How crucial is it to have a strong extracurricular background when applying for graduate school at an Ivy or similar university? I'm involved in a few environmental conservation projects and will soon volunteer for a week-long paleontological excavation project led by my university and the city Museum, but I'm not sure these sorts of things are significant enough? What activities/projects/volunteer work should I be doing to separate my application from the rest? Also, as I understand it, research experience is of critical importance. How much experience should I have accumulated by the end of my 4th year of undergrad study, and how advanced should the level of research be? Should I have contributed to a few published papers by this point? I apologize if these questions seem trivial - I'm a student in Australia and possess only a rudimentary knowledge of the selection processes in top US schools. Also, if it helps - my BSc degree is in physics, but I intend to pursue a PhD in astrophysics.