Cornell University


What Are Schools Looking For?

It is difficult to state definitively the factors that will determine your admission to a graduate program in clinical psychology. Each program has its own admissions standards and requirements. These variables make it difficult to define one set of standards that apply to all programs. However, almost all consider the factors cited below in looking at potential entrants.

Objective Criteria

  • GPA (overall GPA, psychology GPA, and last-2-years GPA)
  • Standardized test scores (GRE-V, GRE-Q, GRE-Analytical, and GRE-Psychology; MAT)
  • Coursework (number of hours, subject area, and level)

Subjective Criteria

  • Letters of recommendation
  • Experience
  • Research experience
  • Clinically-related public service
  • Interview performance
  • Extracurricular activities


The average minimum GPA that most programs look for is 3.2. However, the way in which GPAs are rated varies from program to program. Some will have lower or higher required GPAs, others will look more closely at the last two years' GPA, and still others will also look at the GPA you received in psychology courses. You need to consult individual program in Graduate Study in Psychology to determine the required and preferred minimums for each program. Program committees are also aware that a certain GPA is more difficult to obtain at some schools than others.

GRE Scores

About 90% of clinical psychology programs require you to take the GRE General and Psychology Subject tests. The average minimum score required for serious consideration for clinical psychology is 600 for any one component of the GRE general test. Consult individual programs for their acceptance rates based on GRE scores. The general test should be taken at the end of your junior year or early in your senior year.

You should prepare to take the GRE Psychology Subject test by studying a good introductory psychology textbook. Introduction to Psychology by Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, and Bem is recommended. The average minimum score required on the Subject test is 650. Take this test in the fall of your senior year.

A few programs use MAT scores as part of the admissions process. The average minimum MAT score required is 70.

Many programs use test scores in conjunction with GPAs as an initial screening criterion.


Individual programs vary a great deal when it comes to undergraduate psychology course requirements and preferences. Refer to Graduate Study in Psychology for admissions requirements specific to individual programs.

While it is difficult to generalize, many graduate psychology programs are more interested in generalists than specialists; graduate programs are considered the appropriate place to specialize. Therefore, a broad undergraduate education is often considered to be the best possible preparation. This means, in addition to psychology, your coursework should cover a range of disciplines including physical and biological sciences, math, English literature and composition, history, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, and a foreign language. Increasingly, programs are strongly preferring (if not requiring) at least one course in computer science.

Laboratory-based natural or biological science courses taken from departments other than psychology can nicely complement your training in psychological methods and theory.

Programs tend to be biased toward math and science courses, because taking these courses conveys a certain willingness and ability on your part to engage in scientific pursuits. Research experience is highly regarded; therefore it is to your advantage to take lab-based classes and courses with professors who are currently engaged in research with which you might be able to assist.

See the list of suggested Courses and Majors.

Letters of Recommendation

You will need to obtain an average of 3 letters of recommendation for applying to most graduate programs. Letters of recommendation are often considered to be the most important nonobjective criterion. Ideally, recommendations should be from faculty who know you well enough to provide specific information about your potential to succeed in graduate school and in a career in clinical psychology. You can get to know faculty through independent studies, research, seminars and/or informal meetings. At least two of your letters should be from faculty. The third could come from a supervisor of a clinically-related public service activity, especially if he/she has a Ph.D. or M.D.


Research Experience—In general, research experience is valued most highly by clinical psychology programs. The quality of the research experience is much more important than the content area. you should be intimately involved in the design and implementation of the research. In addition to psychology, research in fields such as biology, nutrition, or sociology can be appropriate.

Clinically-Related Public Service—Other psychology-related work experiences, paid or volunteer, are viewed positively and can help you assess your suitability for a clinical career. Clinically-related public service includes the provision of most human services that are related to mental health.

Programs do make distinctions among specific kinds of experiences and evaluate them differently, depending on the type of program and its particular orientation. Review Graduate Study in Psychology for specific criteria for each program you are considering. If you must decide between types of psychology-related work experiences, it is to your advantage to select research because of the high value placed on research by clinical psychology programs. Participating in research is also a valuable method for investigating the field and perhaps developing a mentoring relationship with a faculty member.

Application Essays

Essays are taken quite seriously in evaluating applications. They allow you to elaborate on your unique qualifications and are evidence of your preparation for graduate study, thoughtfulness, writing ability, and appropriate creativity. The most typical themes targeted by these essays are your long-term career plans; your areas of interest in psychology; your research, practice-based, and teaching experiences; and your reasons for choosing a particular program. It may be helpful to have your statement reviewed by your advisor or another faculty member.

Interview Performance

Many programs request interviews. If you are asked to appear for an interview, chances are that you are among the pool of applicants being seriously considered for admission. The interviewer will be interested in assessing how well you seem to fit into the program to which you are applying. You should thoroughly acquaint yourself with the program's training model, areas of concentration, and philosophy; have some familiarity with faculty members and their particular areas of interest; and be able to show how your interests and qualifications fit the program. The interview provides an opportunity for them to assess your personal characteristics. Individual faculty may be viewing a candidate with an eye to whether you might be interested in working on his/her research projects.

Extracurricular Activities

These are not as critical as they were when you applied to undergraduate programs. Membership in psychology-related organizations can be helpful. For a list of organizations, refer to the resources section of Getting In: A Step by Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology.