Internship Application and Interview Summary/Tips
Arguably the most stressful experience graduate students in clinical psychology go through is the internship application and interview process. It's a process that has some inherent mystery to it, and students can constantly end up questioning whether they are doing the right things as they go through the process. Where a student ends up for internship can make a lot of difference in terms of their professional development and future opportunities. Yet figuring out which internship sites are good fits is more difficult than it should be.
Having just gone through the interview process, there are a lot of things that I learned. Thankfully, I matched, so I won't need this knowledge too much going forward (even though I'll be applying for postdocs; that's a whole different beast). But I want to give students the chance to learn from my experiences, so they can hopefully feel better prepared going into the process. So here, I want to give a summary of the process so you can know what to expect, along with my tips for how to approach each part of the process.
Note: I acknowledge this is a very long post. My intent is for this to be available for grad students as a reference, so you can come back to this post and go to the appropriate section as needed.
The first thing that's weird about the internship process for psych students is how the registration works. While the whole process seems like it's one thing, there are actually two different systems involved. There's the application side of things (which involves the AAPI), and then there's the match system. You have to register for the match separately from the AAPI. Once you register for the match, you get a match number for yourself and you need to include that on your AAPI application.
What might not seem obvious at first is how the two systems work together, and what you need the match number for. Ultimately what happens is that the match itself is managed by the match system (seems obvious). But the match system works based on comparing which site numbers you rank, and which applicant numbers the sites rank. Think of your match number as your identification in the match system, just like each site has a match number you'll see when you search for them in the system once you're ranking.
But apart from the actual match process, your match number isn't used much. Just make sure it's on your AAPI so sites can use it to rank you. With that out of the way, it's best to focus the majority of attention on the AAPI itself.
Filling in the AAPI is something that takes longer than you'd expect from looking at the website. Many of the pages are relatively short, but you'll likely run into questions about what goes where in some cases. The help text for the fields can sometimes help, but not always. A challenge with this system is that it's meant to work for all clinical students who have a very wide array of clinical experiences and situations. In trying to make things broadly applicable, sometimes there's a lack of clarity that can be frustrating.
Thankfully, that's where your DCT comes in. No matter what, your DCT will need to review your AAPI at some point so they can sign off on the content you put in there. So if you have questions about what goes where, or if you're adding certain things up correctly (e.g., figuring out what qualifies as an integrated report), then ask your DCT! They are part of a listserv with other DCTs where they discuss these types of questions and come to agreements on what to tell students.
The challenge is that these things end up taking time (filling in a little info, hitting a roadblock, asking for clarity, getting a response, adding some more info). Because of that, you should plan to sign up for the AAPI around the time match registration happens. Even if you don't start to fill it out right away, it'd be good to get some familiarity with it so you can start collecting some of the information.
And really, there's a lot you can fill in early on because the information won't change much (if at all). It's pretty much only the hours that you should wait to fill in, probably around early October or so.
This is one of the parts that takes the longest, even if you're diligent about logging your hours (and for the love of everything precious in your life, do the best you can to log your hours consistently, otherwise you will hate yourself during this process). Like I mentioned above, a big challenge is figuring out where some things go (e.g., program-sanctioned hours, clinical hours from a job). If you're unsure, defer to your DCT to get some assistance.
If you're using Time2Track (or MyPsychTrack presumably), the process is simplified quite a bit. But it's still sometimes challenging to go through because you'll almost certainly catch some things that don't quite make sense. Maybe you accidentally made two clients in the system that are the same person, or you forgot to log what neuropsych assessments you used with some clients (e.g., you give the CPT frequently but it says you only logged it a few times). You won't catch everything, but try to look through and fix what you can.
Really, you'll want to set aside an afternoon at some point to devote to this. Just try to get it done in one go as best you can, then you can move on to the rest.
