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Applying for a Job as a Prelicensed Therapist: How to Stand Out

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of applications. Caldwell-Clark, a nonprofit I co-founded, regularly hires prelicensed MFTs for paid positions. We tend to get good interest in those openings when they happen. And in the years I spent as core faculty for a graduate program, I saw hundreds of applications from students eager to get in to that program.

In both contexts, the application process can be nerve-wracking for applicants, and frustrating for people like me who are responsible for evaluating the applications. People who would likely be great students, great employees, and great therapists can easily be overlooked on the basis of a few mistakes in their application materials.

Here are some things you can do to make your application for a prelicensed therapist position as strong as it can be.

Do Your Homework

Almost any application will require a cover letter and a resume. Your resume should typically stay the same from one application to the next – after all, your past experience doesn’t change based on what position you are applying for. But your cover letter should be specific to that particular application, and that means more than changing the “To” address.

Use your cover letter to show that you have done your homework on the employer. Talk about what they do, how it is different from other employers, and why you specifically want that job as opposed to simply any job. The idea here isn’t simply to flatter the reviewer’s ego. It’s to show that you’ve taken the time to deeply assess whether the job would be a good fit for you, and that you believe it would be.

Don’t Waste Space

It may be possible, but it’s difficult to get through a graduate degree in a mental health field without being intelligent, well-organized, empathetic, and passionate about the field. These are all good and necessary traits, but if these are what you focus on, you haven’t given the employer much more to evaluate beyond “I am a typical prelicensed therapist.” Most employers aren’t looking for typical. They’re looking for therapists who are uniquely well-suited to the kind of work that therapists do there.

Along similar lines, don’t list goals like “to get a job working in mental health” or “to use my degree.” Talk about the kind of place where you would like to work, or the kinds of goals you want to help clients achieve.

Use your application to highlight those goals, skills, and experiences that most of the people applying for the same position probably don’t have. If you present yourself well, the reviewer’s reaction should go well past “I guess we can interview this applicant” and into a much more enthusiastic “We have to interview this person.” You’ll be one step ahead even before the interview stage begins.

Of course, it’s worth making clear that you meet all of the listed requirements for a position, even when other applicants likely will be saying the same things. But you want to do more than meeting minimum qualifications.

Mind Your Manners

Small formalities can make a big difference, especially when they are uncommon in the pool of applicants for the position you’re seeking. When you know the names of those who will be reviewing your application, address them by name in your cover letter. If you’re submitting a paper application, make sure all papers are neat and well-organized. And if it’s appropriate to do so, follow up via phone or email to remind reviewers of your interest in the position and to thank them for reviewing your application. After all, even if you don’t get the position you’re applying for, those reviewers still can be a useful part of your professional network – and they’re likely to be hiring again in the future.

In some cases, reviewers will simply be too inundated to respond; don’t take it personally if that’s the case. You might even want to specifically say that no response is necessary.

These small, personal touches make for great professional relationship-building. Employers are likely to recognize those efforts. When you are respectful and attentive to the needs of employers, you’re also likely to be respectful and attentive to the needs of supervisors and clients.

Of course, even when you take all of these steps, there’s still a chance that you will not get the position you’re applying for. The job market can be challenging and competitive. But your applications will continue to stand out from the crowd, and your chances will be better for getting the next one.

To learn more about the job market for therapists, pay issues for prelicensed therapists, and other areas where your work can help the entire field, check out Saving Psychotherapy. Prelicensed’s readers can get 10% off of this or any of the books available at by visiting the site and using coupon code PRELICENSED at checkout. (Offer expires August 31, 2017.)

About the Author

Benjamin E. Caldwell, PsyD, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He wrote Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs, which is now required reading at dozens of graduate programs around the state. He is also the lead author of the Psychotherapy Notes blog. He serves as adjunct faculty for California State University Northridge and the Wright Institute in Berkeley. License no. CA MFT 42723.

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