Social Comparison and the Doctoral Application Process

I haven’t been too personal on the blog, which makes sense, because this is for a class, so I’m really just working on noting the phenomena we discuss in class as they occur in real life. However, I figure it can’t be too bad to be personal, as this blog is implicitly very personal, as I am drawing from my own interests and experiences for topics to write about. With that being said, I’m going to essentially write this entire post about myself. It won’t be that bad, I promise, just a little self-serving. Specifically, I want to write today about the concept of social comparison and how it has applied to my experience applying to clinical psychology doctoral programs.

A bit of background first: clinical psychology doctoral programs, unlike some other psychology doctoral programs, do their application process in two steps. First is the online (formerly paper) application, where one fills in their GPA, their GRE scores, attaches a personal statement and letters of recommendation, etc., and sends all this information electronically to the schools they are interested in. Clinical psychology is a fairly popular field to try to attend graduate school in, so many schools get over 300 applications, some of the ones I have visited reported receiving 600 or more applications, which is high for a doctoral program. After all the schools receive all these applications, they narrow this applicant pool down for the second step of the process, which is the interview portion.

Most schools do their interviews on campus, though some elect to offer phone or Skype interviews as a substitute. When you apply, you list your top preferred mentors, so interview invites are sent out on a lab-by-lab basis. Schools generally invite anywhere from 2 to 12 people per lab, usually resulting in anywhere from 20 to 60 people being invited for an interview (out of 300+, if you’re keeping score at home). Of note is the fact that most labs only will admit one applicant out of those that they invited to interview, meaning that acceptance rates at clinical programs are often under 2% out of all applicants that sent in the initial online application. Most schools try to get all their applicants to interview at the same time, either during the same weekend or spread over 2 or 3 interview days. It is during this on-campus interview process that the social comparison concept comes into play.

The immediate consequence of schools interviewing all the applicants invited on the same day(s) is that all the applicants have the chance to meet each other, even those applying for the same lab, which brings social comparison into play. When people engage in social comparison, they evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. This is done to reduce anxiety and uncertainty about the self. Social comparisons are often made to similar others in order to see where one stands, though downward social comparisons (which enhance self-esteem) and upward social comparisons (which threatens self-esteem) depending on the context of the social comparison, in that when self-esteem is low, downward comparisons are made, and when one is motivated to improve the self, upward comparisons are made.

So in the interview days at the schools, I got plenty of exposure to other applicants, on the first night (day before the interview), I usually got thrown into an opening night dinner with other applicants; at one school, it was a standing buffet dinner with 60+ applicants all standing in a big room with graduate students, at another it was centered around tables with only 20-30 applicants divided among 5 tables, and at another school it was only the applicants for the same lab and the graduate students, so only 4 applicants. However, at all the schools, I spent any down time I had as well as meals on the actual interview day in one central room where all the other applicants are, so there was plenty of time to meet other prospective graduate students. And whether it was at the dinner or during the interview day, when applicants talked to each other, the conversation eventually starts to reflect social comparisons being made. People always ask what you are doing right now. This, of course, is a perfectly normal question to ask, it’s pretty ordinary to ask somewhat what they do for a living. However, in the context of interview day, this question becomes a vehicle for social comparisons. When you are applying for clinical psychology programs, you are usually being evaluated on your academic credentials, your research experience, the match between your research interests and the lab focus, and other smaller factors like social fit. Thus, asking people what they do isn’t just nice small talk, it’s a way to assess what a person’s research experience consists of and what their research interests are. Is the person currently a research assistant at a known lab? Do they do research that fits really well with the lab they are applying to? How does that person’s research experience compare to mine? These are questions I found myself wondering, even if I didn’t directly ask someone what they did, and I don’t think its a stretch to guess that other applicants were thinking the same thing.

Going into the interview day at each school, I thought that I would try as hard as possible to avoid social comparisons completely. In a strange way, I didn’t want to try to figure out where I stood in terms of my research experience, mostly because I did not want to open myself up to the possibility that I was lacking in that department compared to others.I might have been taking on some uncertainty and anxiety as a result, but I preferred to protect myself (and my self-esteem) from the worst-case scenario that could result from making those comparisons. I figured I could go in and talk sports, music, TV, and movies and avoid comparisons. However, when I was in the interview day situation, I just couldn’t help but eventually talk about my own research or other people’s research at some point, and then internally I started to note the other person’s accomplishments, like how they’ve been doing research for 2 years already, or how they work in a lab that studies the same exact topic as the lab they are applying to. As a result, at least for me, I grew a little anxious with each comparison, as I started to realize just how qualified everyone was. However, I was able to resolve those feelings after some thinking, as I remembered that I was invited just as these other applicants were, so we had to be somewhere in the same ballpark as far as qualifications. So as it turned out, social comparisons ended up being a fairly pervasive thing during these days, despite my best efforts, and it initially provoked, not reduced, some anxiety, but ended up not being such a bad thing, as it reminded me of my own qualifications.

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