The essays can be the most challenging portion of your application. Once you're going through this process, you'll have hopefully heard this advice, but just in case you haven't: give yourself a lot of time to write the essays and to have them reviewed by several different people. Ideally you'll want people from different areas of your life to read them (e.g., academic colleagues, friends, family) so you can get a wide range of perspectives. Doing so also helps them give you feedback on how much your essays really sound like you. The essays will be one of the main ways you give sites an impression of who you are not only as a trainee, but as a person, so you want to make sure your voice comes through.
Overall there are four essays you need to write:
- Autobiographical essay (similar to a personal statement)
- Theoretical orientation essay
- Diversity experience essay
- Research experience/interests essay
While the essays are challenging enough on their own, an important thing you want to try to do between all of them is have a consistent story/narrative. It helps to create a more complete picture of who you are as a student/clinician, and it helps to engage the readers of your essays. Having a consistent narrative also helps to make your claims about yourself seem more genuine, as it shows how your principles remain consistent throughout the work that you do rather than them being simple bullet points on a list of things you want people to believe about you.
Having a consistent narrative starts with your autobiographical essay. You can think of it as similar to a personal statement that you had to write to get into grad school. It summarizes where you've been and starts to pave the way for where you plan to go. Think of the autobiographical essay as the starting place for the other three essays, which will take the ideas you initially present in the autobiographical essay and build on them within each specific domain.
One question many students have is how much the essays should be tailored for each site. From my perspective, there shouldn't need to be any tailoring, or it should be kept to a minimum. By the time you're applying for internship, you should have a good sense of what you really want to do. (If you don't, start by doing some reflecting and thinking about your future career interests before you jump into the essays). With that being the case, you want to present yourself consistently based on who you are and the interests you have. Sure, that may reduce your chances of getting into some sites, but those should be the sites that aren't a good fit for you anyway. Be open and honest, and let the sites determine if you're a good fit or not; that will save you time and money for traveling.
Letters of Recommendation
The final big piece of your application is your letters of recommendation. You'll need at least 3 (one of which should be your primary academic supervisor). Your DCT will also write a letter separately when they review your application and go to approve it. From my understanding, sites generally expect to see letters from practicum supervisors, so those should get priority. If necessary, you could also get letters from other supervisors (e.g., if you have a clinic-based job), but those shouldn't be in place of a practicum supervisor.
Email your letter writers in advance to make sure they are willing to write you a letter. In addition, summarize what areas you would like for them to emphasize in their letters (such as any experiences you had with them that were unique from your other experiences with different supervisors). They have a standardized form they'll fill out through the AAPI site, and you'll be notified when the letters are completed.
If you have multiple supervisors who served similar roles (e.g., two clinic supervisors), you can choose a primary one and mention that they may wish to check with the other person to get their input so they can incorporate it into their letter.
While you're filling out the AAPI you'll want to start looking through the directory of sites to decide which sites you'll want to send your application to. This is a process that should be easy, but unfortunately isn't. There's the official directory you can search, but the information on there for sites isn't always up-to-date or completely filled out. That means it can be easy to miss sites that have opportunities you're interested in, and some sites can accidentally be misleading in how they word things in the directory. For example, some sites in my initial search mentioned work with adolescents, but really 90% of the clinical experiences would be with adults (there were just some opportunities to work with adolescents). It wasn't false information, but I had to look up their programs to get the full details.
That means you'll have to do a decent amount of manual searching/checking. A good place to start is to see if the APA division you're most closely associated with (e.g., Division 54 - Society of Pediatric Psychology for me) maintains a list of internship sites that have experiences within that area. It may not be the most up-to-date list, but it's a good start. Look through it and start putting together a preliminary list.
Once you have a preliminary list (which may have about 50 or so potential sites), it's time to start looking at the websites for each program. This can be a frustrating part of the process, as the websites are all setup differently, and some just link to an outdated brochure. But you want to look through the info that is available and do the best you can to get a sense of how good of a fit the site seems to be for you. In particular, look at the rotations that are offered. Many programs have similar overall structures and goals, as those are APA-determined to an extent, so look more for what makes the program unique.
