Degree In Sight

Antique fountain pens and ink bottle

After going through the arduous process of counting every hour of his therapeutic experience, fifth-year counseling psychology student Jason Prinster actually looked forward to writing the essay portion of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) application. The AAPI, or APPIC Application for Psychology Internship, is the standardized application students use to apply to the more than 600 APPIC-member internship sites.

"I found the essays to be the most entertaining part of the AAPI," says Prinster, who attends the University of Utah. In particular, he enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on his career goals, he says.

Those reflections are also the most interesting part of the application for training directors to read, says AAPI coordinator Joyce Illfelder-Kaye, PhD, associate director for training at the Center for Psychological Services at Penn State University. In fact, says Illfelder-Kaye, many training directors place the most weight on that part of the clinical internship application.

"It's the first time we get to see the student as a three-dimensional person," she says.

Training directors search the essays for clues into a student's motivation, personality, commitment to diversity and flexibility, among other qualities, says Illinois psychologist Gary Kaniuk, PsyD, who heads the training program of the Cook County Jail mental health services program.

The essays prompt students to write an autobiographical statement, detail their diversity experiences, explain their theoretical orientation, list their research experience and--in a final optional composition--explain why the particular internship site would make a good match for them.

However, the most effective applicants approach the essays as a unified whole, using the autobiographical statement to hint at what's to come and tying everything together in the final essay, says Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students. When approached this way, the five essays read like chapters in a book rather than disjointed statements, she says, noting that a coherent composition showcases students' writing skills.

And applicants must provide this insight within the 2,500 words--500 for each essay--the AAPI allows.

"If I think an applicant has gone way over his or her word limit, I start counting," says Kaniuk. "If they won't do something as simple as follow instructions...they may be someone who will violate the rules right off the bat."

Successfully matched students and training directors offer these tips on penning each of the AAPI essays.


AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STATEMENT

The first AAPI essay prompt asks students to "provide an autobiographical statement," an intentionally open-ended assignment, says Illfelder-Kaye.

While composing their response, students may want to weave in information they plan to include in the upcoming essays, perhaps on their career goals or commitment to diversity, notes Williams-Nickelson.

Many applicants write about what drew them to psychology, says Kaniuk. While he enjoys the opportunity to hear about students' personal histories, Kaniuk warns applicants to avoid what he terms "TMI," too much information.

"If someone writes about their mother with schizophrenia, that seems too personal to me," he says. Instead, a student might mention "a family history of mental illness," Kaniuk suggests.

Other students choose to write more generally about themselves. Daniel Morjal, a fifth-year clinical psychology student at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, Chicago Campus, wrote about how his close-knit family provides him vital support while also allowing him to strike out on his own. This tack set Morjal's essay apart from the pack, says Kaniuk, now Morjal's internship supervisor.

"I got the impression that he is a reflective person, one who is thoughtful and considers things from many vantage points," says Kaniuk.


CASE CONCEPTION

After tackling the open-ended prompt of the first essay, students may feel at home with the second, which asks them to explain their theoretical orientation and how they apply it to actual cases. Students can approach this question by using a specific example--without violating patient confidentiality, of course--or they can write more generally about their approach, says Illfelder-Kaye.

In either case, training director Jack Teitsma, PsyD, looks for applicants to show they can explain complex ideas clearly.

"Our interns work with people who have high school educations and with people who have double doctorates," says Teitsma, of the Menta Group, a Chicago-area network of schools, group homes and community-based programs for children with serious behavioral problems. "We are looking for someone who can communicate with everyone."

Teitsma also suggests that students show how their treatment philosophy will jibe with the internship site's tradition, he notes. Because the Menta Group uses a behavioral approach, he looks for students with a similar orientation or the willingness to learn more about structured incentive programs. People who are strongly committed to another theoretical orientation would probably be frustrated as a Menta intern, he says.


DIVERSITY EXPERIENCES

The third essay asks applicants to describe their experiences working with diverse populations, and training directors want to evaluate student's willingness to work with people from varied backgrounds, says Kaniuk. Perhaps most importantly, students can use this essay to show they are aware of their background and how it informs their work.

Students may want to write about specific experiences with diverse clients, highlighting how they put their self-awareness into use and what they learned from the experience.

Internship directors generally look for students who have experience working with the clients typical of their program, Kaniuk says. But many, including him, will consider an outstanding student without that particular experience, he adds.

"In this case, the student should write a passionate argument of why he or she wants to receive training there," says Kaniuk.


RESEARCH EXPERIENCE

Students may be tempted to detail their dissertation projects, but with just 500 words, students should write broadly about their research interests, says Williams-Nickelson. Note your overarching research interests, experiences and goals, and then home in on how they connect with your clinical interests, she suggests.

Practice-oriented internship sites, such as the Menta Group, may pay less attention to this essay than the others do, says Teitsma. However, even in such cases, internship directors may use the essay to evaluate a student's writing ability, he notes.


THE MATCH

In the final essay, students synthesize their previous points and make the case for why they should match with the site, says Williams-Nickelson. While students can recycle the previous four essays for many of their internship applications, they should tailor the fifth to each internship site, says Williams-Nickelson.

Kaniuk looks for students who demonstrate knowledge of the internship program--perhaps by citing specific rotations offered by the program. Students who express that they want to work in a setting like his site especially catch Kaniuk's eye.

While the final essay is optional, Kaniuk and Teitsma strongly suggest that students take the opportunity to explain why they would make a good match for the internship, perhaps building on points they made in the AAPI cover letter.

"If they are unwilling to take the time to write out that fifth essay that says to us that they are unwilling to be inconvenienced, and they may struggle in our training program," says Teitsma.

However, other training directors don't mind an omitted fifth essay, as long as the student thoroughly discusses the training match in the cover letter, says Williams-Nickelson.