Student Resources • Internships • Mastering the Internship Application and Selection Process

Mastering the Internship Application and Selection Process: Lessons from the Trenches

by Catherine Ruscitti, M.S., Leigh Carter, Psy.D., Kimberly English, M.A., Molly Gardner, M.A., Elyse Thakur, M.A., Margaret Tobias, M.S., & Amanda Venta, M.A.*

Securing a predoctoral internship in psychology can feel like a full-time job. Between your application package, interviews, and rankings, there are many steps you must take before landing a position as an intern. The internship application process spans across approximately six months, and it can be quite exhausting and stressful. Below is a compilation of useful tips, advice, and lessons learned from current and previous interns who hope to help you through this process by learning from their experiences. Whether you are a first-year graduate student, about to head on to your internship, or somewhere in between, this list can be a useful guide for achieving your ultimate goal of becoming a psychologist.

How can I prepare throughout graduate school?

  1. Reach out to early career professionals or professors that have taken a path that is in line with your own clinical and research interests.  Ask these professionals about their own journeys, challenges, and successes along the way.
  2. Both the application and interview processes can get quite expensive, depending on the quantity and distance of sites at which you apply and interview. Start saving money early. There are certain ways to try to cut down on expenses, such as sharing a hotel with someone or staying with someone you know in a particular city. You can also use airline points for flights – look for an airline credit card early in your graduate training to start earning points! And, pay for your tuition, fees, and books on this credit card. Get all the miles you can!
  3. Internship and the match process is about fit, so it is important to identify an area (or a few areas) you are interested in, and seek out experiences that will help you create a “story” that makes sense rather than a “hodge podge” of experiences that don’t fit together.
  4. Keep up with tracking your hours throughout graduate school. I found using an online site (e.g., Time2Track, My Psych Track) to be extremely helpful in making sure I documented all the details in terms of the activities I engaged in, the demographics of each client I saw, and the number of each assessment measure I administered. Keeping your hours up-to-date will save you a lot of time when it comes to completing the AAPI.
  5. Keep your CV updated. Get samples of CVs early on in your graduate training from peers who are in more advanced years of training to help you with formatting and including the appropriate amount of detail.
  6. Keep de-identified copies of reports, discharge summaries, case conceptualizations, and treatment plans from your practicum experiences. Many sites ask for these types of supplemental materials as part of your application package.
  7. The internship process is long and exhausting, but don’t put your life on hold because of it. Take time to engage in self-care throughout the process. It is easy to hyper-focus on your professional/academic life, but it is important to also attend to other important areas of your life (e.g., your family; your social life; your emotional, physical, and psychological health; your spirituality). Be proactive in planning how you anticipate maintaining balance in your life and be realistic in your expectations for yourself.

It’s time for the AAPI!

  1. When picking where to apply, look for places that build upon the training you have already received. If you apply to programs that do something completely different from your previous training, it will be a stretch to convince them that you will thrive there. On the other hand, if you pick a program that is redundant with your previous training, you may miss the opportunity to acquire new skills.
  2. Don’t be afraid to apply to sites that you may feel are “reaches” (e.g., some sites may accept more Ph.D. applicants than Psy.D. applicants or your practicum experiences may not be completely in line with the activities offered at a site). It’s all about how you sell yourself and convey your goodness of fit with a program. However, be realistic in terms of where you apply. It will be much more difficult to secure an interview at a specialized setting (e.g., college counseling center, prison) that you have no experience with in terms of either the setting or population.
  3. Include a range of places in your application (least competitive to most competitive).
  4. I considered programs I was interested in, but also applied to cities where I knew people. That way, no matter where I ended up, I would have some sense of community. This helped with interviews, too (cut down the cost of hotels and travel)!
  5. Make a spreadsheet with all of the places you are interested in and identify pros and cons. Then, you can scale back your list to a reasonable number of places where you would actually want to end up.
  6. You’ll hear lots of different advice concerning the number of applications you should submit.  Make sure to check in with individuals from your own program that have successfully completed internship as well as professionals that have a similar career trajectory.
  7. I think the cover letter is one of the most important aspects to your application – it is important to not only sell yourself, but also to highlight your fit with the site you are applying for. Read their website and talk to current/past trainees to identify the best way to “sell your story.”
  8. Don’t underestimate the time that cover letters can take! Once you have a template, it might seem like you only need to change a couple of things for each site. However, you really want these to be tailored to each particular site, and it takes some time to sell your “fit” with each site.
  9. There is no “right way” to write your essays. Be genuine and write in a way that represents you. Ask professors and peers for feedback, and give them enough time to be helpful.
  10. Tell a story with your application package; what you’ve done and what you want to do. This will be easier if, throughout your graduate training, you select training experiences to tie together a coherent package to really sell yourself to internships.
  11. Seek good editing and peer review on all written components of the application process (including any written requests for letter writers).
  12. Try to have a proofreader or friend that will help to ensure that you’ve sent the right materials to the right sites.
  13. Rely on others to help get you through this process. It can be helpful to work on essays or cover letters with other members of your cohort who are also applying to internship. It’s hard for others (outside of psychology programs) to know exactly what the experience is like, so relying on others who are in the same situation can be helpful.
  14. Do not wait until the last minute to submit applications! Sites decide when to end application submissions on their due date, which can be5pm or midnight. Also remember to check time zones!! You don’t want to miss applying to that perfect site because of timing errors.
  15. While the application process is important, I think we hype it up and at times over-extend ourselves in the application process. Remember that what you are applying for is a one-year position and keep that in mind for time management purposes with the application process.

