Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology and the Mental Health Professions

Each year, thousands of applicants are considered for admission to training programs in clinical psychology, social work, counseling, and other mental health-related fields. Many of these programs are highly competitive and have stringent admissions requirements. Although applicants are often tempted to apply to every program they can find and hope for the best, this approach does more harm than good to their chances of acceptance. A carefully planned application strategy is more effective in the long run.

Narrowing Your Options: Choosing a Career Path

Some of the most common professionals in mental health include clinical and counseling psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors. Although in the real world these mental health professionals often work side-by-side, there are important differences in the nature of their training and the types of work that they are prepared to do. Graduate programs in each of these fields vary in duration, training requirements, and areas of focus.

Before applying to graduate school, it’s usually best to decide on a specific career path and then investigate training programs that are consistent with that choice. It’s helpful to visit the web sites of professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, to gain a better understanding of what professionals in each field actually do. Getting information from these organizations will also give you insight into important professional issues that might affect your career.

Depending on how soon you want to be in professional practice, you may opt for a career that requires fewer years of education, such as counseling, over a career that requires a lengthy (and expensive) education, such as psychiatry. On the other hand, you are likely to earn a higher salary holding a doctoral degree, and the highest level of training may give you more flexibility in the types of work you can do. It’s crucial to consider the costs and benefits of different levels of education as you determine a career path. This decision is possibly the most important step in the process – take your time.

Are You Eligible to Apply?

Once you’ve decided a career path that’s right for you, investigate graduate training programs in that profession and find out what is generally required of applicants. A bachelor’s degree is usually necessary for higher-level professional training. Other requirements typically include specific undergraduate courses, a minimum grade point average (GPA), and a minimum test score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Extracurricular or hands-on experiences are a plus if not a necessity: volunteering in a psychiatric hospital, assisting in a psychology research laboratory, or working as a peer counselor are examples of experiences that show an applicant’s dedication to work in the mental health profession. Find out what is generally required of graduate school applicants in your field and plan to make up what you lack.

Finding a Good Fit

Once you have a good idea of your career and what you need to do to get there, you’re ready to start comparing graduate programs. Almost every graduate training program now has a web site, so it’s easy to get up-to-date information on a program’s requirements, training facilities, and courses.

Unlike a traditional 4-year college curriculum, which is designed to provide a broad education, graduate training programs are more focused and more intensive. Graduate training also demands more maturity and independence, and it’s assumed that you have a good idea of what your want from your training from the outset. No matter how prestigious a program might be, if it doesn’t align with your career interests, it may not be a good fit.

Consider both the faculty’s areas of expertise and the training experiences available to you when selecting graduate programs. For example, if you want to become a psychologist to conduct research on bipolar disorder, you should only choose graduate programs with faculty who specialize in mood disorders and are willing to mentor graduate students. If you want to be a social worker in a medical setting, you should look for graduate programs that offer training experiences in hospitals or medical clinics.

Be wary of programs that make it all look a bit too easy, especially if they charge high tuition and accept many students each year. Unfortunately, students in less reputable programs pay a small fortune for a degree, only to be left high and dry when they go on the job market years later. Apply only to graduate programs that are accredited by the appropriate professional organization, and do a little background research on their career placement track records. Many graduate programs are more than happy to publish statistics or descriptions of career placements among their graduates. If this information isn’t available, ask the admissions coordinator. If you can’t find this information, or someone refuses to give it to you, consider the red flag raised.

The Application Process

Once you have identified programs that meet your training needs, make sure that you have all of the required coursework and other credentials that you will need to apply for admission. Don’t waste your time and money applying to a program when you don’t meet the basic admission requirements – it’s unlikely your application will even get a serious look. Read application instructions carefully and follow them to the letter.

Most graduate programs require letters of recommendation from former professors, supervisors, and other professionals who can attest to your readiness for graduate work. Choose recommenders that can really say something meaningful about you, and make sure that their recommendation will be positive and strong (it’s OK to ask!). However, avoid asking for letters from personal contacts such as friends, family, and personal therapists at all costs! Finally, secure these letters as early as possible in the application process – last-minute requests for recommendations are rude and might result in less-than-glowing letters.

It’s also common for graduate programs to require applicants to write an essay or statement describing their reasons for seeking admission. Although there is much debate about what constitutes a “great” personal statement, a few key points are widely accepted. First, use impeccable grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Ask friends to proofread your essay and edit carefully. Second, tailor your admissions statement to each application. You don’t need to completely re-write each statement, but do discuss the ways in which you are a good fit for each program. If you are applying to work with a particular faculty member, this is essential. Third, don’t get overly personal. Although you should be genuine and let your personality come across, use discretion when disclosing personal information. If you’re not sure whether it’s appropriate to include something, it probably isn’t. Finally, avoid using clichÃ?©s – everyone applying to work in the mental health field wants to “help people” in some way, and it’s generally understood that you want to do something good for the world. You don’t need to hammer home this point – focus on what makes you a unique asset to the program.

Are You Ready?

It’s crucial at this early stage to ask yourself why you want to be in the mental health profession in the first place. Not only will you be asked to answer this question on admissions applications, but it’s also wise to reflect on whether the mental health field is really right for you. Some people enter the field because of a general interest in mental health issues, but many applicants are motivated by personal experiences that have inspired them to help others. For example, people who have experienced serious mental illness or have been close to others with mental illness may feel great compassion for and dedication to others who experience similar difficulties. However, admissions committees are often wary of applicants whose desire for professional training is inspired largely by personal experiences with mental illness – and for good reason. A therapist who goes into practice with a strong personal agenda may not have his or her head in the right place, and may be an ineffective therapist (if not worse).

Other aspects of your personal life are also important to consider before applying to graduate school in the mental health field. Important obligations, such as being a caretaker, requiring a steady fixed income, or even nurturing a close relationship, may be in conflict with the demands of graduate training. Your personality may also determine how you adjust to life as a clinician-in-training. People who are prone to worrying and taking on others’ problems as their own are likely to have a hard time coping with day-to-day clinical work. Can you leave work at the office at make what little time is left for yourself and your loved ones at home? If not, you may want to think twice before taking on the responsibility of caring for others on a daily basis.

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