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I get asked a lot by undergraduate students about how to get into a Ph.D. program in clinical or counseling psychology. These programs are competitive. This past year, we had about 170 applicants for 8 spots. Because of this, it’s important to understand the process, and know what you can do to give yourself the best shot to be accepted. Here are 11 guidelines for how to get into a Ph.D. program in counseling or clinical psychology:

Guideline 1: Make Sure This is the Type of Program you Want

There are many different types of graduate degrees in psychology. A Ph.D. in clinical or counseling psychology is a great degree, but it isn’t the best choice for everyone. Here are some things to think about when choosing a program.

Ph.D. in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

  • Research is a big component of the training. If you aren’t interested in spending a lot of time learning how to do research and write up papers, this might not be the best program for you.
  • Probably the best choice to prepare you to teach at the university level.
  • Gives you the flexibility to become a licensed psychologist and see clients.
  • Usually the best in terms of financial support. Many schools will pay your tuition and give you a stipend for being a teaching or research assistant.
  • Most difficult to get into.

Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology

  • More clinically focused. You still have to do a dissertation project (usually), but there isn’t as much focus on research and writing.
  • Usually some limits in regard to the places you can teach at the university level.
  • Prepares you to become a licensed psychologist (same license as a Ph.D. program).
  • Usually expensive (financial support usually isn’t great).
  • Usually easier to get into than a Ph.D. program.

Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Counseling, or Social Work

  • Can be used as a stepping stone toward a Ph.D. program if you don’t have the grades, scores, or experience to get into a Ph.D program directly out of your undergraduate program.
  • Can get licensed to counsel.
  • Program is shorter (usually 2 years). Can get a job more quickly. Not as much debt. Also a good option if you aren’t sure you want to get your doctorate.
  • Easier to get into than Ph.D. programs.
  • Doesn’t prepare you for teaching at the university level.
  • Long-term drawback is that when counseling, your reimbursement from insurance companies is lower than if you had your Ph.D. or Psy.D. This is a significant difference and over the long run, a Ph.D. or Psy.D. will make more money. Also usually not as much training in assessment.

Don’t rush over this first guideline. It’s important to think critically about your long-term goals, and what you want to get out of a graduate program. The rest of the guidelines will focus on how to get into a Ph.D. program in counseling or clinical psychology.

Guideline 2: Clinical or Counseling?

The short answer is it isn’t that big of a deal… There are some differences between clinical and counseling psychology, but most of them are historical. Clinical psychology historically has focused on more intense psychopathology. Counseling psychology historically has focused on less severe psychopathology, and more in areas such as positive psychology, multicultural counseling, and career counseling. But nowadays there is lots of crossover between clinical and counseling psychology programs. Both types of programs compete for the same internships. You get the same license to practice when you are finished. It’s better to select your program based on research match with a faculty member.

Guideline 3: Find a Research Match with a Faculty Member

Research training will be a big part of your Ph.D. program. In most programs, you apply to a person, meaning that you will be matched with a faculty member whose research interests align with your own. If your research interests do not align with a faculty member, it is unlikely you will be accepted into that program. So do your homework when selecting programs. There’s a great book called the Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology that is updated every two years. It has information on each program, including the type of research that faculty members are conducting. Another way to find research mentors is to do a PsycINFO or GoogleScholar search on your research interests, and identify people who are doing research in your area of interest. Then you can apply to their program.

Guideline 4: Get Good Grades

Most students applying to clinical and counseling Ph.D. programs will have excellent grades. Almost everyone will have above a 3.5 GPA. Most will be in the 3.8/3.9 range. This can make it tough for individuals who got off to a slow start in college. If your grades aren’t where they need to be, it might be a good idea to look at master’s programs as a possible backup. If you get good grades in your master’s program, the focus will be on your grades as a whole (undergraduate AND graduate).

