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Applications That Makes Schools You Want, Want You

A good application finds a good match between you and a graduate program. The process is often anxiety producing, but the anxiety can be replaced by knowledge. The knowledge you will need to writea good application is not so much the sort you find in books. Rather, it is more like wisdom--you find it in a variety of places. I will detail three sources: (1) your perspective, (2) individuals in your audience, and (3) the culture in your audience.

Your Perspective

An application with a clear sense of purpose is impressive. But learning about yourself in relation to psychology may be the hardest task of the application process. After 8 or 10 courses in psychology, you have probably read references to 2,000 different articles. That's less than 1% of psychology articles of the last seven years.
Psi Chi members who attend the national convention of the American Psychological Society are the cream of the crop [This article was originally presented at the 1997 APS Convention.--Editor] You are interested in world-class psychology or you wouldn't be here. Bloom's (1985) study of becoming world class in various fields revealed three steps: (1) begin with a teacher who makes it fun, (2) move on to one who hones your skills, and (3) perfect them with a world-class teacher.

What psychological specialties are fun to you?
Early in her career Janet Taylor Spence told her students that to make a difference in psychology, people had to spend nearly all of their waking time on it. Three decades later, at her inaugural address as the very first president of the American Psychological Society, she talked on workaholism. I caught up with her later in the poster hall, reminded her of her earlier comments, and asked, "What's the difference between your advice back then and workaholism?" She thought for a moment, perhaps remembering her early work on the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale. "I'm not sure," she answered, "but I think workaholics do it because they are afraid not to, while great psychologists do it because they love it." Both of her words to the wise can be life-forming, but the later one tells you how to add grace to the process.
Psychology is already fun for you, or you wouldn't be seeking more of it. Even so, at application time, it will help to review. Go back to your General Psychology book and leaf through it. What catches your eye again? Imagine yourself doing every step of the study. Do these activities feel interesting? What did your favorite teacher like best?

What skills have you developed?
Your undergraduate research project can be a ticket to studying with a person in the area of that research, but use your letter of introduction to yourself to keep it from also "foreclosing" on your choices. That happens when people focus on the content of your project rather than the skills it developed or revealed. Let people know how far from that problem you may be interested in straying. Also, note on your applications the particular skills you used in the project and any other unusual skills you may have. Since your advisor's letter may be more convincing than your own, make sure you share your list with him or her.
Do you have a stronger than usual background in computers, science, mathematics, literature, history, music, outdoor recreation, languages, data analysis, writing, videotaping, behavior coding, electronics, animal training, drawing? There are few areas of human knowledge that psychologists have not studied and used. Every special skill could be a ticket to some research program where it might be useful, but is currently in short supply.

How will you make a difference?
To complete your preparation for making a difference in the world, according to Bloom, you need perseverance and world-class feedback from a master in your field. Either in graduate school or during postdoctoral work. you will need input from someone who has made a difference during his or her generation. Make sure your letters show that you know what difference your potential advisor(s) have made.

Individuals in Your Audience

Because it is the quintessential science of people, psychology may ultimately be the most useful science. Every science, every business, and every art is ultimately about people. Don't forget the individuals within the generalities of the science. You are applying to study with a person first, her or his department second, and your "chosen specialty" third. Have a person in mind when you write each application.

Who is recommended by someone you know?
There are probably only two or three people between you and each of the greatest living psychologists--you know someone, who knows someone, who knows them. If you have done research with people at your campus, they can be especially helpful. Who do they know, like, and admire? If you are presenting at a conference, take a special interest in anyone who comes and talks to you. A person who is interested in your paper might make or know a great doctoral advisor. Even young faculty in an acclaimed or growing program can make excellent advisors. As you help build their career, they will help you with yours. The results could well be a lifelong friendship.

Who is eager to talk about programs they know?
The communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, argued that "the medium is the message." People not only love to talk about the programs they are in, but the way they talk and even the attention they give you can be as important as what they say. Thus, graduate students at good schools are competent; good communicators have good social skills; and researchers who make time for strangers also make time for their own students.
Use your time at conferences to talk to people from departments that interest you. Graduate students presenting papers can be informative. Listen to their answers, but also ask yourself if the person's work appears good to you. Listen to talks that interest you, but also ask yourself if you like the person as well as the work. Introduce yourself with quality questions, but also note if the presenter will make time for you (if not right at that moment, try for a time later in the conference or in conjunction with a trip to see their lab).

Are distant places actually close to home?
Henry Steele Commager argued that one of the three pleasures of history was the discovery of great companions from the past. Likewise, you can use journal articles and even the Net to find great companions in distant places. Do a PsycInfo search on each person you have found interesting. Look up their name on the Web, but don't stop there. Read at least two recent articles before writing to them about their work or their program. Tell a little about yourself and ask for papers and information about their current interests.

The Culture in Your Audience

Renowned cultural psychologist Michael Cole argues that the defining characteristic of humanity is our tendency to inhabit environments transformed by other members of our species. The people and laboratories in a department provide a setting for the growth of everyone in it. Your application will be screened, not just by individuals, but by departments and even schools.

What are the program's interests?
In what subfields does a department have several faculty members? In what areas is it especially productive? Are there special opportunities for research that could only be found in their region of the country? By all means, check out the department's Web site and read a few articles by at least a few of the faculty listed before applying.

How does the department rate?
Check the National Research Council ratings for research published in the APS Observer (available from quality faculty members anywhere). This ranks nearly 200 doctoral programs for research productivity and impact. It also gives interesting figures, like the average length of time for obtaining a PhD.

The Final Steps

The final steps are communicating your sense of purpose and trusting your audience.

Communicating your sense of purpose
Read through the application forms you have solicited until you find one that poses questions you like. Draft an answer and share it with the person who will be your primary reference. This serves two goals: it communicates your goals to the referee, and it gives you another opportunity to get feedback. As a result, both the referee's letter and your own will be improved.

Trusting your audience
Mark Twain tells of two strangers who passed through a town asking if it was a good place to live. An old man at the outskirts answered after first asking them how they liked it where they came from. The first passerby was fleeing dismal, old neighbors and the old man told him he probably wouldn't like the people in his town either. The second was forced by circumstances to move from good friends and the old man welcomed him to the town. Don't lose sight of the idea that no matter how technical it becomes, scientific psychology is a people business. You are seeking to enjoy psychological work, to know and like the people involved, and to make your best choices about programs. As you accomplish these goals, getting into the right graduate school will lose much of its anxiety-producing aspect and become an exciting part of the process of learning to make a difference in this world. If you have done this right, there is a very good chance that people at one of the right programs will agree with you.


Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Ballantine Books.

Written by David K. Dirlam

Formerly of Kings College


Source: Fall 1998 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 29-30), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN).