1. Plan ahead.
If you're planning to go to graduate school, be sure to take rigorous classes within the discipline you hope to pursue. A transcript full of challenging courses shows you're intellectually curious and internally motivated to complete high-level work. Also check if specific graduate programs have required or recommended classes for admission.
Allow at least six months or more to research schools, gather recommendations, develop your personal statement and take admission tests prior to application deadlines.
2. Maintain a strong GPA.
Taking hard courses isn't an accomplishment in itself, of course. To be a competitive grad school applicant you'll need to maintain an above-average GPA. At the very least, you should strive to maintain a 3.0 at the undergraduate level, though some programs may require a 3.5 GPA or higher. Know that your grades in major classes and program prerequisites are likely to be given more importance in graduate admissions.
3. Gain research experience.
Undergraduate research experience is one of the most important elements of any grad school application. You can acquire some research experience during the academic year and/or during the summer via independent study with a professor or through a formal research program. Participate in diverse projects that expose you to important investigative methods in your discipline. An applicant who has relevant research experience is viewed as highly motivated, and this can give you an edge in the admissions process.
4. Get published and present at academic conferences.
Try to identify research opportunities that allow you to earn a publication credit or present research findings at an academic conference. These types of notable achievements can help you distinguish yourself from the crowd of other grad school applicants you'll be competing with for a program spot.
5. Compete for academic awards.
Another way to stand out from others during the grad school admissions process is to earn academic awards as an undergrad. Work hard to be recognized for excellence by your academic department, apply for grants or fellowships funded by government agencies and try to obtain REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) internships.
6. Prepare for the GRE.
GRE scores are an important component of most grad school applications. Improve your chances of a high score by using GRE study guides or accessing test prep services available in book stores and online. For many graduate programs, GRE scores are the determining factor for grants, which could mean extra tuition money or even free grad school.
While a quality composite score is important, some sections of the exam may be given more weight than others by respective graduate programs. Contact the schools you're considering to learn if you should focus on any particular section of the exam or if a GRE subject test is required for your department. It is highly recommended that you take the GRE well in advance of your application deadline, at the latest, by November. This will ensure the admissions committee has your scores, and it could allow time for you to retake the exam if necessary.
7. Perfect your personal statement.
The personal statement is your chance to stand out from the other applicants and capture the attention of admissions officers. You should persuasively outline your academic interests, research experience and grad school goals.
Consider composing your statement in three different parts. First, a brief paragraph describing the program you wish to study and your research goals. Second, a summary of your college experiences, how you decided to pursue graduate study, your research experience and any publication or presentation information. Be as specific as possible. Finally (and most importantly), discuss in detail why you want to go to grad school, what you would like to research or study, whom you would like to work with, etc. Complete multiple drafts to create a personal statement that impresses the graduate admissions committee.
8. Line up solid recommendations.
Grad schools typically require two to three letters of recommendation during the application process. Use your time as an undergraduate to connect with professors in your discipline who might one day give you a recommendation. Take multiple classes with specific faculty members and get involved in research projects with key professors. It also helps to give these teachers copies of your resume, transcripts, and personal statement. With your personal history and background information, they can write stronger letters of recommendation.
If you graduated a while ago and have chosen to return to school, a strong recommendation from your current or previous boss/supervisor is your best bet. Pursue recommendations from those who can attest to your ability to handle the rigors of graduate-level coursework. Strong recommendations can be very persuasive to a graduate admissions committee.
9. Do your research.
Going to grad school is all about finding your academic niche. It's your opportunity to complete the research you want to in an environment where you feel comfortably challenged. As an undergraduate, you should be researching graduate programs and professors to determine the best fit for you. Visit selected schools at least once to make meaningful contacts in those programs. Then reflect on why you've targeted a specific program in your personal statement. Your application is more likely to impress the admissions committee of a school for which your skills and interests are a match.
Networking with professors and other students is a great way to learn more about graduate programs. Ask about and discuss the academic goals of peers in research groups. Talk about available grad programs at your school and other institutions. Find out what other students are doing to ensure they are attractive grad school applicants.
10. Learn from any denials.
'If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!' Don't give up. If your application to graduate school was not successful, it's important to ask for feedback so you can reapply later. There may be aspects of your application that could be improved, or perhaps you need to re-consider your program of choice. Re-evaluate the strength of your academic experience and overall preparation for graduate school. You may need to consider other schools or fields of study that are a better fit.