What top online psychology master’s programs are looking for in applicants

BY Sydney LakeMay 25, 2022, 1:19 PM
Students studying on the campus of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., as seen in November 2019. (Photo by: Robert Knopes—Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The pandemic took a toll not only on the economy, people’s physical health, and resources—but also took a major hit to the population’s mental health. In fact, the number of psychologists who reported receiving more referrals in 2021 almost doubled to 62% from 2020, according to research from the American Psychological Association.

“As more people seek treatment for mental health conditions, the demands on psychological practitioners have increased,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association said in an October 2021 study. “Like many other health care providers, psychologists are feeling the pressure.”

To match that demand, students can earn a master’s degree in psychology online—and even at some of the nation’s top schools. These programs don’t necessarily expect that candidates earned an undergraduate degree in psychology, but students need to prove their intentions to pursue a career in the field after graduation. 

“We’re more interested in what you’re looking to do and why you think this degree is a good fit—and why online learning might be a good fit for you,” Karen Magner, manager of admissions and enrollment for Pepperdine University’s online master’s in psychology program, tells Fortune. 

For candidates interested in studying psychology at a graduate level from a top-ranked online master’s degree program in psychology, Fortune spoke with both Pepperdine University and New York University to find out what it takes to get into their programs. 

Admissions to psychology programs is about more than grades, test scores

Representatives from both programs say that they evaluate candidates holistically, meaning that while a student’s transcript is considered it’s not the only grounds for admission. In fact, neither NYU nor Pepperdine require a GRE score to apply to their online master’s in psychology programs.

However, candidates should have at least some psychology coursework under their belt in order to apply, recommends Frandelia Moore, director of NYU’s master’s in counseling for mental health and wellness.

“My suggestion would be to take at least one psychology-related class,” she says. “You want to make sure that this is something for you.”

An application should also illustrate that the candidate is a strong fit for an online program, adds Magner. This means applicants should exhibit that they’re self-directive and have the ability to focus on the program in a home setting. Some of Pepperdine’s classes are held live, while others are recorded for students to watch on their own time.

Students should have at least some direct psychology experience

It’s not enough to have just studied psychology or have an interest in a future career in the field to get into one of the top programs. Both Pepperdine and NYU are seeking candidates who have had some experience either counseling or mentoring others to be admitted to their programs.

While psychology is a helping profession, it’s more than that, Moore says

“It’s a journey of figuring out your own identity, your own biases—figuring out your own positioning in the room with your clients,” she says. “So we’re looking for students who have that insight and want to grow and develop in the program, and in turn help communities.”

Direct experience can include anything from mentoring at a summer camp to nannying to working for a social justice organization. Pepperdine especially values diversity in candidates—both in what they’ve studied and the life experiences they’ve had. The school wants its candidate profile to match that of the population it serves after graduation.

“We really look at folks that have life experience and have had a trajectory [that] through volunteer service, work, things like that, they’ve dedicated themselves beyond just studying psychology,” Magner says. 

Candidates can illustrate these past experiences through their statement of purpose and letters of recommendation for both schools. Both schools seek two recommendation letters: one academic and one from a work setting. 

Show genuine interest in a career in psychology

Earning a master’s degree in psychology isn’t just an academic journey—it’s a personal journey, Moore says. For candidates who have not been through their own psychological counseling experiences, she suggests they give it a try before applying.

Once students have had the experience of seeing a therapist, they’ll have more insight into what they’re looking to do in their own psychology career, she says. Plus, it serves as a gut check that this is the career for you.

“Engage in your own personal therapy, your own counseling,” she says. “It’s also very important for you to see what it’s like on the other side—in the client seat.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.