Didn’t Get Into Graduate School?  Here is your Plan B.

Around this time of year, I often get emails from individuals who had just gone through the application process for graduate school, but did not receive any offers.  The emails always have a similar theme: What can I do now?

Take a moment to step away, then review your process of selecting and applying to programs.

Getting into graduate school is not easy, and for many smart, competent people it may take more than one try before succeeding.  As we point out in our other resources (FAQ about Graduate School), getting into graduate school is about fit:  That is,

1) finding programs that fit your training and career goals, and

2) demonstrating to those programs that you are a good fit for them.

Your job now is to look at those two steps, and see where there are opportunities for improvement.

Did you apply to the right programs?

The first piece of advice I give is: Did you select programs that truly fit your career and training goals? There are literally thousands of graduate programs in psychology, and they are not all the same in terms of the type of training they provide and what type of careers they open up for you.  If your career aspirations are to do research – say in cognition and decision making – and there are no research opportunities, or past graduates don’t end up doing research, then that program is a bad fit. The same is true if you want to be a licensed school counselor, and the program does not prepare individuals to be eligible to take state licensing exams. Many applicants don’t apply to the correct program, and trust me – admission committees and faculty members can see that when they read your application.

How well did you demonstrate your fit?

Programs use many criteria to try to assess your fit:  Test scores & GPAs; past courses and work experience; your personal statement, and what your career and training goals are.  This list goes on. And they don’t make up these criteria just because they feel the need to or enjoy it. These criteria come from years of training previous students – and paying close attention to those that succeed in their program and those that struggled. When I was director of a graduate program, I knew that without a certain level of competency in conducting basic research you would struggle to complete the program. To help the admission committee determine how prepared applicants were to undertake the rigors of the program, we asked applicants to explain what research experience they had, and we also required that they have references that could discuss their past research experience. Success in past research was an important criterion in our admission process.

Each year, the APA asks departments to rate the importance of 10 criteria in their application review process.  You can see how departments that are housed in different types of settings rated these criteria here.  You can also see how each individual department rated each criteria in the APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology book.  Go back and look at your application, and ask yourself some of the following questions:  Was your past academic performance consistent with what the program required?  Did you have the necessary research or work-related experience?  Did your essay demonstrate how the program was a good fit for your career goals, and that you had the necessary skills and competencies to succeed?  An honest assessment most often shows where you can improve for the next time around.

Not all is lost if you didn’t get into graduate school. Just Refocus and try again.

For a small group of you reading this article, there may be an opportunity to still find the right program and start graduate school this year. Each spring, the APA’s Office of Graduate and Postgraduate Education & Training publishes a list of programs that still have openings for the coming fall.  But you still need to go through all the same steps of considering fit, understanding what the program offers in terms of career preparation, and making sure you have the proper preparation and credentials to be successful.  Don’t just decide to apply to a program because it has openings.  Spending many years (and potentially, lots of money) in a city and in a program that is not the right fit for you could have a bad outcome.  It is better to take one more year, submit a strong application, and find yourself with options of where and what to study.

Getting into graduate school will require taking the time to reassess your approach, and applying again next year.  As I pointed out earlier, there are thousands of programs, all with their own set of requirements.  If you do the process well you’ll find yourself with a good fit next year.

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.