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: