So You’re Writing Cover Letters

List of sites: check. Updated CV: check. Essays: check. Time to start working on cover letters. As with the essays, I suggest giving yourself plenty of time to work on your cover letters. Unlike the essays, which can be written with a somewhat general emphasis towards a type of internship, your cover letters are unique to each internship to which you apply. You have to write a personalized cover letter to go with every application you plan to submit. Every. Single. One.

On the up side, you will most likely be applying to sites that are similar to each other, so you can recycle paragraphs to save a lot of time. Just make sure you change the DCT’s name and name of the site throughout each letter. In Phase II last year, I was operating under a time crunch to get all of my applications in, and I realized after the fact that one of my letters concluded with “For all of these reasons, I am very interested in pursuing an internship with [different site].” The funny thing was, the site to which I submitted that application offered me an interview. That’s Phase II for you – I will go more into this in a later post.

With the internship crisis, there are more applicants than there are internships available. Students are applying to more and more sites to try and increase their odds, and sites are receiving more and more applications. It’s getting more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd and get an interview. When I first started writing my cover letters, I went to some business blogs to get tips. One thing that stood out for me was a business executive who pointed out that the first word of almost every cover letter is “I.” The writer suggested opening with something more creative. Then I found another blog that said not to diverge from a prototypical cover letter because any risk or divergence from the prototypical application could be taken negatively by the recipient. (I could not find the links to put here, sorry.)

I chose to take the “go big or go home” approach to my applications, but that is certainly not the only way to go. My cover letters all opened with a question: “What is the most important factor in evaluating prospective interns?” I went on to discuss the elusive “fit” component and articulate why I felt I belonged at that site. I then went on, per the advice of my DCT, to briefly describe my program’s qualifications and my dissertation progress. My next paragraph provided a specific account of the components of that internship and how they fit with my training goals, followed by a description of my previous experiences that I felt had prepared me to thrive at that internship. Then I discussed briefly my career goals, tying them into my reasons for pursuing this particular internship, and reiterated my interest in that program.

Don’t forget to double check all training brochures for anything the site might want you to include. For example, one site wanted cover letters to be 500 words or less (really?), and another site wanted a paragraph about my strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. Also, APPIC has a really big character limit for cover letters, so I would recommend not going too much over a page with your cover letters. No one wants to read a three page cover letter.

My last piece of advice has to do with editing. When I started my cover letters, I wanted to plow through the first drafts as quickly as possible. Since I was going off of a template, this became a major annoyance later on when I had to correct for typos in identical paragraphs across 17 different letters. Write your first cover letter and let it sit for a day or two. Then proofread. Then proofread again. Then have 1-3 others proofread it also (remember the people who reviewed your essays?). Then, when you know you’re happy with that letter, use it as a template for the other letters. It will save you so much hassle in the long run, trust me.

Your cover letter is a representation of why each program would meet your training needs, and why you would thrive in that program’s environment. It’s your change to catch the eye of the DCT and make them want to get to know you better in an interview.

Next week I will talk about supplemental materials.

So You’re Tackling The Essays

Internship sites talk about wanting someone whose personality will mesh with the culture of the site, someone whose personal interests and personality are as compatible as their professional interests. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a logical way to list your clinical style or your hobbies on the CV. Enter the essay section of the APPI: an opportunity to sell your personality, interests, and unique style (in four concise blocks of 500 words or less).

I recommend starting work on your essays early, just after you finalize your site list. As with your CV, you have the option to upload multiple versions of your essays to send to different types of sites. Please do not take this to mean that you need to write individualised essays for every site. It means that, if you apply to forensic hospitals and VAs, you could tweak your essays to highlight your personal interest in each of these types of sites. Also, as with your CV, make sure that you have others review your essays for content. Unlike with your CV, though, I recommend choosing two or three readers at most, otherwise you risk receiving conflicting feedback that will cause you undue panic rather than actually improving your writing.

As usual, this post is written based on my individual experience applying for internship. You might read this and decide to do the exact opposite of what I did, and it might work out great for you. Also, when I was writing my essays, I found this resource to be invaluable in organizing my thoughts and figuring out how to get started.

So what exactly is expected from you in these essays?

