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Advice about Applying to a Graduate Program

This is page is intended to give students general knowledge about any graduate school. For information specific to the M.A. Program in Psychological Science at California State University San Marcos, go to the MA program information page.

You should plan early if you think graduate school is a possibility for you. Look for workshops hosted by the Psychology Student Organization (PSO) and Psi Chi (Psychological Science's Honor Society) on "How to get into graduate school." Faculty members will present information on graduate admissions procedures, on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and tips for improving your chances at acceptance.  Here is a link to the PowerPoint from the most recent presentation:

Things to know before applying to graduate school in Psychology

An excellent source of information on graduate school options of many types can be found in the American Psychological Association's book, Graduate Study in Psychology and Related Fields. A copy of this important resource is available in the CSUSM Library. Psychology faculty also have access to important sources of information about specialized graduate programs, including, for example, the APA's directory of graduate programs that include a focus on gay and lesbian studies.

A few general suggestions for graduate school aspirants include the following:

  • Graduate schools like to see breadth in the undergraduate preparation.
  • Psychology 424 (Advanced Psychological Statistics) is highly recommended for the grad-school bound student. Most quality grad programs will require that you have had it.
  • Graduate schools usually favor applicants with research experience. Good performance in lab classes and collaborative research with faculty members are highly desirable.
  • Contrary to what you may have heard, it is not necessary to achieve a 4.0 GPA in order to gain entrance to graduate school. A high GPA is important, but straight As are not essential! A composite of good grades, good GRE scores, good letters of recommendation, and research experience is most likely to get you into graduate school.

Applying to graduate school can be a stressful thing.  Here are some helpful tips, links, and information relevant to the preparation for graduate school:

Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate School


The best way to make a case for your qualifications for graduate study is to do a good job in your undergraduate courses.  Graduate programs want to see evidence that you will be successful in a rigorous program.  Additionally, they like to see that students have gone the "extra mile" by doing more than taking the minimum requirements in the major.  Additional courses (not required by the psychology major) that graduate school-bound students should take include:

Discuss your plans with a faculty member

If you plan on attending graduate school, it is advisable that you build strong connections with the CSUSM faculty member(s) who share your interests. Faculty have insights on the graduate school experience that can really help you to find your own way. If you'd like to talk with a faculty member about a particular field and your plans, make an appointment to meet with that faculty member during office hours. It is best to meet earlier in your undergraduate career rather than later, so don't wait until you are a graduating senior to do so!

Work in a faculty member's lab

Students gain invaluable experiences working in faculty members' labs. Doing so provides the opportunity to put some of the skills that they are learning in the classroom into practice. It helps students to determine whether pursuing a research-related career is something they would like to do. Additionally, it allows faculty members to get to know students better. This makes a difference when faculty members are asked to write letters of recommendation:  they can comment more specifically on students' strengths and abilities. If you are interested in working in a lab, contact the faculty member who is working in your area of interest.  See here for a List of openings in faculty research labs and instruction for how to apply.  Although some faculty only take students into their labs if they are enrolled in an independent research course (Psyc 499), others allow students to volunteer their time. These experiences are some of the most meaningful that students experience as undergraduates and some of the most valuable that they can bring to graduate programs.

Submit your work for the research fair

Students who want to be competitive for graduate programs should have some experience presenting their work while they are undergraduates.  The CSUSM Psychology Student Research Fair provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase your work.

Submit your work for conferences

Some students find that the work they have completed through independent studies or through working in a faculty member's lab is suitable for presentation at regional or national professional conferences. Graduate schools look for students who have some experience in the presentation of data to academic audiences. Faculty members who are supervising undergraduate students through Independent Study/Research or in their labs can provide direction to students who want to present their work at academic conferences.

Travel support

Students may apply for funds to travel to professional conferences to present their work. Psychological Science students may apply for travel support through the Verne Walter Fund. Dr. Verne Walter, a psychologist from Vista who died in 2005, devoted his life to helping people choose career and life paths that are fulfilling and successful.  He developed a personal career planning report, the PCDP (Personal Career Development Profile), which is based on a widely used measure of personality, the 16 PF. This tool has been used for many years by career counselors and human resource personnel to help people define their strengths, interests, and hidden talents. Dr. Walter established this undergraduate research scholarship in 1998 to aid psychology undergraduates in their research endeavors.  Monies from this fund can be used to help defray students’ costs for travel to research conferences where they will present a paper or poster. Currently scholarships range from $75 to $100 each. 

Searching for Graduate Programs

Once you know that you'd like to go to graduate school, you'll need to begin the search for programs. This will involve time and energy - don't expect to find programs quickly! A well thought-out search for programs will be more likely to result in a good match between a potential graduate student and the program.  Give yourself time to look around. 

CSUSM's Career Center also has valuable information that will be helpful in your search for a graduate school.

Career Center info: 

  • Email:
  • Phone:  (760) 750-4900
  • Office: Administrative Building 1400D


Many programs require that students take the GRE in order to be considered for their program. Relevant information regarding the GRE can be found at Please note that there is a charge for taking the GRE. More information is available at the website.

Below are links to GRE study/practice materials. Other useful tools available for study/practice for the GRE include workbooks (ETS), practice GRE's and seminars (The Psychological Science Clubs usually offer a practice GRE biannually for a small fee and GRE prep courses (ETS). More information about Graduate/ Professional School Resources 

Letters of Recommendation

Whom Should I Ask?

Another important component to applying for graduate school is obtaining good letters of recommendation. Students often wonder, Who should I ask?  You should follow these guidelines:

Ask a faculty member:

  • from a class in which you did well
  • who knows you (this is where lab or independent study experience really helps)
  • who teaches courses that offer good preparation for the type of program that you are applying to (e.g., if you are applying for a Social Psychology program, it would be beneficial to include a letter from a Social Psychologist).

Timing of letters

Due dates for letters of recommendation generally fall between November and March; however, you need to check the specific schools you are applying to for their due dates. Faculty are asked to write dozens of letters each year; consequently, in timing your request for letters, you should give the faculty member at least a month to prepare the letter. Contact the faculty member early, and provide him or her with info about the earliest due date for the letters.

In general, faculty members will need the following from you in order to write a good letter:

  • transcripts (check with the faculty member; not all of them require this)
  • a table listing the program, school, degree and due date for each school you are applying to
  • stamped, addressed envelopes (you should address the envelopes to the schools you are applying to)
  • your statement of purpose (check with the faculty member; not all of them require this)

To help you organize this information, you may find this Recommendation Questionnaire helpful:

  1. Ask the faculty members writing letters for you if they'd like you to fill it out.
  2. If so, fill it out, change the name of the file (from "recommendation questionnaire" to "your name recommendation questionnaire") and print it or send it electronically to the faculty members who want it and have agreed to write letters for you.