All counseling psychology doctoral (PhD or PsyD) programs require applicants to submit one or more written essays about why the applicant is interested in and qualified to enter that graduate program.
Each program calls these essays by different names, including “Personal Statement”, “Statement of Interest”, “Statement of Purpose”, “Statement of Professional Goals”, “Career Goals Statement”, “Personal Essay”, and various combinations of those terms. Programs may have you write a single statement or multiple statements (e.g., Personal Statement plus a Diversity Statement).
Writing a good statement is one of the hardest parts of applying to counseling or clinical psychology graduate programs.
One of the things that makes it hard to apply is the ambiguity and mystery that surrounds statements: what should I talk about? How long should it be? Do I talk about my experiences and interests in research, applied psychology (e.g., helping others by being a supportive listener), working with diverse groups of people, or what?
To help prospective applicants to counseling psychology doctoral programs, members of the HAMMER Lab analyzed what programs told applicants they should write about in their statement.
Check out our Counseling Psychology PhD and PsyD Personal Statement of Purpose Questions google spreadsheet to see the detailed analysis. See the bottom of this page for how we went about collecting data.
Before we review the take-home points of our analysis below, a brief reminder: Be sure to check out my other Psych Grad School resources using the menu above, such as Graduate School Advice, the How to Get into a Counseling Psychology PhD Program YouTube Video Series, and What the Ideal Graduate School Applicant Looks Like. I also recommend completing the Mental Health Professions Career Test, which will give you interest scores on 21 different mental health occupations, including counseling psychology and clinical psychology. If you’re curious to know what the top counseling psychology doctoral programs in the USA are, check out my Best Doctoral Programs in Counseling Psychology page.
Below are the key results from our analysis, the take-home points that every applicant should keep in mind:
- Most programs provide provide a suggested or required statement page or word length in their instructions. The most common request is 2-3 single-spaced pages. On the shorter end, some programs restrict applicants to 500 words maximum.
- 90% of the counseling psychology doctoral programs we sampled (N=50) instruct applicants to talk about their professional goals and career aspirations. In other words, no matter what programs you apply to, you should discuss this in your statement. Specifically, you should talk about your professional goals and how getting the specific doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) at that specific program (given the unique strengths and opportunities afforded by that program) will facilitate these goals.
- 52% instruct applicants to talk about their background and relevant experiences but may not clearly specify the type of experiences the applicants should discuss. (Many programs do specify the type of experience to talk about; see bullet points below.) As a rule of thumb, when applying to PhD programs, you should be ready to discuss research, applied (i.e., helping, listening, counseling, clinical), and multicultural experiences. When applying to PsyD programs, you should prioritize discussing applied and multicultural experiences (you can mention research too, especially if that program specifically requests it).
- 52% instruct applicants to clearly indicate why they want a counseling psychology doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) specifically. In other words, why not a clinical psychology degree, counseling psychology master’s degree, or a master’s in social work degree instead? Some PhD programs often want to know why you are specifically interested in the PhD instead of a PsyD (and vice versa). Even when a program does not ask you to address this specifically, I recommend always discussing how that particular degree will help you work toward your career goals.
- 59% of PhD programs (13% of PsyD program) instruct applicants to talk about why they are interested in that program specifically (versus similar programs at other institutions across the country). As a faculty member at University of Kentucky’s counseling psychology PhD program, I understand that people who apply to our program are also applying to other programs. (I always advise students to apply to 7 to 10 programs across the country that fit their professional goals, since getting into a given doctoral program is hard and you need to apply to multiple programs to maximize your chances of being offered admission.) However, even if an applicants is applying elsewhere, I still want to know “why us?”. I want to know that the applicant has carefully considered the strengths and opportunities that our program has to offer and has applied because of those unique attributes. If an applicant does not mention specific aspects of our program, then I don’t know if they are truly interested in our program or are just treating us as a “safety school” or “backup plan”. Since finding the right graduate program is more about “fit” between applicant and program rather than “being the best applicant”, I want to hear how the applicant sees themselves uniquely fitting with our program. Thus, even when not asked explicitly to address this, I recommend always discussing what attracts you to that particular program.