  1. The Autobiographical Essay. This essay can be incredibly intimidating to write, since the prompt is “Tell me something about yourself.” Sites are equally vague about what they are looking for from the essays, and it has been suggested that this is because DCTs don’t actually know what they want from you. If you are applying to more than one type of site, I highly recommend writing more than one version of the autobiographical essay. I approached this essay as an opportunity to identify myself to sites as a real person who has been shaped by my history into who I am. I opened with a story from my childhood, followed up with an experience I had in college, and then tied these events together as a description of what led me to the field and to my current clinical interests. My biggest challenge with this essay was narrowing down what I wanted to talk about. It’s tempting to try to cram every piece of information about yourself, but there is simply not enough space. You have to decide what is it about you that you want to present to sites, what information is vital to who you are as an applicant that is not available on other parts of the application.
  2. Theoretical Orientation. In my first draft of the second essay, I emphasized my knowledge of my chosen orientations and tried to discuss general approaches to conceptualization and treatment, working in as much jargon as I could so that sites would see how smart I am. Then I threw that draft in the garbage and started over. Good clinicians don’t recite textbooks; they put their knowledge into action. Instead, I chose two clients that I felt demonstrated my preferred orientations and discussed my approach to their conceptualization and treatment. Two is a good number because it shows more range in your clinical skills than you could provide with just one example. Three is possible but more challenging because of the word limit. I opened with a brief, two sentence description of my preferred orientations and jumped into my case examples. I also tried to convey a willingness to be flexible with my therapeutic approaches based on each individual. The 500 word limit does prove to be a challenge. Remember, everyone is held to the same limit, and sites can only expect so much information in this essay, which is why many sites also request a work sample as a supplemental application material. Again, if you are applying to more than one type of site, I suggest making different versions of this essay with examples from the demographic with which you would be working.
  3. Diversity Experience. This essay was hands-down the most frustrating for me to write. Why is the diversity component of my clinical work sectioned off into its own little corner? I ended up taking the multicultural components out of my second essay for the sake of space, and I felt like I was writing off some very important issues in my case conceptualizations because I could include those components in this essay. Personally I think it would be better to combine essays 2 and 3 into one longer essay that would allow applicants to discuss diversity issues as a component of their theoretical orientations, but no one asked me. For my diversity essay, I wanted to focus both on my interactions with clients from different backgrounds and on how my own background and culture impacts the therapeutic relationship. I ended up using three case examples because I had so much trouble choosing only two instances that I felt encompassed the scope of what this essay was asking for, but this of course made it even more difficult to stay at the 500 word limit. In the end I broke each case example down into a description of how the client’s background factored into the therapeutic process, and how my background influenced the relationship. And after days of editing, I finally was able to cut down my essay to exactly 500 words.
  4. Research Interests. The biggest research project you do as a graduate student is your dissertation, so I started this essay with a description of my project and where I was at in the process. You can also bring up your timeline for completion to show the site that you will not be ABD for years after internship. I also talked about some other research projects I have worked on throughout my graduate career and mentioned areas in which I would be interested expanding on these interests in the future. This essay really varies in importance based on the internships you are applying for, so know your sites. If a site requires 10 hours per week of research, highlight how your research experience and future interests are in keeping with those of the site. This is probably because I did not apply to many research-heavy sites, but this essay was probably the least stressful for me to write.

There is no one way to approach the essays, and they easily become overwhelming due to the vague instructions. Try not to over-think the details of what you write and be open about who you are as a clinician and as a human being.

Next week’s topic is cover letters. Enjoy the weekend, and remember to take care of yourself!

So You’re Writing A CV

In the world of psychology, your CV is comparable to a certain part of the male body. Everyone seems eager to whip theirs out at conferences to see whose is the longest. There are about a dozen different approaches for writing a CV. APPIC’s applicant portan recommends including the following categories (if applicable):

  1. Identifying information
  2. Education
  3. Training
  4. Clinical experiences; Practicum; Psychotherapy experiences
  5. Supervision experience
  6. Research experience
  7. Publications, grants, professional presentations
  8. Teaching experience
  9. University and professional service
  10. Related work experience
  11. Volunteerism
  12. Awards/Honors
  13. Professional memberships, leadership positions held
  14. References

Don’t panic! Almost no one has experience in every single category when they apply. I certainly don’t. You do not have to include every category; this is just a starting point to make sure that you include all the impressive things about yourself. My final CV, the one I sent to the site at which I eventually ended up matching, had the following categories:

  1. Identifying information
  2. Objective
  3. Education (including information on my dissertation progress and the fact that my program is APA accredited)
  4. Practicum Experience
  5. Relevant Work Experience (paid positions relevant to psychology)
  6. Other Clinical Experience (my advocacy work)
  7. Research Experience
  8. Professional Presentations
  9. Electronic Media (my contribution to Dissertation Diaries)
  10. Teaching Experience
  11. University Professional Experience
  12. Volunteerism
  13. Trainings
  14. Honors and Awards
  15. Organizations and Memberships
  16. References

I have no publications or supervision experience at this point, which initially terrified me until I learned that the average applicant has zero publications at the time of internship. I also chose to break down some of the other categories in order to highlight my experiences, like highlighting my advocacy work rather than listing it under Volunteerism even though it was an unpaid position. Make sure to emphasize your responsibilities at each position listed in such a way that it highlights your readiness for internship. The good news is, thanks to practicum and job applications, you probably already have all of this information written up in some form. The other good news is, if you are thinking of applying to multiple types of sites, you can tweak your CV and submit more than one final draft. For example, if you are applying both to child/adolescent sites and college counseling centers, you can submit a CV that provides more in-depth recounts of your skills working with children and another that emphasizes your experience with college students, and send each site the the version that demonstrates your “fit” with that particular site.

