Application Tips: How will my application be evaluated?

Clinical psychology Ph.D programs usually evaluate four aspects of your application:

1. Does it seem like you have the potential to successfully complete the rigorous academic curriculum required in many clinical psychology Ph.D. programs?

2. Will you be successful in making a contribution to the clinical psychological science literature?

3. Will you be successful as a clinician?

4. Is there a match between your interests and the interests of one or more faculty in the program?

A detailed explanation of each aspect follows.

Your potential to complete the rigorous academic curriculum

Academic potential is a little hard to measure, particularly your potential to succeed in a new setting in a concentrated area of study.  There are a few markers of your potential that we look at, but we recognize that none of these markers is perfect.

First, we look at the quality of your undergraduate institution and your undergraduate GPA.  We understand that your GPA will be determined by which classes you took, where you took them, and who your instructor was, so GPA alone is not a very valid indicator of potential success in a graduate curriculum.  We also know that many applicants to clinical psychology Ph.D. programs started college as pre-med students and discovered their love of psychology later in college, so some grades in Years 1-2 may be lower than the grades received in psychology classes later.  Nevertheless, it is a bit rare for someone with an undergraduate GPA below 3.0 (and no prior graduate work) to be admitted into our programs.  Most successful applicants have GPAs above 3.4.

Second, we look at your GRE scores.  This is also an imperfect marker of your potential, but it does provide a standardized measure of your potential.  You can use the links for each of the CUDCP programs listed here to see what the median GRE scores were for all accepted students in our clinical psychology Ph.D programs.

Of course, your letters of recommendation will also help us understand how to interpret your GPA and GRE scores. Sometimes we hear from your letter writers that you have much greater potential than your numbers suggest, and this is helpful to know.

Will you contribute to the clinical psychological science literature?

Most successful applicants to CUDCP programs have completed one or more of the following prior to admission:

• a post-baccalaureate research assistant position (available positions listed here)

• a senior honors thesis

• other supervised research experience

These research experiences help us feel confident that you understand how clinical psychology research is conducted, how to think scientifically, and that you understand methods and procedures used in our discipline.

It is very important to be sure that you have not merely gotten experience assisting with a faculty member’s research, but that you understand the scientific theories, goals, and findings relevant to that research.  However, gaining that understanding requires your active engagement in the research process (i.e., asking questions, reading literature, suggesting novel hypotheses).  Although most applicants to clinical psychology PhD programs have experience with tasks that help to ensure that research gets done (e.g., data entry, running participants through studies, coding data), successful applicants are those who can discuss their research interests and ideas within their personal statements.

Faculty who write your letters of recommendation also offer valuable comments regarding your ability to engage in critical thinking and express enthusiasm for science.

Will you be successful as a clinician?

Your ability to think critically about research also helps us determine whether you can apply a similarly scientific perspective to your clinical cases.  Thus, research experience (of the types listed above) is paramount for admission to CUDCP programs in clinical psychology.

It is not necessary to have prior experience assisting with clinical work, however.  For a variety of ethical and practical reasons, there are few opportunities for bachelor’s level students to assist with actual psychotherapy.  Thus, it is not expected that you will have this experience.  In fact, the clinical experiences you do accrue before graduate school may differ substantially from the psychotherapy skills we will teach you in our programs.  However, if clinical experience is helpful to your decision whether to apply, then it is certainly appropriate to engage in these experiences before admission; they will not hurt your application, but are unlikely to help.

Do your interests match one or more faculty in the program?

We want to help ensure that you will have a successful career as a researcher, clinician, teacher, or consultant.  In particular, the faculty members in CUDCP programs have expertise in producing the research that forms the basis for efficacious psychotherapy, and in teaching you how to conduct evidence-based treatment.  If you are interested exclusively in topics that we do not have expertise in, then we may not be able to help you with your career.

Accordingly, we first look for students who have general interests in (1) learning how to produce research and (2) evidence-based therapy.  Then, we look for students who have specific interests in the research or therapy topics we know most about. 

How much you need to match the specific interests of any particular faculty member is hard to predict, unfortunately.  Some faculty like someone who is an exact match, some like students who bring new ideas to the lab, and some may have multiple areas of research.

For each faculty member you are interested in working with, it is generally a good idea to:

• look at the program website to determine whether the faculty is taking a student, and to learn about current faculty interests

• read their most recently published papers

• carefully read their website

• search NIH Reporter to see whether they have active grants that they are working on right now

It is appropriate to write to faculty you are interested in if your question has not been addressed on their website, but contact with a potential mentor is not at all expected, nor does it necessarily help your application.  In fact, some faculty have difficulty answering all of the emails that are sent from applicants. If you must email, you are most likely to get a response if you make contact in October or November.

Other application concerns

You can find more info about applying at several of the links on our Resources page.