Congratulations, you got an interview!

  1. Maintain professional behavior during all contacts with training programs. Even though you aren’t speaking to a faculty member or training director, your behavior is still being observed and may be evaluated.
  2. Although you are essentially competing with the applicants with whom you share an interview day, also remember that you may see these applicants again at other sites or in the professional world.  First impressions are important, not only for the internship site but also for other early professionals.
  3. Pack a snack! Between interviews, during which you will be following someone else’s schedule and trying not to inconvenience them, and transportation snafus, you never know when a snack will come in handy.
  4. Wear comfortable shoes. Many programs will include a guided tour during your interview day and you do not want to be suffering during that portion of the day. Also be mindful of weather. For females, wedges are a great option for most places, rain, sun, or snow!
  5. When traveling for interviews, make an experience out of it! It can also save money to stay in one city for a couple of days rather than flying back home again before flying to another interview. Look up things to do in cities you might stay in for an extra day, and have fun! This can also help relieve the stress associated with this process and see if this is a city where you will want to live for a year (or more).
  6. Ask classmates in previous cohorts for examples of questions asked on interviews, especially if you know someone who has interviewed at the same site(s) as you. Prepare answers to the most common questions and practice articulating them aloud. Check if your program or university offers mock interviews for practice.
  7. Sites will book their interviews within minutes of inviting you so don’t hesitate to schedule the interview. Also, be strategic about scheduling your interviews (e.g., schedule your least desired place first and your more desired place after you have gone through the interview process at least once to get some practice interviewing).
  8. Prepare for interviews by reviewing the brochure for each site and coming up with many questions about the program that cannot be answered by looking at the website. You do not want to ask for information that you could have found on your own, but having a list of questions allows you keep the conversation moving with each person you meet.
  9. Unlike graduate school interviews, clinical interests and experience are emphasized during internship interviews. Most people you will talk to have chosen to work in a clinical context at least some of the time. Internship is primarily a clinical year and even research-oriented programs want to train researchers who have a desire to develop clinical skills.
  10. Make an effort to talk to current interns about the things that matter to you. For instance, how many individual clients do they see? Have they benefitted from supervision? What are the didactics like? Is protected research time really protected? Current interns will be a good source of information for what the training experiences are like.
  11. It is not uncommon for sites to have group interviews, to ask you to conceptualize a case, or to role play as part of the interview. Be prepared for these possible experiences.
  12. If you are asked a tricky question and don’t know the answer, you might describe your thought process to show how you are thinking (you can get creative and give a couple different ways you might approach it).
  13. Think not only about what you want to do for internship, but how that will help with post-doc opportunities as well. You’ll be asked about your career goals on interviews, and while you don’t have to have it completely nailed down, it can be helpful to have some thoughts about what you plan to do after internship.
  14. Be attentive to the environment of the site during the interview. Do the interns look overworked? Does the environment seem to promote self-care?
  15. Take time to network when internships offer “social hours” to meet with current interns and faculty. Even if you do not end up attending a specific internship, you never know where your career will lead you or whom you will run into in the future!
  16. I found it extremely helpful to create one-page summaries of important things from each site, including pros, cons, overall impressions, and information not found in the brochure or website, immediately after each interview. The interview process can span from the end of November to the end of January, so it is easy to forget details or how you felt on the interview and to mix up information from different sites. This also made the ranking process easier for me.
  17. Save all of the notes that you take throughout the internship application and interview process.  These may come in handy when looking for a post-doc.
  18. You may want to keep a rank ordered list of sites as you move through interviews.
  19. You may want to write an email to thank each person that interviews you—unless the program has a no contact policy. If you can remember email addresses for students or staff members that helped you, send a note to them too.
  20. Don’t freak out! This is a stressful process and you might feel like you blew an interview. Try to relax and put things in perspective—you have other interviews to go to and do not want to let a bad experience at one place affect your performance at others.

How do I decide on my rankings?