How you want to structure this process is completely up to what works best for you. Many use spreadsheets with different columns for specific information (e.g., rotations, stipend, supervision style). As you collect the information, it can be helpful to assign each site a ranking in terms of how good of a fit it seems to be (e.g., great fit, possibly good fit, not good fit). From there, you can start to narrow down your list. The goal should be about 15 sites (beyond that and you no longer increase your statistical odds of matching, plus you start to pay more per application after 15).
After you decide on your list, you enter the sites into your AAPI, select the materials you want to send to each (e.g., letters of rec, supplemental materials like a deidentified neuropsych report if the site requests one), and then pay the application fee. Once that's all done, your applications should be sent to the sites, and you have to start waiting to hear back from them.
But I do want to note one important thing during this process: check on each program's website what materials they require for your application. Some specify if they want a specific cover letter based on a form, or examples of professional writing, and some say to not send more than three letters of rec (you have the option of sending more than three, but three is the standard). To make sure your application is actually reviewed, look through these requirements carefully and double-check you satisfied all of them.
After filling out the AAPI, it can be tempting to think that the most stressful part is over. But really the most stressful (and in some ways exciting) part of the process is interviews. They're fairly unpredictable, and you need to spend about two months constantly at the ready, traveling around the country (most likely), and trying to not fall too far behind in your everyday work.
The first hurdle is waiting to hear back from sites to schedule your interviews. While you wait, it's helpful to go through the websites for the programs you applied to so you can hopefully find out which dates they plan to hold interviews (sometimes the dates aren't updated until around the time you're hearing back from sites, so you may need to check back from time-to-time). The reason this is helpful is so you can try to plan out your preferred dates for each site to help reduce the likelihood of overlapping days.
Most interviews are offered in January, but more and more are moving to having December interviews as well. It can be helpful to take December interviews when possible so they are more spread out. If you're able to, try to plan on having at least one day between interviews at different sites to allow for travel, as it can reduce headaches quite a bit.
It's hard to say when you'll hear from sites, as they come in on different days. Many will let you know when you should hear back by, and the default is in the middle of December (so yes, it's entirely possible you will get an interview offer from a site while you are at an interview for a different site; that happened to me). You should also hear back if a site has chosen not to interview you, so you'll be adjusting your preferred dates as interviews are confirmed and declined.
As for how many interviews you can expect, that varies widely. The average is 6, but I know some who received fewer (generally because their area is more competitive), and some who received around double that (generally because they applied to more sites and highly tailored their application materials).
Something to keep in mind in preparation for this: set-up an email filter to make sure nothing mentioning internship or interviews goes to your spam folder. I don't know anyone who had one of these emails go to spam, but don't risk it. I set-up a filter to not only make sure they didn't go to spam, but so they were marked as high priority and would cause me to get a notification on my phone. That helped me respond more quickly, which increased my odds of getting my preferred day for the interview.
Figuring out your travel plans can be really difficult. You want to book your flights and hotels early enough to get good prices, but you also may need to adjust your travel plans if more interview offers come in. That's partly why it's helpful to plan a day of travel between sites, so you can have flexibility to adjust things as needed. Try to find flights that allow rebooking easily without massive fees, and take advantage of discounted hotels that may have a deal with the site (though also look for even cheaper options in the area, as sometimes there are better ones available). If possible, try to stay with friends/family.
One thing that was helpful for me was to focus on having "travel weeks." These were weeks that I spent traveling from interview to interview (I had two weeks like this; one in December and another in January). The benefit is that I could travel from one site to the next, cutting down on return flights to Chicago. By having the travel days between interview days (e.g., interviews Monday/Wednesday/Friday and travel on Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday), I was able to manage it without too much additional stress. The only time I traveled on the same day as an interview was when heading back to Chicago (though I made an exception at one site, as staying an extra day meant flights were significantly cheaper; make sure to explore different options).
