Go Ara was born in Jinju, South Gyeongsang, South Korea. At a young age, she constantly moved around Korea because her father was a soldier. When she was in junior high, she was recommended by a friend to audition for the talent agency SM Entertainment. In 2003, she became the winner of the SM Entertainment Teen Model Contest. After joining SM Entertainment, she began to train with the other trainees under the same company in areas of acting, singing, and dancing.
Go's breakthrough performance was in the 2006 SBS drama, Snow Flower, where she starred alongside Kim Kibum, Kim Hee-ae, and Lee Jae-ryong. Go's character, Yoo Da-mi, was a rebellious and ambitious daughter, winning her acting recognition in award ceremonies the following year.
Two years later, she was cast in the MBC drama Who Are You? where she acted alongside with Yoon Kye-sang. Despite low ratings in Korea, the body swap dramedy drew in international fans, increasing her Korean wave profile. This led to an appearance in the Japanese television dramaKarei naru Spy. In 2009, she was cast in MBC's Heading to the Ground opposite idol singer Jung Yunho from DBSK. Director Park Sung-soo later said he had wanted her for the role of Kang Hae-bin more than any other actress.
In 2013, Go's popularity further rose through the nostalgic campus drama Reply 1994. In order to portray Sung Na-jung, she cut her hair, and gained 18 lbs. While many doubted her casting when it was first announced, audiences praised Go's performance by series' end.
Since she entered the entertainment scene, Go has been a popular commercial model. Among the products she's endorsed are SK Telecom, Elite Uniforms, and more recently, cosmetics. She filmed a commercial with actor Jang Keun-suk for Etude House in 2008, and was chosen as the new muse of Lirikos in 2011.