It's like having a baby, you don't have a baby and become an expert on everybody's baby, but you do become an expert on your own. I'll be all dissociative and just jump right in to the process I used for applying to MFA programs and let your mind make that metaphor work.
Choosing Where to Apply
I read through The Creative Writing Handbook by Tom Kealey and highlighted every program, regardless of location, that even sounded remotely interesting to me. I probably had highlighted about 36 programs. Then I considered location and went back through the schools I highlighted and got my list down to about 22 schools that I was interested in applying to. I also considered where poets I admire were teaching and included those schools on my list if I felt I would just kill to study with them.
Next, I took to the internet and researched each school's website looking for information on funding. I got rid of most of the schools that didn't guarantee full-funding or near full-funding to every student. Also, since I'm a single parent, I checked out the family housing options offered by the schools and dropped a few from my list that way.
By October of my application year, I ended up with a list of 16 schools to apply to. My first deadline was December 1 (I believe). It was time to get my recommenders lined up.
Almost all programs require that you have 3 letters of recommendation sent in. I was finishing up my undergrad degree in a non-traditional fashion so I had easy access to recommenders. I asked one creative writing professor and two English professors to write my recommendations.
Since I was applying to 16 schools, I wanted to make the process as simple as possible. I didn't want to bog my recommenders down and I also wanted control of my letters so I addressed the envelopes to the schools and printed out the recommendation forms that some schools require the recommenders to fill out and delivered this packet of envelopes and forms to each professor. All the professors had to do was insert the letters into the envelopes, sign the seals, and let me know when to pick them up. If I had to do it again, I would do it this way. It pretty much went off without a hitch and I had the letters back before Thanksgiving break.
I got my recommenders thoughtful gifts. One of my professors wore great scarves, so I bought her a scarf. One liked Toni Morrison so I bought her Morrison's newly released book. Another liked Jane Austen so I bought her a DVD I thought she could show in class about Jane Austen. It only took paying attention in class to figure out gifts I thought would be appropriate. They all seemed really pleased and gift giving is fun.
I hated this test. I took it in October. I spent months with flash cards studying vocabulary words. I didn't refresh on the Math because I'd recently taken a math class.
I didn't excel at the test but I think I scored on the high-end of average. I don't believe this test is important, but I do recommend taking it so you can have more schools to apply to.
Sending the Apps Out
I kept a spreadsheet that listed all of the programs I was applying to, the supplemental materials requested, application fees, and deadlines. I also had slots to check off if I'd sent off different parts of the applications (liking having official transcripts and GRE scores sent). I color coded the spreadsheet using red, green, and yellow. Red meant I hadn't started on the app, green meant it was in the mail and done, and yellow meant there was some hiccup (like a department not receiving my GRE scores).
I pressed submit online or dropped envelopes in the mailbox and waited by bonding online with people on the Poets & Writer's MFA message board; Seth Abramson's blog; and the Creative Writing MFA Handbook blog.
I ended up getting accepted outright into 6 programs; waitlisted at 2; rejected by 8. I chose UVA.
What I Would Have Done Differently
I think I did well by having the programs ranked according to my preference so that when acceptance calls started coming, I was able to know if I'd already gotten into somewhere I'd rather go. I got an acceptance in January that was ranked in the middle of my list and there were still a few apps I hadn't sent out that were ranked below it. I should have saved some app fees and not applied to those 1 or 2 programs that I knew I wouldn't go to. I think I was just deadset on carrying out my plan of applying to 16 schools.
That's all I have. Hit me up in the comments if you have any specific questions about applying to programs.