A competitive graduate student application should ideally include a high GPA, a competitive GRE score, applied work experience, and professional presentations (e.g. publications). If you are like one of the many applicants that actually had a social life during college, you may be deficient in one or more areas! As a current grad student, I can attest that in my cohort of 10 people, only one person chose this path to grad school.
I found that taking a year off to gain work experience, do post-bac research, and to study for the GRE made me a much more competitive applicant in the long run. In my case, the year off was absolutely necessary! For those that decide to take the year off between undergrad and grad school, I recommend using this time to create the strongest application possible.
But before deciding to take a year off, figure out what part of your application needs work. Each school values different application criteria more than others. For example, a top tier RO1 University with incredibly high research expectations values applicants with professional journal publications, 90th percentile or above quantitative GRE score, and extensive experience collaborating with a team of researchers. Compare this to a competitive Masters level Counseling Psychology program in which a high verbal GRE score is valued greatly (research indicates that the VERBAL GRE score is correlated with verbal communication skills.) The Counseling Psychology program would also look for some form of applied clinical experience. I highly recommend investigating what your school of choice values and tailoring your application accordingly. Once you have this information, here are 4 ideas to help make you a more competitive applicant.
Volunteer in a Research Lab
If research experience is lacking, volunteer in a lab at a University. Free help is always valued in academia. Sure you may not be getting paid, but a publication or poster presentation could be what sets you apart from the other applicants. A year of poverty may very well pay off in the long run.
Gain Applied Work Experience
If your prior work experience has nothing to do with your future career, it may be a good idea to work in your field of interest. Not only will this provide you with helpful experience, it will also demonstrate to the admission committee that you have skills you can bring to their program.
Get a Master’s Degree Before a Ph.D.
There is really only one situation in which I would advise going this route. If you have a GPA that is below the desired requirement, and you are interested in pursuing a doctorate, going into a masters program will be the best option. Getting a high GPA in a grad school masters program will definitely make up for excessive partying in undergrad.
Bring up the GRE Score
If this is where your application is lacking, there are lots of different ways to bring that score up. Many people take a GRE prep-course, get private tutoring, or simply spend hundreds of hours practicing. I neurotically did all of the above but found that a GRE prep-course was the most beneficial. Everyone knows that the GRE is used to weed out the competition in grad school. Don’t let your application be cast to the rejection stack because of a silly test. If this is where you are lacking, I assure you that there is hope. Take advantage of the numerous study resources available and get to work!