How to get into Pepperdine University’s master’s degree program in psychology

BY Nicole Gull McElroyNovember 23, 2022, 2:05 PM
A couple enjoy balmy weather along with an ocean view from a bench on the lawn at Alumni Park at Pepperdine University, as seen in October 2022. (Brian van der Brug—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Demand for mental health professionals has only increased in recent years, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in the way we relate to ourselves and to each other. In fact, a report from the American Psychological Association shows that the number of adults being treated for anxiety and depression was four times higher between April 2020 and August 2021 than in 2019. 

As a result, there’s a tremendous opportunity to explore a career in psychology—even without direct experience in the field. That’s true among many applicants to Pepperdine University’s master’s degree program in psychology. And whether or not a student has clinical experience isn’t always at the top of the list when considering their qualifications, notes Robert deMayo, the program director for Pepperdine’s program.

“Oftentimes, our most interesting candidates don’t know they want to be in psychology,” deMayo says. “We find there are a lot of candidates who are coming from diverse backgrounds. We feel it enhances the educational environment.”

Pepperdine’s online master’s degree program in psychology, which ranked No. 1 in Fortune’s 2022 list, has a “scholar-practitioner” approach that places an emphasis on real world experience, leveraging professors who pair their teaching with ongoing practices outside of the classroom. The master’s degree program in psychology requires 36 to 48 credits to graduate and can be completed in as few as 18 months or up to 3 years, depending on the program and its clinical or non-clinical specialties.

In addition to the basic rolling application process, says deMayo, there’s more to consider. The following is a shortlist of what Pepperdine admissions faculty are looking for in candidates:

  1. Consider what drives you
  2. Be open to changing your mind
  3. Emphasize the meaning behind the degree
  4. Set a realistic timeline and stay focused

1. Consider what drives you

By and large, the field of psychology is rooted in service. And a commitment to help others needs to be at the center of your decision to study psychology. “We are looking for people who are service-oriented,” deMayo says. “People who can treat others with compassion, dignity and respect.” 

Mental health professionals can work in all types of settings, from schools and community centers, to hospitals and corporations. It’s important to want to develop the wide array of skills necessary to address a diverse population no matter where you find full-time work after you’ve completed your degree—and focusing on what drives you can help define your goals while in school.

2. Be open to changing your mind

One of the benefits of a master’s degree in psychology is that it has meaning and use in so many different settings. Often, students enter the program set on a specific path, deMayo notes. Maybe the student feels working in a clinical setting is what will resonate most or perhaps the student has an idea about working with a specific population: children, married couples, families, adolescents. 

Pepperdine’s program is built to give students a firm understanding of how the degree will fit into real-life scenarios, so it’s important to communicate that you’re open to what you’ll learn and how it can inform your future in the profession, deMayo advises. More often than not, students change their minds about what kind of work they’ll do once they’ve completed the program. 

“It gives them a broad education so they can focus on the setting that is most interesting to them,” says deMayo. “I used to teach a class. In the end they’d read their personal statement [from the beginning of the course] and 90% had changed their interest by the time they got through the program. We expect that and hope they’ll be open to different experiences.”

3. Emphasize the meaning behind the degree

Many people applying to master’s degree programs in psychology are looking for ways to create more meaning in their daily lives and in their work. Some applicants have had robust careers doing other things, even making really good money doing so. 

Still, they’re not fulfilled and are looking to shift gears to a profession that feels more connected to others and themselves. “The reach of mental illness and emotional distress in our society has increased dramatically in the last 10 years so it has brought greater awareness around psychology as a career,” deMayo adds. 

The experience level of incoming students has widened as a result. That’s why it’s important to be able to talk about and explain what from your existing life and career is buildable in terms of psychology. Being able to link your past experience with the potential for a path in this new field can help admissions teams understand your goals, deMayo advises. 

For example, given that Pepperdine is California-based, it draws plenty of applications from the entertainment industry. “In southern California, there are a lot of people who have been in the entertainment industry and have realized they aren’t satisfied, but their interests in human behavior that may have driven them to pursue creative careers has made it relevant for them to pursue psychology,” deMayo adds.

4. Set a realistic timeline and stay focused

There is no one way to earn a master’s degree in psychology, and how you plan to use the degree in your career will inform which program is best for you. At Pepperdine, the clinical program can take up to 3 years to complete and requires a practicum inside a mental health setting, whereas the non-clinical program can take 18 months to 2 years to complete. 

The school’s largest program is designed for working adults, who are juggling a career while completing their master’s degree. And Pepperdine also offers programs at night to accommodate full-time workers. Still, it’s important to be up front from the start about what your life looks like and set realistic goals in terms of pacing and timing of your coursework. 

“To be successful, students need to possess the ability to organize and manage their time to meet multiple demands,” says deMayo. “Having said that, we find that the work and life experience that our students have often helped them develop the skills necessary to succeed both in their graduate program and in their career post-graduate school.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.