The first year I applied to graduate school, I didn't go about it in a smart way. I did it my senior year of undergrad, while trying to simultaneously trying to enjoy all senior year . I threw together some applications, an essay or two, and applied for just the top five programs -- I was that nervy. And that stupid. I told myself it was a long shot and so I wouldn't be disappointed; but come spring, when the rejections started coming in, I was disappointed. I had a whole Scarlett O'Hara moment ("God as my witness") and set about the next application period determined to get in. Sure enough, the next year I got into Vanderbilt, the most selective program, as one of three fiction writers. I'm not claiming I made a miracle turn around, I know a lot of getting in anywhere is always luck, but it's also luck coupled with preparedness.
Vanderbilt used to put up bios of their current grad students along with their emails, so I would get quite a few asking advice. I'm not promising results, but here are a few things I told people who asked me nicely:
Do Your Prepwork
I know a few writers who see the whole application process as Iowa or bust; I consider this stance unbelievably foolish. Plenty of brilliant writers have come from other programs, and besides, Iowa's teaching style and location aren't for everybody. Going to grad school is going to take years of your life, so do the prep work you need to figure out which programs you want to apply for. A few things to think about:
1) What programs have enough funding for you to live on?
2) What programs are in places where you can stand to live for two or three years?
3) Do you like big competitive groups or small intimate programs?
4) Who teaches at the program, and who has graduated from there?
5) What are your end goals and how long do you need to complete them?
The programs that fit your answers might surprise you.
Hedge Your Bets and Apply Around
As I'll say many, many times over: this whole process is extremely subjective. You can't control who is reading your story, and you can't control where they work. Which means don't be ashamed of applying to a lot of schools. The year I got in, I applied to thirteen programs and only two said yes. I think the lowest number I've heard of applying to (and getting in the same year) was eight, and the highest, 22. Aim for somewhere in there.
The Writing Sample is the Most Important Thing.
Does your application have to be clean? Yes. Does your personal statement have to be articulate? Sure. But a good writing sample can cover a multitude of sins. I recently reread my personal statement when I was considering showing it to someone who was applying. I was so focused on being clear and concise that my declarative statements sounded borderline robotic.
The Writing Sample Is the Most Important Thing. Really.
They Don't Know What They Want
Maybe the committee changes every year. Maybe the committee is changing this year.
Don't Ask To Read Other's Writing Samples
Because, quite simply, it's rude. Listen, you think I don't know that all writers are judgey bastards? We're the worst. So don't send an email to a stranger asking to read their writing sample or personal statement just because they happen to go to the school you'd like to go to. Why should they trust you with their work.
Grad Students Love Coffee and Alcohol
But if you think you absolutely must talk to someone who has been or is in a program, then ask to meet with someone in person. What if you don't live where you want to go to school? So what, there's bound to be a program around you where you can at least learn about someone's experience. Ask to go out for a coffee or a drink. Hell, offer to buy them a coffee or a drink. And then, maybe, ask if you can read their stuff. But I'm telling you, it's not going to help.
Hedge Your Bets
The Lunchtime Principle
Maybe despite all your excellent efforts, you didn't get in. Even if you did get in somewhere, you probably didn't get in everywhere. That's a bummer. But The Lunchtime Principle is something my undergraduate professor told me that always makes me feel better. It's simply this: that maybe your story was the last they read before lunch. Maybe they were in a bad mood, with low blood sugar, and already dreaming about their turkey club, and missed your truly brilliant story. The whole process is completely subjective and depends on a million variables you can't control.
The Writing Sample is the Most Important Thing