Get Experience to Get Attention
An effective way of drawing positive attention to your application is by having useful experience in your field. Admissions committees want experience, whether it’s theoretical, research, or applied experiences. Research experience is especially important to admissions committees in nearly all fields. Of course “research” varies by field to include lab work, applied research, survey and research methodologies, reviews of the literature, textual analysis, and literary research, to name a few. How do you obtain research experience? Make contact with faculty.
Simple Ways of Making Contact
Getting to know professors isn't rocket science -- it just requires basic social skills and initiative. Say hello in the halls and before class. Ask questions after class. Be friendly, but professional. Become known in the department by talking with faculty and other students, helping wherever you can, and participating in the departmental student club (e.g., Chemistry Club, Psychology Club, and so on). Attend departmental talks and colloquia and behave responsibly and respectfully at those events.
Visit faculty members’ office hours to discuss topics in class, ask questions, or get insight into the broader field. Discuss your career goals and ask for advice on how to prepare for graduate study. Ask questions as they arise.
Working with Professors
Making a research contact and gaining an opportunity to participate in faculty research is really a matter of making a personal connection with faculty and establishing a mutually respectful and friendly relationship. Read professors’ research and talk with them about their work. Ask to learn more about their current projects – and listen. If the project is interesting and you think that you can contribute to the project, ask if the professor is looking for students to work on the project. If you volunteer to work with a professor, recognize that you are making a commitment that the professor expects you to keep. Skipping out on the agreement will not increase your odds of getting into grad school.
Also remember that you can work with more than one professor over your years in college and even graduate school. The same rules of establishing contact work for making contact with other faculty in the department – except that your reputation will likely precede you. If you and faculty get along, and you are reliable, responsible, and do good work, you’ll establish a good reputation and other faculty will welcome and sometimes even invite you to work on their research. As you’ll find with most things in academics and life, success is a matter of establishing contact and getting along with others, and being responsible, diligent, and true to your word.