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A career in psychology - whether in research or direct client services - usually requires a graduate degree. Graduate school is a much different experience from undergraduate school both in terms of the application process and the actual academic work.

A graduate degree in psychology involves much more than simply studying for tests and maintaining a high GPA. In grad school, your professors will become your colleagues. You will likely organize complex research projects in addition to your regular coursework. And if you're in a clinical or counseling Ph.D. program or a Psy.D. program, you could begin seeing real clients quite early in your graduate training. 

That's why it's vital to know what to expect before you decide to pursue graduate education. Consider these Do's and Don'ts for some fundamental information about a graduate degree in psychology.

Your Career Goals

Do consider what you want to do professionally. 

When you have a clear idea of your career goals, you'll better be able to identify the programs and even specific professors who can help you achieve them. 

Don't assume a highly ranked grad school is the best fit for you.

Remember, in many programs, you'll be working very closely with a primary research advisor. You'll become immersed in his or her lab so finding the right match is often more important than overall program's characteristics or reputation. Be sure that you find the advisor's research interesting and exciting because you'll be doing it for four to six years. 

Do understand the degree options.

Depending on what you want to do professionally, you will decide to pursue either a master's level degree or a doctoral degree. If you're strongly interested in research and you have a high GPA and good GRE scores, you could consider a PhD program. A PsyD program is another doctoral option but doesn't include the research aspect of training.

Masters degrees are better for people who only want to provide counseling or mental health services for clients. In these masters programs, you can usually also choose tracks specific to working with adults or children or in health-care or a school setting.

Don't forego graduate school if research isn't for you.

Masters degrees in educational counseling or social work will provide options that allow you to work in a psychology-related area without concentrating as heavily on clinical research. These programs are housed outside the department of psychology at most collegtes and universities.

Grad School Timing

Do: Consider a break.

Some students find it beneficial to take a break between undergraduate and graduate school. If you do decide to take a year or so off following undergrad school, make the most of it. Seek a job where you can gain additional research experience. A psychology lab or related organization will not only help you gain experience, but will also refine your professional interests and clarify what you want to study in grad school. Plus, many top-tier psychology graduate program require experience in a lab setting.

Don't: Lose momentum

Some students don't want to loose academic momentum by taking more than a summer off. Additionally, if you apply while you're still an undergrad, your academic advisors, professors and peers can help you identity and select grad schools and write personal statements which are required in the process. Plus, if you're not a full-time student, you might not be able to defer student loan payments.

Applying to Grad School

Do sign up early for the GRE

When you're ready to apply to graduate school, you'll need to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE. The general GRE is offered throughout the year, but you should sign up early to ensure a spot at your preferred testing site. For some graduate programs, including clinical PH.D. programs, you'll also have to take the Psychology GRE. It's usually offers in April and November.

Do take the test again if you don't score well.

All your scores will be sent to your schools of interest so it's to your advantage to take the GRE more than once if you don't score well the first time. All American Psychology Association-accredited psychology Ph.D. programs publish their students’ average scores and GPAs online. Use this to assess where your scores are in relation to students who were accepted. 

Don't wait to submit your scores. 

Graduate programs have deadlines for submitting GRE scores and other application materials. While most are understanding if something unforeseen occurs, don't wait until the last minute to request your scores be sent.

Learn about the program

Do express familiarity with the school's program.

An admissions committee will quickly see if you're not familiar with the program to which you've applied. 

Don't write a damaging personal statement.

Keep your personal statement professional and focused on your career goals. Don't come across as overly altruistic ("I just want to help people."), or focus on your own or your family's mental health challenges. Also, don't attempt humor or wit in your personal statement. Make sure your personal statement makes it clear that the school's program meshes with your career aspirations.

Help yourself

Do get effective letters of recommendation.

Recommendation letters from parents, ministers or others who aren't qualified to assess your academic ability will not impress an admissions committee. Letters should come from people who know you well and can speak to your work ethic, intelligence, motivation and character.

Don't ask potential authors to simply write a letter of recommendation.

Rather, ask them to write a strong letter of recommendation that highlights your positive personal and academic characteristics.

Do sign the waiver on the recommendation form.

Federal law says you have the right to see the letters of recommendation submitted on your behalf, but most students waive their right to see them. Admissions committees are much more likely to believe praise about you if the letter writer knew the applicant wouldn't see the recommendation.

Don't overdo it.

Trying to impress or flatter the admissions committee with insincere praise or inappropriate name dropping won't win you any favors.

Do communicate properly and effectively.

All components of your application should be written concisely using proper grammar and spelling. Disorganized thoughts and unclear ideas will make the admissions committee question if you're an appropriate candidate for grad school.

Choosing a graduate school and applying to the program can be stressful and confusing. This helpful list of do's and don'ts will help you as you select a school, a course of study and complete your application package.

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