- 41% of PhD programs (13% of PsyD programs) instruct applicants to talk about their research interests. This serves two purposes. First, because PhD programs train students to be both scientists and practitioners (and some also train people to be advocates), the doctoral admissions committee want to see that a student has thoughtful research interests (not too broad, not too specific, and sufficiently flexible given that students are still early in their professional development) and is serious about wanting to get additional research training as a doctoral student. Second, some PhD programs prefer to admit students whose research interests overlap with the research interests of one or more program faculty members. More on that in the next bullet point. I recommend always discussing your research interests when applying to PhD programs even if not explicitly asked to do so by the program’s application instructions.
- 27% of PhD programs (0% of PsyD programs) instruct applicants to talk about how their research interests fit with the research interests of specific program faculty members. These programs tend to use an “apprenticeship model of research mentorship”, meaning that doctoral students apply to work under a specific core faculty member in that program, who will work closely with them to train them in the theories and techniques used to do research on the topics of interest to that faculty member. The expectation usually is that the student will help that professor out with the professor’s program of research while the student is enrolled in the program (and that the professor will help the student start to build the student’s own line of research, which will usually be topically related to the professor’s line of research). Therefore, programs that use this apprenticeship model often value selecting an applicant for admission based, not only on that student’s fit with the wider program, but on how well that student fits with a particular professor’s research team. Our counseling psychology PhD program at the University of Kentucky uses this apprenticeship model and this is why we explicitly ask all applicants to pick one (two at the most) professors with whom they could fit research-interest-wise. However, while only 24% of programs explicitly instructed applicants to address research fit with a professor, some programs implicitly expect you to address this. This is part of the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school–sometimes people expect you to know certain things, but you won’t unless you have a mentor who clues you in to this insider knowledge (or you happened to read it on the internet or a how-to guide). The tricky part is that you won’t always know if a given program wants you to talk about research fit with a professor. When the program’s website or application instructions does not provide clear guidance, I recommend that you make a case in your statement for how your research interests fit well with the research interests of one (maybe 2) of the professors in that program. Bear in mind that some programs do not use an apprenticeship model and instead select students based on overall fit with the program rather than research fit (they will often make this clear on their website/instructions), in which case you don’t have to spend time in your statement articulating research fit.
- 24% of PhD programs (13% of PsyD programs) instruct applicants to talk about their research experiences and qualifications. Even if a given PhD program does not explicitly request this information, you should always talk about this, as it’s an implicit expectation. However, make sure you are not just restating the information you listed under the “research experiences” section of your CV.
- 16% instruct applicants to talk about their past experiences with diverse people or cultures. However, even when a program does not explicit ask for this, I do recommend that you talk about this when discussing past research/applied/professional experiences. My anecdotal experience suggests that most programs like to see evidence in your application that you have experience working and/or living alongside people who share both cultural similarities and differences from you in terms of race/ethnicity, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, (dis)ability, religion, etc. However, because some people grew up in culturally homogeneous places (surrounded by people with similar cultural identities), what’s even more important than past experience with diversity is a genuine desire moving forward to (1) learn about yourself as a cultural being with multiple identities that may carry privilege and marginalization, (2) learn to work productively with colleagues and clients who are both similar and different from yourself, and (3) learn about how interlocking systems of power influence your life and the lives of others (e.g., racism, sexism).
- 16% instruct applicants to talk about their interests, beliefs, aspirations, and/or contributions to social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, etc. This is related but different from the “past experiences with diversity” aspect mentioned above. These pieces go beyond past experience and capture what you value and how you (plan to) contribute to making the world a more just place. This is increasingly at the heart of counseling psychology as a specialty. As with the prior bullet point, even though a minority of programs explicitly instruct applicants to address this in their statement, my anecdotal experience is that most programs want to see you incorporate this into how you talk about your experiences and goals related to both research and practice.
