Clinical psychology PhD programs are quite competitive, with acceptance rates ranging between 5 to 10 percent.

Because of these somewhat abysmal numbers, prospective students are often concerned about whether their academic and relevant experiences are up to par with the standards required of admission committees. The information on university websites is also somewhat vague in terms of more important parameters, such as research and educational experience.

In this post, I provide a few parameters for consideration to determine your current competitiveness as a prospective applicant for traditional PhD programs in clinical psychology.

It is important to remember that these are general ‘guesstimates’ from a PhD student in clinical psychology, so it should not be taken as gospel. Moreover, successful applicants come from all walks of life, so not all applicants are from the same mold.

Grade Point Average

Typically, admission committees require at least an A- average over the last two years of undergraduate studies (3.67 GPA). The clause eliminating the first couple years can be helpful for students who have a strong positive trajectory after a tougher start in university. That being said, some schools may still consider the cumulative GPA. Moreover, typical successful applicants tend to have a higher GPA than the required minimum.

Personally, I see grades as more of a cut-off. There are a lot of applications each year (~200) for a limited number of spots; therefore, admission committees may use this criterion to root out those with lower grades to reduce burden on full assessments. After that, GPA is usually less important and other criteria is given more weight in admissions.

Graduate Record Examination Scores

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that is an admission requirement for many graduate schools. It consists of three main domains: Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing.

The Verbal section tests for knowledge in terms of vocabulary and verbal reasoning; the Quantitative section tests understanding and application of math concepts; and Analytical Writing evaluates your ability to write critically and support arguments.

Each section provides a ‘percentile score’, which gives you data on how you performed in relation to other people who have taken the exam. For example, if you performed at the 70th percentile, it means that you did better than 70% of all other test-takers. If you performed at the 45th percentile, then you did better than 45% of all other test-takers (55% performed better).

To be competitive, schools generally recommend that you perform in at least the 80th percentile in the Verbal and Analytical Writing Section. Us psychology people generally aren’t great at arithmetic (not to stereotype!), so a slightly lower score on the Quantitative section is usually permissible. I have heard people get in with a percentile score in the 40s and 50s on the Quantitative section.

Research Experience

As noted in another post, research experience is one of – if not the most – important factor on admission committees.

Personally, I would recommend that you have experience in least two labs for one to two years. Spending more time in a lab allows you to obtain depth of research experience and engage in tasks that typical RAs may not have an opportunity to do (e.g., presenting a poster, analyzing data, writing a manuscript) – these graduate level tasks look great on an application.

Also importantly, working in a couple labs allow for excellent letters of recommendation from professors that know you well rather than recommendations from professors that you may have simply taken a class with.

Therefore, competitive applicants have generally worked in at least one or two research contexts for a significant amount of time. During this time, they have been relatively productive, with some examples of productivity being: presenting at a conference; helping co-author a manuscript (even better if you are first author); analyzing data; and taking on leadership roles. Having significant depth (and to an extent breadth) also helps with matching to specific professors when applying to graduate school to ensure that you and the professor both have a similar interest.

Clinical Experience

To be honest, you generally do not really need clinical experience to be competitive as PhD programs typically are more focused on your experience as a researcher.

That being said, it does not hurt to have a bit of clinical experience and it may allow for a more smooth transition when you are in graduate school. Most students I have talked to have either worked as a support worker/behavioural interventionist, volunteered at a distress call centre, or gained some assessment experience in a clinical lab.

Other useful experiences to be competitive

Beyond traditional academic and research, there are other types of experiences that can look favourably on an application. They are not absolutely necessary, but certainly can be nice to have.

Leadership experiences. Leadership experiences are great and show initiative. For example, being on an administration team in a student association or founding an initiative can provide evidence of a well-rounded education.

Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity. There has been a recent push towards EDIJ initiatives in the recent years. Therefore, many admission committees have begun to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusivity in their consideration. Consequently, taking on roles that honours these concepts can certainly look attractive in an application.

Statistics and Research Methods. Evidence of a strong background in research methods and statistics can also be an indicator of a strong applicant. Course work in advanced research methods and statistics, in addition to practical experience in labs, are both good avenues to support this area.

My personal application stats

In the spirit of full transparency, it can be helpful to get a sense of what at least one successful applicant looked like. Personally, I applied for 7 programs and received 1 formal acceptance. Another program was quite interested, but the potential supervisor had a family emergency and was no longer available to supervise. Because of this, my application was withdrawn – just goes to show you how luck also plays a significant factor in the admission process.

At the time, my GPA in the last two years was 88% and my cumulative GPA was 81%. My GRE percentile scores were Verbal (98%), Quantitative (78%), and Analytical Writing (78%).

I had experience in 4 research laboratories, the shortest duration was 8 months and the longest was 2 and a half years. I worked as a lab manager for two of the labs. I had a few poster/talks at conferences as a first-author and two publications as co-authors. My three references were from these experiences.

In terms of clinical experience, I worked as a support worker for adolescents with developmental challenges and as an assessor in a depression lab.

Other unique experiences included taking advanced statistics and research method courses, working as a tutor for behavioural statistics, taking a graduate course, and receiving a research award to support my work in a lab.

Again, this is just one snapshot and does not reflect the many possible avenues that a successful applicant can take. I simply wanted to provide a little clarity through full transparency, so I hope that was helpful!

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Best wishes,