Graduate School Preparation

Applying To Graduate School: General Considerations

For detailed information on Graduate Programs in Psychology and how to go about pursuing a graduate degree in Psychology, please read this document, authored by Professor Abigail Marsh. Some general information, also included in the document, may be found below. 

Applying to graduate or professional school in any discipline can be a time consuming experience. Start very early. It is suggested to ask a faculty member to serve as a mentor at every step of the process. Don’t apply without help. An application prepared with the consultation of a faculty member is almost certain to be better than one without any advice. As a general rule, when applying to graduate school, seek advice from faculty members who teach and/or research in the particular specialty you wish to pursue. Write for catalogs and application forms no later than October of your senior year. Consult the web page for each program in which you are interested. Ask for all relevant information about the program of interest, including applications, financial aid, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. Most applications are due by February 1st or shortly thereafter, but some are due as early as late December. It will take many hours to fill out the forms. Each application requires a carefully prepared essay. Every September or October the Department offers a Graduate School Information Session. Please be sure to attend.
Many programs are specialized; students should choose a program based on their interests. Speak with all of the faculty members who know you well and get their advice. Once you consider applying to a particular program, check (in this handbook) to see if any of the faculty members have ever attended that school. If they have, ask them to share their knowledge of the program and chances of being accepted. Most students apply to eight or ten different programs. Some programs are harder to get into than others.
It is not recommended to apply to schools where acceptance is considered relatively easy. As Georgetown graduates have demonstrated, many majors can compete successfully for admission to the very best graduate schools in the country. Faculty in the Department can help set sights at a realistic level. Prior research experience is usually a pre-requisite for admission to a graduate program. Be sure to work with your research mentor or advisor at Georgetown on the best match for you. If you need letters of recommendation, ask faculty members weeks or even months in advance [one month minimum is recommended], and be prepared to send your transcript, CV, statement of purpose, and list of schools if they agree to write for you. Many faculty will want to meet with you to discuss your application and reasons for applying to graduate school.
Arrange to take the GRE (both the General and the Psychology Subject Tests) as early as possible. Most graduate schools require these tests. Information and application forms are available online. Most graduate schools require at least three letters of recommendation from faculty members (usually in psychology) who know you well. Graduate schools want a detailed analysis of all of your strengths and weaknesses. Although there are exceptions, as a rule it is hard for a faculty member to write a very strong recommendation if your work in his/her class was lower than a B.

Standard Procedure for Asking for Letters of Recommendation

  1. Inquire whether the professor is willing to write a strong letter. If so, provide information regarding the deadline for each program, relevant submission information (e.g., links), and copies of your transcript, curriculum vitae, and essay describing professional goals. With each request, include a brief note explaining why the program is of interest, the date on which the letter is due, and specify any faculty members at the graduate school with whom you would like to work. Also specify whether you are interested in a teaching or research assistantship.
  2. If possible, arrange a visit to the graduate school. Talking to faculty members and current graduate students can provide you with valuable first-hand information about the program. Since psychology professors can give you advice on questions to ask and things to consider during your visits, consult one or two before you go. It is extremely useful to talk to the graduate students currently in the department. Although the field of psychology is highly competitive, there are still many excellent opportunities for highly-motivated, qualified students. When your applications have been acted on, please let us know the results.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Frequently Asked Questions

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a general test which measures verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills that have been acquired over a long period of time and that are not related to any specific field of study. The GRE Subject Test is designed to help graduate school admission committees and fellowship sponsors assess the qualifications of applicants in specific fields of study. The tests also provide students with an assessment of their own qualifications. The Writing Assessment substantially expands the range of skills assessed by the GRE General Test and the GRE Subject Tests, including your ability to articulate complex ideas and effectively examine claims and accompanying evidence to support ideas with relevant reasons and examples to sustain a well-focused, coherent discussion.

The General Test Consists of Three Scored Sections:


The verbal measure tests your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences, and recognize relationships between words and concepts. Because students have wide-ranging backgrounds, interests, and skills, the verbal sections of the General Test use questions from diverse areas of experience. The areas tested range from the activities of daily life to broad categories of academic interest such as the sciences, social studies, and the humanities.


The quantitative measure tests your basic mathematical skills and your understanding of elementary mathematical concepts, as well as your ability to reason quantitatively and solve problems in a quantitative setting. The content areas included in the quantitative sections of the test are arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. These are content areas usually studied in high school.

Analytical Writing

The analytical writing section consists of two analytical writing tasks: a 45-minute “Present Your Perspective on an Issue” task and a 30-minute “Analyze an Argument” task. The “Issue” task states an opinion on an issue of general interest and asks you to address the issue from any perspective(s) you wish, as long as you provide relevant reasons and examples to explain and support your views. The “Argument” task presents a different challenge — it requires you to critique an argument by discussing how well reasoned you find it. You are asked to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than to agree or disagree with the position it presents. These two tasks are complementary in that the first requires you to construct a personal argument about an issue, and the second requires you to critique someone else’s argument by assessing its claims.

The Subject Tests

The GRE Subject Tests are intended to indicate students’ knowledge of the subject matter emphasized in many undergraduate programs as preparation for graduate study. Since past achievement is usually a good indicator of future performance, the scores are helpful in predicting students’ success in graduate study. Because the tests are standardized, the test scores permit comparison of students from different institutions with different undergraduate programs. For some Subject Tests, sub-scores are provided in addition to the total score; these sub-scores indicate the strengths and weaknesses of individual student’s preparation, and they may help students plan their future studies.

Subject Tests are currently available in 8 disciplines: Psychology; Mathematics; Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Literature in English; Computer Science; Biology; Chemistry; and, Physics. The following information will help guide you if you decide to spend time preparing for the GRE. A general review of your college courses is probably the best preparation for the test. However, the test covers a broad range of subject matter, and no one is expected to be familiar with every question. Use the Subject Test practice book to become familiar with the types of questions used in the test, paying special attention to the directions. If you thoroughly understand the directions, you will have more time during the test to focus on the questions themselves.

It is to your advantage to take the GRE in the early Fall of your senior year. If you take it any later, graduate school admissions offices that you have applied to may not get the scores in time to make their admission decision.

The General Test and Writing Assessment are separate tests that are given year-round at computer-based test centers worldwide. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. You may take the computer-based General Test and the Writing Assessment once per calendar month up to 5 times per year. The written version of the GRE is given nationally several times every year. A computerized version of the General Test is administered almost daily at several testing centers in the D.C. area. To schedule your test you can call 1.800.GRE.CALL or register on-line.

Scores are usually available instantly but sometimes take as long as 8 weeks depending on where you took the test.

No. It is best to check with the intended recipient after a reasonable period of time, e.g., eight weeks. In all fairness to Educational Testing Service, lost scores are not always their fault. Scores can get lost in the mail or in graduate school offices. It could even be your own fault. Every year two or three students forget to tell Educational Testing Service where they want the scores sent. In that case, scores are sent only to the student.

All of your scores within the last five years period will be sent to the graduate school(s) to which you apply. It is up to each graduate school to decide which scores they will use. The percentile is the most important part of the score. If you score above the 80th percentile, you are in good shape. There are no guarantees, however, and most schools do not rely on these alone for admission.

Graduate programs have different requirements. Georgetown’s Graduate Program in Psychology requires the General test. Check with the school’s requirements to which you are applying and proceed from there.

GRE General Test questions are designed to measure skills and knowledge gained over a long period of time. Although you might increase your scores to some extent by preparing for a few weeks or months before the test, last-minute cramming is unlikely to help.