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Applicant Qualifications, Admissions Criteria, and Acceptance Ratesadmissions

What are the characteristics of successful applicants?  Each program has its own set of requirements and standards; some are publicly stated, some are not.  For instance, this department’s graduate program in experimental psychology provides a list of eligibility requirements, plus provides a FAQ with the average GPA and GRE scores of successful applicants.  On this page we provide a general idea of what graduate programs may be seeking, plus admissions statistics by area of specialization in psychology. 

Note: for the most definitive information on the characteristics of successful applicants, we recommend that you directly check with program websites, the programs themselves, and individuals at those programs (such as graduate coordinators, graduate program officers, graduate students, or faculty).

Graduate Programs Are Highly Competitive

Most mid- to top-tier graduate programs, and particularly those programs that provide funding to their graduate students, are highly selective.  For example, this department’s graduate program typically receives around 300-400 applicants annually, of which admission offers are commonly extended to around 20 (around half accept, depending on the year).  Successful applicants not only meet the eligibility requirements; they exceed those requirements in key ways.  These may include research experience, academic achievements, and more. 

Consequently, it is helpful for students to carefully research the characteristics of successful applicants, to work toward achieving similar qualifications at the baccalaureate or post baccalaureate level, and to clearly emphasize their strengths in their applications. 

It is important to emphasize that graduate admissions criteria substantially differ from those used at undergraduate and other levels.  It is not necessarily the case that applicants with the highest GPA and highest test scores have the greatest chance of being accepted.  Instead, more idiosyncratic factors such as “program fit” and compatible research interests may play a greater role.  Thus, students who are accustomed to judging their progress solely on grades need to adjust their thinking; this is a different playing field and the rules are different.

Basic Qualifications of Successful Applicants 

To score an interview – in other words, to be seriously considered – applicants are typically expected to have a record which includes the following characteristics:1,2

Prerequisite undergraduate coursework completed

The courses that you are expected to have taken vary according to the graduate program you are applying to.  Some may have very specific requirements, others do not.  Some may prefer that the applicant have a well-rounded record including a diversity of rigorous courses both within and outside of psychology. 

High GPA

The mean of successful applicants to PhD programs in psychology, on the 4.0 scale, is 3.6 overall and 3.7 in psychology courses; for Master’s programs it is 3.4 overall and 3.5 in psychology courses.1  The GPA should be, at minimum, typically 3.0 or higher.

Good GRE scores

Minimum requirements (also known as “cutoffs”) vary depending on program.  Some programs, such as the one in this department, have dropped minimum scores.  However, GRE scores can be used to choose between two closely matched applicants.  The mean GRE scores of first-year graduate students in psychology, using the scale begun in late 2011, is 158 verbal and 149 quantitative for psychology PhD programs; it is 153 verbal and 146 quantitative for Master’s programs.  For the GRE Psychology subject test, the mean is 633 for PhD programs and 577 for Master’s programs.1  Please note that some programs, such as the one in this department, do not require the subject test.

Research experience

Research experience is a must.  This can take a variety of different forms, but publications and presentations are typically the most valued evidence of research experience.  For further information about gaining research experience as an undergraduate, please visit our research opportunities page.

Practical or clinical experience

This may be important for those applying to programs with a clinical or public service component.  For example, the number of hours you have volunteered at an outpatient clinic could be valuable for a clinical psychology graduate application.  However, it should be noted that guides to clinical psychology programs typically emphasize research experience as even more important.

Extracurricular activities

Optional and varies; should be relevant to the graduate program.  May include membership in psychological organizations, any leadership activities you have participated in, science communication, or charitable works.

How Applicant Qualifications Are Weighted

Each of the aforementioned qualifications, plus other components of the application materials, can make or break an applicant’s chances of being invited for an interview and ultimately receiving an offer of admission.  There typically are at least two stages of review.  The first involves choosing applicants that will be invited to interview.  At that stage, selection criteria may include (please note that each program may weigh each aspect differently):1,2

  1. GPA and GRE scores – many programs only interview those that are above a certain threshold.
  2. Letters of recommendation – many programs solicit three letters of recommendation. Although letters are subjective, in many programs these are given as much weight as GPA and GRE scores.
  3. Research experience – there needs to be evidence that the applicant has the potential to succeed in the primary occupation of graduate school, which is conducting research.
  4. Statement of purpose – this is taken as evidence of the applicant’s writing ability, their own stated research interests, their thoughts about program fit, and more.
  5. Coursework completed – transcripts are examined to determine whether the applicant has taken the necessary courses to qualify for the program, that they have the relevant background knowledge, and that they can handle academically rigorous coursework. 

After the interviews, the final selection criteria often includes the following (in order of importance).1,2 It should be noted that the applicant’s interview performance, statement of purpose, and recommendation letters can heavily inform these criteria and ultimately final selection decisions.

  1. Publications or paper presentations – resulting from the applicant’s existing research activities
  2. Applicant’s skills and interests match the program – as indicated in the application essays and as revealed in interviews
  3. Match with faculty member that is interested in working with the applicant – particularly as evidenced by the faculty member’s interview with the applicant and shared research interests; moreover, the faculty member has to be accepting students that year
  4. Statement of purpose – how clear and focused was the applicant able to write the essay; writing skills as evident in the essay
  5. Prior research experience – more generally, how much prior research experience the applicant had, and what that experience was, etc.

Other criteria may also be considered depending on the program.  Finally, it should be noted that among the least important criteria for selection typically include: multilingual fluency, contribution to geographic diversity, and whether the applicant is related to another student that was or is in the program.

Admissions Statistics

Acceptance rates at graduate programs in psychology range between 32-78% for Master’s programs and 12-48% for PhD programs (non-clinical); for clinical programs generally, acceptance rates vary from 7-50%.1  Data on the mean acceptance rates in different areas of psychology, compiled by the APA in 2010, are as follows:1

Area Master's PhD
Cognitive Psychology 40% 16%
Community Psychology 61% 24%
Counseling Psychology 63% 12%
Developmental Psychology 44% 20%
Educational Psychology 57% 48%
Experimental Psychology 39% 15%
Health Psychology 41% 16%
I-O Psychology 52% 27%
Neuroscience 32% 15%
Quantitative Psychology 78% 36%
School Psychology 34% 31%
Social/Personality Psychology 39% 12%

Workshops and Downloadable Resources


  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).


  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Recommended Reading

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Further Resources


Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
American Psychological Association (2007).  Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology
American Psychological Association (2010).  Graduate applications, acceptances, enrollments, and degrees awarded in master’s- and doctoral-level students in the U.S. and Canadian graduate departments of psychology: 2008-2009.
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology
Graphic adapted with permission under the Expat license.