As someone who just recently went through the absolutely God awful process of applying to graduate programs (no, I don't know where I've gotten in yet. Please don't ask me. It makes me nauseous.) I figured I could give some of my take-a-ways and pieces of advice I learned along the way.
1. Take the GRE early!
You usually apply to graduate schools in the fall (September, October, November) because many deadlines are during December and January. If you wait until October to take the GRE (or whatever entrance test you need), it is going to be really hard to schedule a time to re-take it if that's something you have to do. I took the GRE the summer before I would be applying and it was one of the best decisions! Luckily, my scores were good enough for me and I did not need to retake the test. However, if I did need to retake it, I would have had plenty of time! Studying is a different story and I am sorry to say that I have no advice on how to tackle the utter Hell that is the GRE.
2. Research programs before you research schools.
Graduate School is not like undergrad. The football team, clubs, demographics, and reputation doesn't mean as much. The "party school" label shouldn't mean anything because you'll be 22 and hopefully not focused on how fast you can shotgun a beer. So make sure you are researching the program, professors, and curriculum rather than the overall school. Yes, it is important to like the campus and area. But since you are getting a specialized degree, it is important to understand the program and who/what you'll be learning from!
3. Try to find someone (friend, supervisor, mentor, boss, teacher, etc.) who has gone to the school or graduated from the program.
When applying to undergrad, you can go on campus tours and visit open house events. When it comes to degrees other than a bachelors, you need to have real and raw information about the school and the specific program you'll be applying to. I highly encourage you to find someone who can attest to the program you're interested in. This will help you make your decision on which schools are worth the application and which are not. It will also give you some insight into the school and hopefully, that person can give you some specific advice when it comes to applying and getting into the school!
4. Start writing your personal statement early and have it edited by multiple people.
I didn't start writing my personal statement until a week before I wanted to start my applications. This was a bad choice. Writing about yourself is harder than you'd think. And deciding what to say and what to leave out is very difficult. Plus, a lot of schools have different requirements when it comes to length, format, and what needs to be included. This is probably the hardest and longest part of the application process so it is important that you start early so that you don't miss deadlines. Also, make sure you aren't the only one reading these statements. Find a supervisor who has been through this process so they can edit your work!
5. Have an open mind!
Any education you have after a bachelors degree is a big deal! You are about to learn a very specific field of work. It is important that you find a school that will meet your needs, help you reach your goals, challenge you, and set you up for success. Don't ignore a school just because you "don't want to go there." Do your research and see what each school has to offer!
6. Ask for recommendation letters now!
Recommendation letters are another big part of this process. For the most part, schools ask for a minimum of 2 and a max of 6 recommendations letters. And sometimes, they are required to be from different people. Some have to be professors while others should be advisors, supervisors, or faculty members. You need to make sure you are asking people who can accurately and positively showcase your work and achievements. And you need to ask NOW! Even if you still have a year before you'll be applying, it is better to be early. You want to make sure you have enough letters and that they will all come from excellent people. Plus, many of them will ask for a copy of your personal statement so they can mention your goals in their letter, which is another reason why your statement should be written early!
7. SAVE MONEY!
I had no idea that applying to graduate school would be so expensive! It costs to send your GRE scores and your transcript. The applications also cost money! Multiply all those costs by the number of schools you're interested in and you'll be shocked at the total. The saying is true, you gotta spend money to make money!
8. Have a backup school.
You always need to aim high and push yourself to where you want to be. But it doesn't hurt to have that one school that you can fall back on. For many, it is their undergrad institution. But make sure there is at least one school that you know with almost absolute certainty that you will get into. That way if you need to have a plan B, you'll be ready!
9. Trust the process.
The few months that it took me to research schools, edit my personal statement, and submit my applications were some of the most stressful months ever! I felt like my future was at my fingertips and with one wrong move, I might have to rethink my entire career. But now that it is over and I am just waiting to hear back, I am confident that I will get into the schools that I deserve and I will end up where I am supposed to be.