When it comes to getting into the graduate school of your choice, a good deal of the work happens well in advance of your actual application. Your undergraduate grade point average (GPA), coursework and independent pursuits (such as research or publications) contribute significantly to your quality as a grad-school candidate.
But there are also other aspects a program is going to consider: Test scores, faculty recommendations and interviews can help to make up for less-than-stellar undergraduate performance. Not all master's and Ph.D. candidates graduated summa cum laude.
To attend grad school, you'll have to take at least one GRE (Graduate Record Exam) test. This score is an important aspect of an application. Some programs require only the GRE general test, and some require the GRE subject test (such as GRE Literature in English or GRE Physics), as well. A law school candidate takes the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and for medical school, the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is required.
You'll need to include letters of recommendation in your application packet, typically at least three. They'll be mostly from faculty members who know you from undergraduate school (you may also have one or two from employment or extracurricular activities). What your professors say about you is important, so be sure to not only remind them of who you are and how and what you did in their classes, but also come right out and ask if they feel comfortable giving you a glowing recommendation. If someone says no (this happens sometimes), choose a different instructor.
Lots of graduate students visit their prospective campuses and meet with faculty members. A formal interview with one of those faculty members can be a big asset if it goes well, because graduate-level professors have a say in admissions to their programs. If you can afford the trip, arrange for interviews at all of your first-choice schools (you should apply to more than one, since competition for slots is often fierce).
One of the most important things to remember when applying to grad school is timing. The early applicant often gets the worm, so don't procrastinate. Deadlines for Ph.D.-program applications are usually in January at the latest, and master's programs will often want applications by January, February or March. See the Princeton Review Web site for a recommended time line. You'll want to start assembling your application materials as early as May, eight to 10 months before the deadline.
If you're lucky, you'll find out by the end of April that you've been accepted into your first-choice program -- and you'll start worrying about how you're going to pay for it.