To the extent possible, try to avoid layovers for your flights. That may not be possible depending on where you live (being in Chicago made that easier for me). But most people I know who ran into travel problems had those occur as a result of missed connection flights. Some layovers are also very long and can drain your energy at a time when you need your energy most. But if you can't afford the direct flight, you do what you have to do.
The cost of these bookings varies a lot from person to person. It depends on how many interviews you get, if you can drive to any, if you have friends you can stay with, and so forth. But it's pretty common for the costs to be in the range of a few thousand dollars, so try to plan ahead for that. It's not easy, especially when you have to then think about moving costs after matching (assuming you have to move).
Once everything is booked, you need to go through the process of actually getting place to place. This can be a lot easier if you keep everything in a carry-on (be careful of airlines that charge extra for carry-ons). Try to find an efficient way to pack so you can get through security more easily. Some applicants got TSA pre-check status to save time as well, but it's not necessary if you plan ahead. For example, keep your liquids in the clear bag TSA requires and in a pocket of your personal item or carry-on where you can easily take it out when needed.
It's helpful to have airline apps on your phone so you can have an electronic boarding pass, can check-in more easily, and so you'll get notifications if there are any changes (e.g., different gate, delays). Be ready for the unexpected, and try to roll with those hiccups. Have a lot of offline content ready (e.g., ebooks, downloaded Netflix) both for your flights and for time spent at airports. If you get to your gate early, you'll be more likely to have access to an outlet so you can keep your devices charged before getting on your flight.
You'll also want to make sure you're prepared for unexpected events like your suit/outfit getting dirty or needing to stay an extra day. If possible, try to bring a back-up suit/outfit, and bring an extra day's worth of clothes just in case you need to stay an extra night unexpectedly (it happened to me; flight pushed to the next day due to winter weather so I had to stay an extra night at the hotel).
Also try to plan for how you'll handle staying at a hotel and making sure you get enough sleep. Try to get there early enough that you have time to iron your interview clothes the night before. Also try taking any sleep aids (e.g., melatonin) before you travel to get a sense of how you'll react to them. Have some extra snacks available just in case you're hungry but don't want to spend money to get carry-out/delivery. And consider taking something to help you not get sick during the process (e.g., Airborne).
There's a lot to the process, but you eventually find what routine works best for you (usually around the time you're finishing up with interviews, of course).
Ok, so you got the interview scheduled, made it to the city, got your things prepared, planned out how to get there from the hotel (or wherever you're staying). Now it's the morning of the interview and you're heading to the site to meet with the faculty there. What can you expect, and how should you plan to interview?
Prior to interview day, review your cover letter and some basic information about the site to refamiliarize yourself with their rotations, why you were interested in applying there, and so on. Take down some notes of questions you want to have answered, and try to think of whether the questions are best answered by faculty or current interns. It's ok to have these questions with you during the interview process (just try not to look at them too often while sitting down with someone).
The format of the interviews will depend on the site, so you'll want to be flexible and prepared for anything. Some sites do one-on-one interviews that last a long time, some do group interviews (you with multiple faculty) that are brief. Some have a case vignette for you (which you won't know about in advance), others do not. Some are full-day interviews, some are half-day. There are also other format of interviews that I personally did not experience (e.g., open house). Even if you get a schedule in advance, assume that the actual structure of the day may be different once you get there.
What is pretty consistent across interviews is lunch with the current interns, though. This is when you'll get a chance to meet with them informally, and to ask them questions. Questions that can be good to ask involve: cost of living, transportation (is a car needed, how good is public transit, etc.), if they receive support when applying for post-docs, what their experiences have been like on different rotations, and so on.
Meeting with Faculty
Arguably the most anxiety-provoking portion of the interview day is meeting with the faculty. The number of faculty you'll meet varies, and sometimes each faculty member (or group of faculty) is supposed to focus on a specific area (e.g., consults, neuropsych, research). They'll generally start out by asking you questions, and you can use the questions as a way to gauge their specific foci and personal interests. The goal is to be genuine, utilize good active listening and speaking skills, and to improvise well.
