The process to applying to graduate school for many students is full of stress, uncertainty, and confusion. Different types of programs require different documents, the processes are steeped in tradition, competition to get into programs is fierce, and often times the rules and standards for admission are just a set of hazy guidelines. After hours scouring the internet for answers to this application nightmare, you find that grades are important (or they are not), talking to potential advisors is wise (or a giant waste of time), testing scores (GRE, LSAT, MCAT, etc.) matter (or have absolutely no correlation with success), and so on and so forth. It is all dependent on whose advice you read, who you talk to, and where you look. Researching the application process is riddled with anxiety and you have not even started to fill out the first line of an application. So how do you make a reasonable decision about what advice to take when it is all so contradictory?
First off, take a deep breath. The second step is to think about the field or discipline that you are planning on joining. Often times resources that are one-size-fits all, whether they be blogs, websites, or books, are not the best resource and the advice given may not be relevant to your field of interest. Since variation is so wide, my next set of advice may be taken with a grain of salt, but I hope it provides some general guidelines on who to talk to and the type of advice they can provide.
Initially, you should speak to professors in your field. They are the ultimate insiders to the process, having both gone through it themselves, and having to utilize it when selecting future students. Professors that have graduate students of their own are especially useful since they are more likely to (and more recently) have had to review applications. While there is no tried and true guidebook or training given to professors when reviewing applications, they will know best what they themselves (and by extension their colleagues) will be looking for. As a side note, you should talk to multiple professors to be able to get a general survey of opinions across the discipline since it is unique process for every field.
A secondary source of advice is current and former graduate students. They have undergone the process more recently than their professors, and for all intents and purposes they succeeded. Yet again, their advice can and will vary widely. Graduate students will generally have a good understanding of how the application processes work so they will be able to assist you, but their real value lies in the advice they can give you about the lifestyle of a graduate student. Where advice from professors is often geared to how to get into graduate school, a graduate student’s golden advice is often how to succeed in the day to day of graduate school once admitted. While it may not seem as practical as what exactly to write in a personal statement or what to put on a resume, it will help you to shape the decision on whether or not you still want to go. Graduate school is a different type of animal, whatever the program or discipline, and knowing the perspective of a graduate student can often sway those that are indecisive about the path they are about to embark upon.
Okay, take another deep breath. I know this is not an easy process, and the advice you will get is varied and often contradictory, but just remember that people, whomever they are, are just trying to help you succeed.