There are only four ways to differentiate yourself from other graduate school applicants: your résumé, essays, recommendations, and interview (if the school has one). What difference do grades and test scores make? Not much, as your competition pool is full of applicants with similar grades and test scores. Here is an overview of what you need to do to differentiate yourself:
Your résumé is the one place where you can put all of your experiences. The essay tends to deal with a single experience, so your résumé is vital to providing a full picture. The Common Application and some graduate schools substitute an “experience section” for the traditional résumé, but the principles are the same and we will refer to both formats as the “résumé”. If a graduate school indicates a traditional résumé is optional, make sure you send one.
The key to a good résumé is how you write about your experiences. Focus less on the details of what you did and more on the IMPACT of what you did. There is a simple formula for doing this as espoused by a Google HR exec: Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]. Amazingly, this formula will work for any résumé you write for the rest of your life.
Follow The Three Keys to Writing the Perfect Graduate School Application Essay: (1) be memorable, (2) be authentic, and (3) make your sentences flow without screwing up the grammar. Make sure you focus your stories on your interpersonal skills and tie these stories to your future ambitions. Remember, graduate schools are trying to “build a class” with a diversity of thought, so make your uniqueness come through in your essay.
Admissions personnel are looking for people who are hard-working, diligent, and constantly striving to be successful. Make sure that you pick recommenders who can speak to your drive to succeed and have firsthand experience with your problem solving, interpersonal, and conflict resolutions skills. Choose recommenders who have known you for multiple years and have seen you succeed in difficult situations (e.g., student activity leadership, challenging AP/honors classes, athletics). Make sure your recommenders are articulate and will put in the time required to write you a killer recommendation. You do not control the exact wording your recommender uses, so it is vital that you choose your recommenders wisely. For more detail on who you should approach for recommendations see the relevant section in The Path to Graduate School.
It’s hard to prepare for the interview. The most important thing is to be truthful and authentic about who you are as a person. You should only prepare for questions similar to "Why did you apply to this program?" and “What do you want to be doing 10 years from now;" simply respond genuinely and naturally to every other question. The interview is the perfect time to make your interpersonal skills shine and your ambition clear.
You will likely need to rock your résumé, your essays, your recommendations, and your interview in order to get into your dream graduate school. As everything but your résumé and essays are set in stone and outside your current control, make sure to spend as much time as possible on your résumé and essays, and use all of the resources at your disposal. In other words, make sure to have people look over your résumé and your essays and provide constructive feedback.