Most graduate schools only admit students at the beginning of the fall semester. (If you plan to stay "out" and work before going on to grad school, you must still plan a year ahead; so apply this advice to yourself as if you were still an undergraduate.) In the summer before and early fall of your senior year, write to universities that interest you, requesting information about each school's English graduate programs and application forms for admission and financial aid. Information is free.
Although no grad school is going to make you decide whether you want to specialize in 16th century sonnets or Ogden Nash at the moment when you apply, some schools are better in particular areas than others. Ask the professors who teach the courses which interest you most. If your interest is general, ask us about schools which are good in most areas. Think about where you do or don't want to live for the next five to eight years. Look at the information you get and see which schools offer the best programs of study and the best financial aid.
The Graduate Record Exam scores are important. They are what many admission committees look at to decide how seriously to take your GPA, writing sample, and letters of recommendation. Although it varies from school to school whether GRE, GPA, or other parts of the application are given top priority, you can't second-guess this and should assume the GRE to be important. The Verbal score is the most important, although some schools also value the special field [English] score. Don't take the general and the subject on the same day--plan ahead. Score in the 700's and your chances are good of getting into a good graduate school, assuming your other credentials are equally strong. Few English departments care much about the Quantitative scores. Take the GRE in the winter of your junior year or the summer before your senior year or in October. There are two good reasons for doing this:
ETS keeps scores for five years so even if you don't plan on going right away, you might want to take the test while things are still fresh in your mind. Get information about the GRE's and application forms in the Career Services Office.
Finances frequently restict the number of applications you will submit. Most schools require an application fee. The best bet is to apply to your "dream" school--you'll always wonder if you don't apply--to two or three good schools, and to one or two safety-net schools. If you do not get into a school that is at the top of your list, you can always get an M.A. and apply to a better school for the Ph.D.--a proven track record in grad school can be a help.
Unless you are absolutely sure you want to stop at the M.A., always apply for the Ph.D. Schools take M.A. applications less seriously for both admission and financial aid. You aren't signing any contracts; you can always stop at the M.A. level. If you are interested in teaching at the pre-collegiate level, you should investigate the M.A.T. (Master of Arts in Teaching) degree. The M.A.T. combines intensive work in a subject area with Education course work and practice teaching. Students who earn the MAT degree may well decide to go for the Ph.D.
The former should be the best paper you ever wrote. And don't be afraid to make it better. Take it back to your professor and re-write it. If you are declaring an interest in a particular area (e.g., American or Medieval), common sense suggests that the paper be in that area. As you write your personal statement, put yourself in the position of your audience, a member of the admissions committee. You want to show the reader that you are smart and serious and ambitious but not conceited. This is not a time for false modesty, but neither do you want to sound over-confident. The personal statement is the only way the admissions people get to know you as a person. Don't go out of your way to be different merely for the sake of being different, but don't feel you have to be very traditional in your approach. Let your readers get to know you. Have at least one professor look over your statement.
This checklist might help you to draft your personal statement.
Most schools require two, many require three. Ask the professors who have seen you do the best work (in English) and who know you best. If a person seems reluctant to write for you, take this as a polite "no" and ask someone else. The more detailed and explicit a letter is, the more good it will do you. Indeed, you should offer to give the professors copies of the papers you wrote, to allow them the opportunity to refresh their memories. If you've taken many courses in history, for example, or have a minor, a letter from a professor in another department might be OK; but in general, stick to faculty members in the English Department. (We have a standard form in the department office for use when asking for a letter of recommendation. Most professors prefer to have it filled out when asking for a letter.) If one of us went to the school to which you are applying, you can ask that person to write a separate letter. Application deadlines range from late December through mid-February. Ask your referees in November.
For each referee do the following:
Not only is all this much appreciated academic courtesy, but you will get a much better, fuller letter if you give the person enough time to do it right.
In general, if a school wants you, the school will help you with some sort of financial aid. This can range from a full fellowship with fee-waiver (much more common at the grad level than undergrad) to a research or teaching assistantship (very common) to a first-year loan with the promise of a future assistantship. With times getting harder, money will get tighter. Two ways of reading the money question: