The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Graduate School Applicants

Randy Hofer (Spalding University)

STEPHEN COVEY'S The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a nationwide best -seller with "down to earth" wisdom regarding the achievement of success in all areas of a person's life. The book has been highly influential in helping many people and organizations plan how to become more effective. When I consider the route that many students take in going to graduate school, I think that these seven habits would serve them well. In this article, I outline the seven habits and relate them to the graduate school application process. I would encourage anyone who finds these ideas interesting to consult this and Covey's other works.


When Covey uses the word "proactive" he means more than just taking the initiative (which is a good idea in applying for graduate school); he also means taking responsibility for our actions as well. My mind drifts to the Graduate Record Exam. While this test is available several times a year, students often take the last test right before the application deadline and then have to live with the scores they receive. This may mean that they did not perform as well on test day as they would like and may not get into the programs that they wanted. How often do we hear people lament with the saying "if only"? Having not planned ahead or studied hard enough, these individuals have limited their choices and have become responsible for the future that they make. Someone once told me that the GRE isn't that important, but this probably applies only to those who did well enough to get into the programs they wanted.


Begin to think about what you would like to do as a career. Do you see yourself teaching at a university, delivering clinical services, working in management, or providing supervision? Then find psychologists in your area with whom you can speak, and find out everything you can about how they got into their current positions. Find out from then the pros and cons of the various degree programs; find out what they enjoy about their positions and what they dislike. Finally, consider your own likes and dislikes. For example, if you are a "people person" who enjoys working with others, you may find that the relative isolation of private practice may not be your cup of tea, and that you might better enjoy working in a group practice or community health setting.


A favorite pastime of students is to procrastinate or to do anything but the work that needs to be done. This is why graduate students have the cleanest apartments during finals week. In applying for graduate school, taking time to chart out what is needed each step of the way is an effective means to accomplish goals. Please remember one thing about letters of recommendation: while it may be a big priority for you, it may be the 100th item on a faculty's member's list. For this reason, start that process early and allow yourself time to remind each person you've asked to write a letter well before the deadline. Nothing is more nerve-racking than to find out that your application can't be processed because a letter has not been received.


When you apply to a graduate school, you are not just being accepted as a student, but as a colleague as well. While it is true that you will be paying money for your education, it seems reasonable to consider also what you will be giving the program that is different or special from the hundreds of other students applying. This is the classic win-win paradigm: the school benefits from your being in its program, and at the same time you benefit not only from the program, but also from the use of your own skills and talents to improve the program. During my years at Spalding, I believe that those in my program have benefited from my experience in the field and from my work with APA. It has helped increase the visibility of the program at a national level, as does this article and the presentations I have made for Psi Chi.


Though we may be trained in good communication skills, we may, due to our eagerness, forget that fact when we are applying to graduate programs. Most directors of training feel positive about their programs and are happy to share their ideas and views of their programs. Taking the time to listen to how they describe their programs may help you in making your choice. Take time to listen and understand before you speak; therefore, you won't make negative comments about psychodynamic therapy and then find out that this is the program director's orientation, even though the program is listed as being eclectic.


This term is used by Covey to denote looking at things in a creative way. While it may not appear to apply much to the linear application process of graduate school, there are certain students who use this method of problem solving to create some exciting programs for themselves. It may mean finding a way to take the class in another department, so that you can combine the two experiences, or working with the administration to bring in that guest speaker whom you have always heard about and wanted to meet. The possibilities are endless. Most graduate students look at their programs as a series of steps that they must complete, while others synergize their training into something dynamic that meets their needs. For example, one student was interested in attention deficit disorder. Throughout her entire graduate career, she found ways to adapt her course requirements to augment her study of ADD. By the time she was finished with her program, she was very knowledgeable about ADD and had provided training to other professionals. She synergized the program requirements with her interest in ADD and became an expert in that specific area.


Covey defines this as the principle of balanced self-renewal, based on his view of the total person as a physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual being. While an understanding of this principle may not be required to get into a graduate program, it clearly is something you will need to complete it. Those students who neglect one or more areas of their lives because they are "too busy" will soon find that they are dealing with these areas in terms of crisis management. This may take the form of health concerns, existential doubt, social isolation, or any of a myriad of other conditions that will drain away much-needed energy from their course work. The positive impact that you gain by working in one area synergizes energy into the others, and conversely, neglecting an area only leads to a loss in the others. Students who have strict time demands should consider scheduling activities which combine more than one of these areas. One psychologist I know combined the social and physical aspects into a weekly racquetball game with his peers. It was an opportunity for them to work out their aggressions and share their feelings about the week's activities. Even in the most rigorous program, there should be time to take care of oneself and to renew one's resources. Failure to do so will result in the painful practice of workaholism, in which every waking moment is spent working, but those involved are so depleted that they are horribly inefficient.

In closing, I hope that this framework will prove useful to those thinking about applying to graduate school. One of Covey's key points is to "do the right things rather than just doing things right." For applying to graduate school, this means to plan -- and to clarify your own wants and needs -- long before the application deadline. I wish you all well in your journey.


Covey, S. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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