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What Does It Take to Get Into Graduate School in Clinical Psychology?

Admission to PhD programs in clinical psychology is very competitive. Ratios of 300 applicants to 8 positions are common (though perhaps 10-15 people would have to be accepted to fill the 8 slots; some who are accepted decide to go elsewhere, or enter a different kind of graduate or professional program ). Different programs emphasize different characteristics, but it is safe to say that in all programs GREs and GPAs are examined closely. Graduate students in Northwestern's program have averaged over 1400 on the GRE (Verbal plus Quantitative), with an average GPA of over 3.5. (GPAs for the last two years of undergraduate schooling are most important, so students with uneven early records have a good chance if they've improved.) There are respectable programs whose students score lower on these measures, but students who have lower than 1200 on the GRE or a GPA of less than 3.3 can expect to find it difficult to get into a top graduate program in clinical psychology without other special qualifications.

Regarding less standardized criteria, most graduate programs in clinical psychology will prefer that you have taken a course in psychopathology, e.g., our Psych 303. Introduction to Clinical Psychology (Psych 306) can also be useful, in part as a way to learn more about the field and your options within it. Most graduate schools also expect students to have obtained some research experience. The primary concern is that students should have conducted some psychological research in order to know whether they find it interesting. From an admissions perspective, it is less important that you have had clinical research experience than it is that you have had meaningful research experiences (e.g., not just entering data). It is also important that you be able to solicit a letter of recommendation from at least one research supervisor. This means that it is important to get involved in research before you do your applications. If you plan to apply to graduate programs during fall of your senior year, then you should begin your research involvement as a junior, or even earlier.

Northwestern’s psychology department offers many research opportunities for undergraduate students. Each quarter, many of our students do research for course credit through 399-Independent Study or the two-quarter sequence 397-Advanced Supervised Research. You can learn more about 399 and 397, including their requirements and the differences between them, by reading our webpage on research for course credit. This page also includes tips on choosing a professor with whom to do research. Other students obtain paid positions in the department, typically through the federal work-study program. You should make sure that your research experience provides you with an in-depth look at the nature of psychological research and at the theories and past research relevant for the questions under investigation. Entering data, scheduling research participants, and so on are integral parts of the research process, but it is important to do much more than that.

Some psychology students hope to do research that is outside the specific projects for which their faculty supervisors have funding. In addition, students who want to do research on campus during the summer may need to earn money for living expenses. Northwestern University, Weinberg College, and the psychology department all have funds available on a competitive basis to support student research. Guidelines for applying for the psychology department’s Benton J. Underwood Summer Fellowship are always included in the winter edition of our undergraduate newsletter, Swift Thinking. See the Weinberg College webpage on funds for undergraduate research and the university page on Research Opportunities for Undergraduates for additional funding options.

Many graduate schools give a great deal of consideration to the likely match between potential students' interests and faculty interests. Students can convey their interests through the personal statements they include in their applications and in direct contact with relevant professors. If you have strong interests in a professor's research, this will make you a much more desirable applicant to that person. But you must be able to convey that your interests are serious, for example, by discussing a specific study. Faculty will not be impressed if it appears that you merely scanned the departmental brochure searching for topics that sound interesting.

Students may also want to consider trying some hands-on counseling-type work. Many agencies accept and train volunteers. For example, volunteering at a teen drop-in center or a hospital, working as a camp counselor for special needs children, and answering phones for a helpline can all be relevant experiences. If your goal is to work with some specific population – troubled teens, the elderly, autistic children – then you should try to gain some firsthand experience with this population. In part, this may serve as a valuable credential when you apply for graduate training. Perhaps more importantly, it will let you know if working with this population is as rewarding for you as you expect it to be. Two student groups – Northwestern Community Development Corps (NCDC) and OASIS – are good sources of information about volunteer opportunities in Evanston and surrounding communities