Applying for your Psychology Masters?
I have lectured Psychology Honour’s students for seven years, which means that at this time of year, I’m inundated with requests for referee reports for Psychology Masters applications! There is much mystery surrounding the selection process. Who will be selected? What is the interview process like? What if I don’t get in?
Most students are engrained to believe that Master’s selection would be close to impossible! I remember visiting the admissions department at Stellenbosch University in my Matric year. I was encouraged to register for a B.A. Social Work for a number of reasons, but particularly because selection for Masters is “unlikely.” I’m all for being rational and realistic, but I remember the disappointment that day. I also remember my first week at Varsity: “So, what are you studying?” “Well, I’m studying Social Work but I want to be a Psychologist!”
In South Africa, to register as a Psychologist (Clinical or Counselling) you need a Master’s Degree. If you go the Clinical route, you need to complete a community service year before you can register for independent practice. Masters takes two years to complete (some universities are now introducing a third year). According to my experience, the first year is a combination of theory and practical experience. The second year is a full-time (usually paid) internship. During these two years you need to complete your thesis.
Acceptance into Masters is highly competitive – usually only 8 students are selected annually for each university programme and hundreds of students apply! In my Honour’s year, there were 60 students. Only 8 were accepted to do each Master’s programme in Clinical and Counselling Psychology. You can imagine the frenzy when our marks were pinned to the notice board after our first exam – everyone would scope out the competition!
Of course, marks are only one aspect of being selected. They mostly are important to obtain an interview. The Master’s programme is challenging, academically and emotionally, and the lecturers want to know that you will cope with the work load. On the other hand, you can have some of the highest marks, but if you don’t have the personality or emotional capacity to be a therapist, you will not be accepted.
Many students ask my advice on how to improve their chances of getting selected. While I have never been involved in the selection process as a lecturer, these are some suggestions:
- Gain practical experience. I think that my undergraduate Social Work gave me valuable experience with individual, group and community interventions. I also volunteered as a life skills trainer at a local high school and was a student assistant during my Honours year. The Psychology Department want to know that you have experience in working with people, particularly in the community where much of your training will take place. This is why applicants with more work/life experience are often preferred.
- Start therapy. There is no better way to learn about being a therapist than being in therapy! In addition, you will gain more insight into yourself. Interviewers don’t want to hear “I’m a people-person” in your interview. They want to know if you understand yourself, that you can separate yourself from your client’s issues and value self-care in an often demanding career. Therapy is usually compulsory during your Master’s training.
- Have good referees. Each application requires 2-3 referee reports. The reports are preferably from Psychologists (not mom or dad!) and people who know you well. Take a look at the questions in the report and make sure your referee will be able to answer most of them. It may sound obvious, but select someone who you think will write a strong motivation. I have had a request from a student who bunked most classes. I turned down her request – I have to be honest in the report as my reputation and credibility are at stake. I had three lecturers as referees. One in the Psychology Department and two from the Social Work Department. They each knew me well and I had strong relationships with them.
- Apply to as many universities as possible. However, make sure you are able to afford to travel to the university if you are invited for an interview. It is a valuable experience to go through different interview processes and it can increase your chance for selection. If you are in Cape Town, make sure to apply to Stellenbosch, UCT and UWC who all have excellent programmes. Find out what the theoretical approach is for the university that you apply to. I specifically wanted to train at Stellenbosch as I knew that they had a stronger focus on Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT) at the time.
- Contact a Master’s student for advice. If you are offered an interview, make contact with a student who has recently been through the university’s selection to get an idea of the questions, process and programme. It can help prepare you and calm your nerves! I was fortunate to meet a student before my interviews. He gave me valuable insight into what to expect. My selection process included a group activity (we were observed based on our group interaction skills and while discussing a case study), writing an essay on our view of Psychology in the South African context, a one-hour one-on-one interview, and finally, a panel interview. This was in 2001, so the process may be quite different now. Each university has their own format.
Remember that not everyone gets accepted the first time they apply. Some of the most respected and skilled Psychologists that I know, applied more than once. If you do not get accepted, ask for feedback from the course coordinator. There are often specific things that you can work on to improve your application for the next year. Always have a “Plan B” (mine was Social Work). Recognise that if the time is not right, it may be the best time for you to travel, gain work experience and life lessons. Perhaps the change of focus will steer you into a direction you had not expected, or perhaps it leads you back to Psychology. Good luck!