It's never too early to start prepping for grad school; the competition for available spots can be brutal. However, if you start right now to build an impressive undergraduate career, you can shine as brightly as the best of them. Here are five tried and true things you can do right now to impress grad schools later on:
Score High on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
Although impressive GRE scores are only part of what grad schools want, the test results still carry a lot of weight. Most top-shelf grad schools will want to see scores of at least 600 on each of the three to four exam sections, and the higher your scores, the better.
High GRE scores will trump a not-so-stellar GPA, and you can study for it. Take a GRE preparation course if your school offers one, and use the GRE practice tests; the more you practice, the better you'll score. Some grad schools award fellowships and scholarships according to GRE scores, so any strategy to improve your scores is definitely worth the effort.
Maintain the Highest Possible GPA
It goes without saying that the higher your GPA, the more attractive to grad schools you'll be. It's also important to maintain the highest possible GPA for courses in your major. At the very least, you should have a GPA of 3.0 overall and a GPA of 3.5 in your major.
Build Up Some Research Experience
Look for opportunities to participate in research in your field. Gaining experience as a researcher will give you an edge over other students because research is an important part of graduate programs. Some schools offer independent study courses and independent research courses where you can conduct studies or research under the tutelage of a faculty member. You can also volunteer as a research assistant for a faculty member whose work interests you.
Set the Stage for Epic Letters of Recommendation
When you apply to grad schools, you're going to need three-four letters of recommendation from professors who can evaluate your grad school potential. Don't expect professors who only know you from one class two years ago to write an epic letter of recommendation on your behalf. Instead, engage your professors regularly, in class and out. Chat them up, get to know them and ask for their guidance and advice. Most professors will be happy to write a positive letter of recommendation if they know you and like you.
Try to get letters from professors you've worked with on research projects or have worked for as a volunteer. Letters of recommendation can be highly influential if your professors happen to know the professors at the grad schools you like. Faculty members at the schools you're applying to will be more swayed by a colleague's positive opinion of you than by a GRE score or a GPA.
Participate in Departmental Events
Whether its a weekly presentation, a departmental get-together or an undergraduate club related to your major, get involved. These events are a great opportunity to network with other students and to get to know faculty members in your department outside of the classroom. At the very least, you'll probably make some new contacts in your field.
Publish and You Won't Perish
If you want to add a wow factor to your grad school application, try to earn a credit in a faculty member's research publication, or find an opportunity to present information at an academic conference or meeting.
Your grad school application is a marketing tool that can open doors or close them. Give yourself the best possible shot at the schools of your dreams by using your undergraduate years to best advantage. That way, when it's time to begin the application process, you'll be able to present yourself as a candidate that no decent graduate program would ever want to be without.