provide a description of their training, the resources they have, and the their admission requirements, and more!  Buy the book, or purchase access to the online database.

PSYCAS, APA’s centralized application service.  PSYCAS is a service for graduate programs and applicants.  Students create a single account to manage all their application materials, submit letters of references, and keep track of all the deadlines and materials for each program.  Checkout if your program is part of PSYCAS!

About the Author

Garth A. Fowler, PhD
Garth directs the APA’s efforts in producing resources and information to help psychology graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and those that teach them, improve their training and career success. Before coming to APA Garth was a faculty member and Assistant Chair in the Department of Neurobiology, where he managed the departmental office staff, advised students, taught courses for undergraduate, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and was the director of the MS Program in Neurobiology. His first job after finishing his postdoc was the Outreach Program Manager for Science Careers, the online career resources for Science magazine & AAAS. When not reading about educational policy and best practices, he enjoys traveling, running through the city, and cycling with his friends. Garth has a B.A. in Psychology from the College of Wooster, a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington – Seattle, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego, CA.