What should I do to get into graduate school?
For a four year undergraduate program, asking this question in the fourth year is almost too late. Getting in to a good graduate program (if that is the path you want to take) takes some planning. Here are some basic ideas on grades, early, research and recommendation letters that may differentiate you for graduate school admission.
Where to go is first
The reality is you need your reasons to go to graduate school. In engineering, the typical Ph.D. reason is “I want to be a professor”. In other fields, there might be other reasons, but you are going to want to go to the best school possible since the trickle down of academic pedigree will likely impact your future career options.
Grades aren’t the whole game, but they matter
Now that you have picked a top school to attend, you need to get accepted there. The base bar to being admitted to the school is your grades and how you perform on any admittance tests. For most US universities this test is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). You need to do well on the test and have a high GPA. However, this is only the base bar that you must meet. The reality is that students across the country and throughout the world are meeting this base requirement. How are you going to separate yourself from this large group?
Undergraduate research helps
If you can get an academic paper, presentation experience, and research training in your undergraduate time, then you are in a better spot than most. This is why the fourth year is not a great time to get into research since the time it takes to complete research and submit work is not a short period such as a semester. It can take a year or more to complete a worthy research project or even participate in a large research team. However, the experience of performing research will not only improve your chances, but will show you some idea of what graduate school might be like.
Letter of recommendations
Probably, the biggest step to get into certain programs is the relationships between your recommending professors and your target schools. If one of your recommendation letters comes from a tight relationship with your target school and the professor writing the letter, then there is a significantly greater chance of you being put to the top of the pile.
The reason for this is that all professors write letters of recommendation for their students. If I know the person who is writing the letter when looking through graduate applications, then I know I can trust their opinion, and a strongly recommended student carries more weight from someone I know than a letter from a random professor.
In this light, I highly recommend looking at where your professors came from (in their graduate and post-graduate work) as this may help guide you on where to apply for your graduate future.
Credits: photo titled: E.D Morel, ca. 1900-1915 (IMP-CSCNWW33-OS10-23); by Ashley Van Haeften