- 26% instruct applicants to talk about their past applied (i.e., helping, listening, counseling, clinical) experience. All counseling psychology doctoral programs train their graduate students to be talk therapists, which requires being a good listener, showing empathy, problem solving abilities, a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, an openness to both positive and constructive feedback, and demonstrating cultural humility and sensitivity. To determine which applicants show promise as future psychotherapists and would therefore be suitable for admission into the doctoral program, one thing we consider is your past applied experience. Faculty want to see that you have (1) some practice with basic helping skills, (2) at least one letter of recommendation from a supervisor of one of your helping experiences that states that your helping skills are good and that you show promise as a future talk therapist, and (3) a clear track record of wanting to further develop your helping skills by seeking out relevant opportunities. Talking about your past applied experience in your statement is one way we can gather evidence about #1 and #3.
- 25% of PsyD programs (6% of PhD programs) instruct applicants to talk about their theoretical orientation, their understanding of mental illness, and/or their understanding of how people heal and change. An applicant’s answer to these questions can provide hints to faculty about how sophisticated that applicant’s clinical abilities may be. These are hard questions to answer well without having taken graduate-level therapy coursework, and more sophistication will be expected of applicants who would be joining the doctoral program after having completed a talk-therapy-related master’s degree than would be expected of applicants who joined the doctoral program after having completed only a bachelor’s degree. Most programs do not ask about this topic and there is not an implicit expectation on behalf of programs that you address this in your statement.
- 16% instruct applicants to talk about their professional strengths and/or weaknesses. Most programs do not ask about this topic and there is not an implicit expectation on behalf of programs that you address this in your statement. For those programs that do, remember that you need to strike a balance between “selling yourself” appropriately in terms of strengths and not sounding arrogant when doing so. Likewise, some weaknesses are going to be socially acceptable (e.g., typical areas of growth for new graduate students like managing mild perfectionism) whereas others will cast a shadow on your application (e.g., poor interpersonal skills, cultural insensitivity, difficulty with time management, difficult with autonomous functioning), even if they are true. While you might not need to talk about strengths and weaknesses in your statement, it’s likely you’ll have to talk about this during interviews, so make sure to put some thought into this before going on interviews.
- 38% of PsyD programs (10% of PhD programs) instruct applicants to address how the program will benefit them. This question is a combined way of asking the 3 questions of “What are your professional goals?” and “Why do you want a _____ degree specifically” and “Why are you interested in our program specifically?”. Regardless of whether a program explicitly asks this or not, there is an implicit expectation that your statement always address how your completing this chosen program will bring you closer to achieving your career goals.
In regard to our data collection strategy, our team used APA’s list of accredited counseling psychology doctoral programs (both PhD and PsyD, both counseling psychology and “combined” programs, N=84 at the time of data collection in September of 2019). We navigated to each program’s “how to apply” page to look at what instructions they provided regarding what the student should talk about in their statement(s). We copied and pasted this information into in the Counseling Psychology PhD and PsyD Personal Statement of Purpose Questions google spreadsheet. You’ll notice that we de-identified what instructions come from which program, as the point of this analysis is to get an overall snapshot, rather than to learn about a specific program (you’ll want to see the program website for that info). Some programs did not provide this information on their website but required applicants to create an account in the application portal in order to access the instructions; for our purposes, we did not include these programs in the analysis. Thus, readers should bear in mind that our analysis is based on a subset of programs that is not guaranteed to be representative of all programs. Our final sample was N=50, of which n=42 were PhDs and n=8 were PsyDs. We analyzed the set of instructions to look for topical themes (e.g., career goals), which we then coded for across programs so that counts and percentages could be created. We also calculated descriptive statistics broken down by program type (PhD vs PsyD).