Guideline 5: Rock the GRE

The GRE is the one thing that is consistent across applicants. Applicants come from different types of schools, so it can be difficult to compare factors such as grades across applicants. But the GRE is consistent across applicants, and because of that, it gets a lot of weight. This is a tough pill to swallow for students who don’t like standardized tests, or who don’t think they are good at standardized tests. But it is the reality. Most students applying to Ph.D. programs will have high GPAs, will have worked in a research lab, and will have had some clinical experience. But the GRE is where you see a lot of separation. The take home message is to do everything you can to prepare for the GRE and do the best you can. There is no substitute for this. It’s that important. So do whatever it is you need to do. Take practice tests. Go through the study materials. Take a GRE prep class. Get a tutor. Give it your best shot.

Guideline 6: Get Research Experience

Research experience is important. Research is a huge component of your Ph.D. program, and professors want to know that you are serious about research and have some experiences getting your feet wet in this area. Almost everyone applying to Ph.D. programs will have experience working in a research lab, usually for multiple semesters. This can be viewed as a minimum. There are other things you can do to help stand out in terms of research experience. Completing your own personal project or honors thesis is good. Having presentations at conferences is good. Having a publication or two is great—this can really make you stand out.

Guideline 7: Get Clinical Experience

Clinical experience isn’t usually as important as research experience. Still, clinical training is a big component of a Ph.D. program, and again, professors want to know that you are serious about this commitment and have some prior experiences in this area. Gaining clinical experience can be difficult as an undergraduate student. But usually there are creative ways this can be done. For example, you might be able to volunteer at a psychiatric hospital. You could volunteer for a crisis line. Perhaps you could volunteer at a shelter for persons recovering from domestic violence. You want to have some experience in this area.

Guideline 8: Get Good Letters of Recommendation

You are required to get letters of recommendation as part of your application (usually 3). You want to have good letters of recommendation. This generally means that you need to have contact with a professor over and above just sitting in their class and receiving an A. This would be an example of a bad letter of recommendation. To get a good letter of recommendation, the professor needs to know who you are and have some consistent contact with you. A good example of this would be a professor whom you worked for in their research lab.

Guideline 9: Write a Good Personal Statement

Most programs require you to write a personal statement. Aim for about two pages. A good personal statement generally has the following sections:

  • Introduction, perhaps something about yourself and how you became interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology (approx. 1 paragraph).
  • Description of your research experiences (approx. 2 paragraphs).
  • Description of your clinical experiences (approx. 1 paragraph).
  • Discussion of what draws you to the particular program (approx. 1 paragraph).
  • Discussion of what draws you to the particular research professor (approx. 1 paragraph).
  • Conclusion that cements your desire and energy to pursue a Ph.D. from that particular school and professor. You could bring in some evidence for why you are a particularly strong candidate (e.g., awards, honors, etc.; approx. 1 paragraph).

Have some people read over and edit your personal statement. Good readers would be professors or psychology graduate students. It’s also not a bad idea to hire an editor to polish up your writing.

Guideline 10: Have a Good CV (Resume)

Most programs require you to submit a CV. A good CV generally has the following sections:

  • Contact information
  • Education (school, credits, overall GPA, psychology GPA)
  • GRE test results
  • Research experiences (descriptions of work, presentations, publications)
  • Clinical experiences (descriptions of work)
  • Honors and awards
  • Work experiences, volunteer experiences
  • References

Guideline 11: Apply Broadly

Ph.D. programs in clinical and counseling psychology are difficult to get into. Because of this, it’s a good idea to apply broadly. Apply to a lot of schools (10-15), even if you think you are a strong candidate. If possible, don’t limit yourself geographically. Also, it’s a good idea to apply to some backup schools (e.g., master’s programs). Try not to get discouraged if you don’t get into a Ph.D. program the first time around. Take a look at your application and evaluate what parts need improving. Are there areas that you could improve to really stand out? It’s also a good idea to ask other professors or graduate students to evaluate your application and advise where you might be able to improve.

Good Luck!

Preparing and applying to a Ph.D. program in clinical or counseling psychology is a lot of work, and these programs are very difficult to get into. But it’s a great education, and psychology is an awesome field to be in. So if it’s what you want to do, stick with it. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Energy and persistence conquers all things.”