  1. You might get enamored by places when you are on the interview trail, but really think about if you would want to live in that city, and consider how the interns feel on a day-to-day basis in that program (i.e., are they super stressed and overworked, or do they have some sense of work-life balance).
  2. When ranking your sites, use both your intuition and your logic to decide the order. Think about goodness of fit in terms of both the environment of the site and your professional and career goals.
  3. You may interview at a site that you end up questioning whether or not to rank at all. I had a professor tell me to consider this: if you didn’t match in Round One, would you re-apply to this site in Round Two? If the answer is yes, rank it.
  4. Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of not matching in Round One. Unfortunately, there are more applicants than sites, and despite being a stellar applicant, the numbers may not fall in your favor. Allow yourself time and space to be sad, angry, and disappointed, but also remember that the process is not over. You have several options, including applying in Round Two, creating your own internship with the help of your graduate program, or taking a year off to work or improve your application for next year.
  5. Once your ranks are submitted, relax! It can be helpful to plan something fun to do to take your mind off the “waiting game.”

You’re finally going on internship!

  1. Be mindful of not taking on too much as a trainee – there are a lot of exciting opportunities, be careful not to take on too much and lose sight of your individual goals for the training year.
  2. Find ways to promote self-care amongst your intern cohort…I found it helpful those first few weeks to intentionally stop by the other interns’ offices to just chat or eat lunch with them to get to know them better and process the experience of adjusting to internship.
  3. Remember that while this may be your last year of “official training,” this is not the end of your professional learning. It can feel tempting to put a lot of pressure on internship year to learn as much as possible, particularly if this will be your last year of formal supervision. The reality, however, is that through advanced trainings, continuing education, and ongoing professional work, we will continue to learn so much in the years following internship.
  4. Adjusting to a 40-hour (or more!) work week takes time; be patient with yourself.
  5. If you are moving someplace new, and/or are moving away from support networks, internship can be an exciting year to get to know a new place and explore new or different social outlets.
  6. Keep in touch with peers from graduate school, especially those also on internship. I found it helpful to talk with peers from the same graduate program as me and hear how they were adjusting to internship as well.
  7. Before starting internship, see if you can obtain from your training director the contact information for previous interns. They often can share a wealth of knowledge that can be helpful as you navigate the year.
  8. The time to consider and apply for post-doc comes up quickly on internship. Start thinking about this early. Speaking with clinical supervisors and recent interns can be helpful.

About the Authors:

Catherine Ruscitti, M.S., is enrolled in the Psy.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Loyola University Maryland. She currently is completing her internship year at Baylor College of Medicine on the Adolescent/Young Adult track at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. Her clinical and research interests include adolescent and adult psychotherapy and assessment, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and emotion regulation difficulties. She especially enjoys conducting personality assessments and working from an integrative approach, using elements from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Leigh Carter, Psy.D., received her doctorate from Loyola University Maryland in 2014 after completing her internship at the University of Virginia Counseling and Psychological Services. At present, she is a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Delaware Center for Counseling and Student Development. She recently published (with Jeffrey Barnett; 2014, Oxford University Press) Self-care for Clinicians in Training: A Guide to Psychological Wellness for Graduate Students in Psychology. Her clinical interests include the promotion of self-care and wellness among graduate students, psychotherapy, women’s issues, and interpersonal difficulties among the college population.

Kimberly English, M.A., is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Gallaudet University. She is currently completing her internship year at Baylor College of Medicine on the Child and Family track at DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston, Texas. Her clinical and research interests include parent-child attachment and bullying among deaf children, anxiety, and trauma. She enjoys utilizing a developmental approach in her work with children, adolescents, and families and integrates principles from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, and Psychodynamic Therapy.

Molly Gardner, M.A., is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Medical/Clinical Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is currently completing her internship year at Baylor College of Medicine on the Pediatric track at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. Her clinical interests include working with children with chronic health conditions to promote coping, adjustment, and adherence to medical treatment.  Her research interests broadly include the adjustment of children with cancer and their caregivers. She enjoys serving in a consult/liaison role within the medical setting and working with medical providers to promote positive outcomes among children and families.

Elyse Thakur, M.A., is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Wayne State University. She is currently completing her internship at Baylor College of Medicine on the Geriatric/Research track in Houston, Texas. Her clinical and research interests include chronic health conditions, anxiety disorders, and emotional processing difficulties. She enjoys conducting research on novel clinical interventions utilized to treat these disorders and has a strong interest in the role of clinical psychologists in medical settings.

Margaret Tobias, M.S., is enrolled in the Psy.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Loyola University Maryland. She is currently completing her internship in school psychology with Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Her clinical and research interests include child and adolescent psychotherapy and assessment, parent training, and childhood anxiety disorders.

Amanda Venta, M.A., is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Houston. She is currently completing her internship at Baylor College of Medicine on the Child and Family track at DePelchin Children’s Center in Houston, Texas. Her primary research interests are the protective effects of attachment security with related interests in emotion dysregulation and social cognition. Clinically, she enjoys working with children with disruptive behavior and adolescents, making use of Cognitive Behavioral and Behavioral Therapy techniques.