There are certain subjects that often come up in interviews (e.g., long-term goals, summary of previous experience, why you're a good fit for the site), but there are also variations to the questions and unique questions from each site. Rather than having too rigid of a practiced response for each site, try to have a comfortable sense of what things you can talk about and be prepared to improvise. It's ok to take a few seconds to think, and sometimes there isn't a right answer for a question; they may just be trying to get to know you and to see how you think on your feet.
Overall, despite this being an anxiety-provoking portion of the interview process you want to try to enjoy it. Keep in mind that the faculty you meet with are potential supervisors, and you want to feel comfortable speaking with them as supervisors. Also keep in mind how you feel while talking to them, and be prepared to basically interview them as well. Because while a site is interviewing you for fit, you're also trying to determine if they're a good fit for you. So pay attention to your gut feelings, and have questions ready to determine if you like their approach or not (e.g., how mentors are chosen, how rotations are assigned, what their supervision style is like).
After you finish with the interview day, it can be tempting to go to the hotel or airport and just relax to help de-stress. This is definitely called for, but there's one thing you want to do before that: write down your impressions! You want to make notes about what you learned about the site and your feelings regarding the site while the feelings/thoughts are still fresh. Once it comes time to determine your rank order you'll rely pretty heavily on these notes to determine which sites feel like the best fit for you.
How you take the notes is up to you. But have a combination of concrete facts you learned (e.g., answers to your questions, information from packets such as how many days of PTO you get) and subjective feelings you had (e.g., how you felt speaking with various faculty members). Try to resist ranking sites as you go, as your feelings towards sites will evolve as you attend more and more interviews.
Finally, after it's all said and done, the last step is to rank your sites. This isn't an easy process for most, because several sites can be comparable to one another. What can help is to come up with groupings (e.g., top three, bottom three). Then within those groupings, just try to think through them. It can be helpful to re-rank from scratch on multiple different days to see if you keep winding up with the same rank order (as was the case for me), or at least the same rank for certain sites. You may find that two sites seem comparable and difficult to decide on if you think about them in-depth, but you may always rank one higher than the other just due to a gut feeling. If that's the case, listen to your gut feeling and rank them that way.
APPIC will tell you this a lot, but it's worth repeating: do not think about how the sites might rank you. Your rankings should only depend on your preferences, and not how likely you think you are to match at a certain site. While the ranking system is a bit mysterious, just try to have faith in it and let it do its job. (Easier said than done, but do your best).
When you actually go to rank the sites, it's a little anti-climactic. You'll go to the match website (not the AAPI site), and you'll search for each program that you want to rank. You can rank any of the places where you interviewed, but you don't have to rank all of them. If there were any sites you absolutely did not like, and you'd rather risk going to the second round of matches than match there in the first round, just leave them off your rank list and you won't match there.
It's a little anxiety-provoking that you need to search for the sites, rather than having the sites presented to you automatically by the system. Just be careful that you're selecting the right program/track for each site, and double-check everything before you finalize your rankings. Once they look good, certify them and make sure you get a screen saying the rank order was certified and will be used in the ranking process.
Then, you wait. Try not to re-rank the sites if you can help it, unless you have very good reason to (you're able to change them up until the deadline). Just try to wait and be patient. It's a very long wait that is very anxiety-provoking, but you'll be in good company during the wait.
Finally, when it's all said and done, you'll find out the match results. I won't say too much on this, as the point of this post was to go through all of the above. But one thing to really emphasize with match day is to do your best to get sleep the night before. It will be on a Friday, so you may also want to take the day off if you're able. Just try to enjoy the 24 hours prior to the match results being released, and celebrate if you successfully match!
The internship application and interview process is really long. But hopefully reading through the above has given you a good sense of what to expect so you can plan in advance. And your mileage may vary, so adapt the above as is appropriate for your situation.
Did you go through the internship process? Can you think of any other tips that I didn't mention above? Let us know in the comments!