Amy Specker’s Grad School App Process

Posted on March 7th, 2019 by

What is your name, year, major? What activities are you involved with on campus?

My name is Amy Specker, and I am a Senior. I am double majoring in Communication Studies & Psychological Science. On campus, I am a member of Christ Chapel Choir and the Gustavus Wind Symphony.

How did you decide that you wanted to go to grad school?

I have been fortunate in the fact that I knew what type of career (i.e. counseling) I wanted when I came to Gustavus. That’s not to say the road has been an easy one, but I understood when I came to Gustavus that I had to go to graduate school in order to achieve my career goals.

Did you ever consider taking a gap year or postponing grad school? If so, why did you decide to go now rather than later?

I did! A lot of current graduate students in psychology have told me that they took a gap year and that it was the best decision they have ever made for themselves. My mom, who was accepted to medical school when she was my age, even took a gap year. However, I decided that this was not the path for me for three reasons. Firstly, I love school and I love learning. Secondly, I worried that if I stopped going to school, I would lose my steam and not want to continue going to class. And lastly, I am excited to move into my career and in order to do that, I would prefer to go to graduate school for it sooner rather than later!

How did you decide where to apply?

Before deciding WHERE, I had to decide WHAT. I juggled doing a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy. D), a doctorate of philosophy in clinical psychology (Ph. D), a masters in marriage and family, or a masters in licensed professional clinical counseling (LPCC). To keep my options open, I chose to apply to all of the above. Once deciding what types of programs I wanted to apply for, I was able to start looking for schools. Now, not everyone does this one right after the other. Sometimes, some people have a school in mind and discover programs that interest them along the way. The way I described is simply what worked for me. I started deciding on schools based on location (i.e. where I wanted to live), the school’s values (e.g. Does it take a holistic view of their applicants?; Do they have diversity?, etc.) , and what their program had to offer. I knew that any program I would apply to absolutely had to have ACCREDITATION. I cannot overemphasize the advantages you will have if you choose an accredited program. But your program should be accredited. The American Psychological Association website had a list of doctorate programs that are accredited. Also, the websites of all the programs should list their accreditation. I rejected applying to any program that didn’t have it.

What are the steps in the application? Is there a general application? Did you have to write essays? Are there interview questions?

Yes to all of it.

There are numerous steps in the application process and unlike applying to undergraduate schools, there is no Common Application. Each school has their own steps, their own questions, and their own essay prompts. There is a general list of things that applicants are GENERALLY required to have (though check in with the school or their online application to check):

  1. The school’s general application form
  2. Curriculum Vitae OR Resume
  3. Formal or informal transcripts (which you can ask for from the Registrar’s office)
  4. GRE Scores
  5. Personal Statement OR Statement of Purpose
  6. 2-3 Personal recommendations

It should be noted that each school varies in their process. The BEST thing you can do is ask the school what they are looking for specifically. For example, I applied to UW-Madison. The online application said that they wanted at least 3 personal recommendation letters. I interpreted that my two Gustavus staff writers and my internship advisor’s letter would suffice. This was not the case when I visited them and asked. It turned out that they wanted 3 writers who hold Ph. D’s to write the letters. This is not to say that you shouldn’t ask your boss from internships to write. I did and it has served me well! But this experience taught me to always ask a program what they are looking for.

I’d like to add a quick note in about the GRE. The GRE is not like the ACT. I would most certainly study for the GRE. Some schools (cough cough: Madison) has a minimum score that they would like achieved in the GRE. If you do not reach that minimum score, they tend to throw your application out and not look at it at all. Therefore, make sure to check your chosen schools to see if they have a minimum. This will influence how many times you may have to take it. I recommend taking the GRE in the summer where you won’t have to stress about school and the test. Studying for the GRE is similar to taking another class for some people (i.e. me!).

As for the essay writing portion: Yes – I had to write essays. To me, this is the most labor intensive part of the whole process besides maybe taking the GRE. I browsed a lot of examples of essays to get started. However, because my essay was personal to me, it did go off in its own direction. Lesson being that there’s no standard way to write a personal statement/statement of purpose. Anticipate writing a few essays depending on how many places you’re applying to. They may all take on a similar tenor, but they are all tailored to each program.