Also, when writing your CV, proofread, proofread, PROOFREAD. Then proofread again. Then have your friends and professors all proofread in case you missed anything. Not just for typos, but to meticulously guarantee that every aspect of your CV has identical formatting. Just before I uploaded my final, FINAL draft during my first round of internship applications I noticed that one of my sections was underlined instead of bolded. How embarrassing. Hey, we would not be in graduate school if we were not a little bit obsessive-compulsive.

With regards to including work experience that is not directly relevant to your degree, I have received mixed feedback on this. When I was first applying to graduate school, my advisor strongly urged me to list my jobs as a bus driver and an usher on campus because my GPA was slightly lower than average for the types of programs to which I was applying, and she felt it would emphasize that I could have gotten higher grades if I had not been working to help pay for my education. At this point in grad school, though, your GPA is most likely not a concern. I would personally only list those positions that you can at least link to your graduate work in some way, and leave your part-time retail job off for now.

Just remember, your CV is a list of all the ways that you are fantastic. Instead of focusing on those categories where you have little or no experience, look at all the great things you have done to get where you are and showcase them to help you get to where you are going.

A great additional resource from APA for writing your CV can be found here.

Oh, and for the record, my CV is 7 pages long. Aw yeah.

Tune in next week for my thoughts on your internship essays! Also, click on this link to see the third installment of Dissertation Diaries.

So You’re Deciding Where To Apply

As I start this series, I am inviting any readers who are in the process of applying to internship, have successfully matched, or who are undergoing the Clearinghouse/reapplying for next year who are interested in writing a guest post to share their internship experience. As with my posts about the writing of my dissertation, my perspective is one of thousands, and I would love to be able to share others.

The first step in the application process is figuring out where to apply. There is an abundance of vague advice about deciding which sites to apply to. According to the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers, 744 internship sites offered 3,501 spots in Phase I of this year’s match. APPIC recommends that students apply to no more than 15 internships, and if you want to stick to this guideline (I personally didn’t, but the average applicant submitted 16 this year), you have to rule out 729 programs. It is completely overwhelming, and advisers, classmates, DCTs, and sites all encourage you to find sites that are a “good fit” for you.

After completing both Phase I and Phase II of the Match twice, totaling 4 application cycles, I have come to believe that “fit” is a mythological term with no real meaning. During Phase I of my first application year, I applied to sites that were consistent with the type of work I wanted to do after graduation. In Phase II, I applied to sites that fit with my previous training experiences. In Phase I this past fall, I applied to sites that fit with the specific training experiences in which my application could clearly and quantifiably demonstrate my interest. Three attempts to understand “fit” and three soul-crushing rejection letters from the National Matching Service telling me that I was not placed at an internship.

At the start of my fourth round of applications, I took a different approach. In Phase II, there is no application fee, and anyone who is registered for the Match can apply to any participating site free of charge. Since none of my strategies had worked, I decided to apply to any and every site that was either accredited or in the process of becoming accredited. For the first time, the interviews rolled in, several from sites I never would have previously considered – sites that do not fit with my training experiences, sites that are not a picture of where I see my career in ten years, sites I had completely overlooked in my first three application cycles.

Of course, this complicates things for anyone trying to follow my process. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone attempt to submit 744 applications for internship. What I am saying is that “fit” is a generic, empty term. Keep an open mind. Do not get stuck on a particular “type” of site. Do you want to work in an inpatient hospital for the rest of your life? That is a fantastic goal. That does not require that you spend your internship at that type of site. When I was applying unsuccessfully, I lost site of the fact that internship is only one year of your life. Why not try something you have not previously considered? It could round out your training and give you a new perspective on your skills that you would not have realized otherwise.

The use of the arbitrary nature of “fit” does, of course, go both ways. When the rejections started rolling in during Phase I this past fall, I began contacting training directors to ask what I could do to strengthen my application. Many cited that my interests were not a strong fit for what the site had to offer. I want to clarify that, due to the nature of the internship crisis, sites have begun receiving more applications, which does make the process of selecting interviewees more difficult. Sometimes fantastic students are overlooked in the flood of applicants. But it seems that “poor fit” has become the “he’s just not that into you” of internship: it gives no real explanation as to why a site is not ranking you, but lets the site off the hook for being more specific. As long as the internship crisis continues, sites will have to cite this reason regardless of its truthfulness, and it is not fair to anyone.

So let go of your expectations for finding a “perfect fit” for your internship year, and keep an open mind. I guess I have no real advice about choosing where to apply beyond that. We need to develop a new formula for what constitutes an ideal training experience, one that is not reliant on such vague criteria. We also need to find a resolution to the discrepancy between the number of applicants and internships available, but let’s take this one step at a time.