Psychology Grad School Acceptance Rates — How Competitive Are Masters & Doctoral Program Admissions?

Updated: May 24, 2020

While, historically, the field has predominately been considered an “Applied Helping” profession (e.g., Counseling), psychologists are increasingly employed in organizational, educational, and scientific settings. For this reason, Masters (e.g., M.A., M.S., etc.) and Doctoral (e.g., Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D., etc.) degree program in psychology continually rank among the most popular for prospective graduate students. Due in part to this popularity—as well as other factors, including a mentor-mentee training model structure—psychology graduate program admissions are often extremely competitive. In fact, the average acceptance rate across all Social Psychology Ph.D. programs (7.0%) is lower than that of the most competitive Law School in the US, Yale University (10.0%). This statistic does not reflect the acceptance rates for all types of programs and degree-levels, but aptly illustrates the admissions challenge for psychology graduate programs parallels—and sometimes, exceeds—the difficulty attaining acceptance to competitive J.D. and M.D. programs.

Large-scale admissions studies, such as the American Psychological Association’s (2016) examination of 1,688 graduate programs better elucidates this fact. Reflecting the discipline’s diversity, programs surveyed by the APA (2016) were housed within a variety of higher education settings: University Colleges of Arts and Sciences (63.3%); University Colleges of Education (19.2%); Free-Standing Professional Institutions (7.3%); University-Based Professional Schools (4.0%); Medical or Health Sciences Schools (1.4%); Other (4.8%). As just mentioned, specializations are numerous, which can broadly be categorized as Researcher- or Clinical-focused graduate training programs. As an important side note, most practitioner-focused (e.g., Clinical) graduate programs tend to include substantial research training as well. Representing the best example, Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs integrate considerable assessment and therapy practice training with the completion of two original, comprehensive research efforts (i.e., thesis and dissertation) as well as numerous additional research activities. By contrast, programs purely oriented toward attaining the competencies necessary for a research career most often don’t include training in therapy, assessment, or other practice-related competencies. The APA’s (2016) inquiry surveyed the following types of research-focused graduate programs:

· Cognitive Psychology;

· Developmental Psychology;

· Experimental Psychology;

· Neuropsychology;

· Social Psychology.

Clinically-focused programs surveyed included:

· Clinical Psychology;

· Counseling Psychology;

· School Psychology.

Other programs not neatly within this typology were categorized as “Other” or “Other Applied psychology programs. Notably, Industrial-Organizational (I-O) psychology programs were also included, which train students to apply research and practice-related skills (e.g., survey development and evaluation, personnel assessment, etc.).

“...Okay, get to the point” you may be thinking. So, let’s do that. Here is a descriptive statistics table of acceptance rates for programs of various subdisciplines at both the Masters and Doctoral level:

Here are my takeaways regarding the APA's (2016) survey of psychology graduate program admissions data:

  1. At the Doctoral level, Clinical Psychology is immensely more popular (45,672 applications) among prospective students than are other programs. The next most-popular discipline, Counseling Psychology, accrued only 6,230 applications;

  2. One’s prospects for admission to a School Psychology Ph.D. program are approximately 2-3 times greater than for other subdisciplines;

  3. Achieving admission to doctoral programs in other disciplines requires a well-structured, impressive application package, given the low acceptance rates (M = 13.3%) and the relatively large number of applicants competing for these few spots;

  4. While more competitive in some disciplines (e.g. Social) than others, one’s prospects of Master’s-level psychology program admission (M acceptance rate = 52.2%) are much greater than for Doctoral-level programs (M acceptance rate = 13.3%);

  5. There is significantly more variation in acceptance rates among Master’s programs than Doctoral programs;

  6. Among the institutions sampled, at the Masters level, Counseling Psychology is, roughly, about 3-times more popular (~10,000 annual applications) than other majors (M = ~3,000) applications.

More examinations of graduate admission statistics are forthcoming in future posts. A piece on medical school acceptance rates, and the role of MCAT scores and undergrad GPA is now available here.

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