As for interview questions, there are no specified interview questions in the initial application process. However, should you get an interview at a graduate program, I recommend that you review your essay for that program to remember what you said in response to their questions they wanted to know about you. That will help you prepare some answers for the interview process.

Did you get help from the Career Development Office or any other resource on or off campus?

I got help from the Psychological Science department staff (e.g. Mark Kruger, Marie Walker, and Kayla De Lorme). They were the most helpful resource to me. I never reached out to the Career Development Office; therefore, I can’t speak to their helpfulness.

When do you find out if you’ve been accepted?

This varies from school to school and program to program. Schools TYPICALLY ask for interviews between January and February and interview their favored applicants in February and March. Nearing the end of February to the end of March they generally get back to you about whether you’ve been accepted for not.

Is there anything you’re involved in on campus that you feel helped prepare you for applying to graduate school, or that will help you in grad school?

Research has been extremely valuable to my education. I can’t emphasize how impressed my graduate programs have been about our Statistics and Research Methods II class. I’ve noticed through interaction with other applicants at interview sessions that Gustavus truly prepares you to think critically about research methods and primes you to conduct your own original research. These accumulated skills prepare you well for graduate studies.

Also, I know the majority of us (including myself) nurse mixed feelings about R Studio and SPSS. But being proficient in both of these programs looks very strong on your CV/Resume.

Are there any internships that helped you prepare for graduate school?

Being an on-call crisis advocate at Committee Against Domestic Abuse (CADA) has been an extremely valuable experience. It has taught me skills that will serve me well in my chosen career of counseling and affirmed my desire to be a counselor.

What exactly are you going to grad school for? What kind of research will you be doing, if any?

I am going to grad school for counseling. I don’t know quite yet which program I will attend, so I can’t speak to the specifics yet. If I choose to attend a masters level program, I will most likely not be doing any research. If I attend a doctoral level program, I will have a research dissertation on a topic of my choosing; however, the type of research and the project topic will depend on the program. In a Psy. D. program, quantitative research is not generally required.

What level of education will you be pursuing? Masters? PhD?

Psy. D.

What were some difficult aspects of the application process?

My first challenge was trying to relearn high school math. I haven’t had math in at least 3-4 years, and I haven’t done any geometry or trigonometry for at least 7 years. Relearning those subjects took some time and I even hired a tutor since math is already not a strength.

A second challenge that I faced was getting my personal statements written. I knew that I was far from a perfect writer, so I worried for a long time about how to include everyone’s feedback in my essays. I quickly learned that writing personal statements is not like school. If someone gives you feedback, you don’t have to include it in your statement unless you think it’s appropriate. I have certainly received feedback before that I vetoed because while I appreciated it, it did nothing productive for my essay in my opinion (though I did ask other editors about their opinions about feedback if I planned to veto it). Understanding that I had this personal power over my applications helped make the process go easier.

Keeping track of what I’ve submitted to the schools and what I didn’t was a bit of a challenge. To combat this, I made a lot of checklists to ensure that I had everything turned in and that all my recommendation writers had turned their letters in.

Lastly, Christmas in Christ Chapel really presented a challenge. C in CC performances happened to fall on the same days that my Ph. D. applications were due. Then, the week after C in CC, my other applications were due. This presented a pickle. Therefore, I worked very hard during Thanksgiving Break to finish the applications, so I didn’t have to worry about finishing them in a sleep deprived state.

Do you have any recommendations for others considering applying to grad school?

The only maybe somewhat profound, unsolicited advice I have is that you should make decisions that are good for you. My experiences will not be yours. I made plenty of mistakes along the way and you will run into your own challenges. Be confident in your ability to make choices. Only you can determine what is good for you!

What aspect of grad school are you most looking forward to?

Grad school is PERFECT for teaching practical skills that will aid you in your future career. Therefore, I look forward most to learning academically and applying practical skills to my practicum.


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