This is my first post here - looking for some wisdom! I'm a rising college senior planning to apply for grad school programs this fall (to begin in fall 2021, hopefully) and I'm looking for some guidance about what I can do this summer to help the application process go as smoothly as it possibly can this fall/winter. Since I was fairly naive and uninformed when applying to undergrad programs (my high school had no college advisor, and I had no idea the fields I'm now studying even existed at the time), I really want to approach the grad school application process from a more informed perspective. For reference, I am planning to apply for MA programs and potentially a couple of PhD programs (I am aware of how unlikely it is to get into a PhD program directly from undergrad, but I think I'd regret it if I don't at least try). My intended concentration will be either Philosophy of Religion or American Religion, and I feel like I have a relatively strong background in either of these areas for someone coming from undergrad.
For those of you who have already applied, is there anything you wish you'd done differently during the application process? How many programs did you apply to?
For anyone who applied to PhD programs directly from undergrad: Do you think you were qualified, or do you now feel like you had no business applying for a PhD right away? This is something I'm wondering about because certain programs claim that "exceptional" students can be admitted directly from undergrad, but I'm skeptical of what that really means. For reference, I'm a religious studies major with a 3.95 GPA and two minors (tier 2 school?), I've done a research assistantship, and I'll be writing and defending an honors thesis this upcoming year. BUT, I also recognize that I'm obviously fairly naive compared to people who have completed a master's degree.
Does it make sense to start working on personal statements and statements of purpose in advance? In the age of COVID, I don't know what to expect from the fall semester and I'd like to avoid as much future stress as I can, and I also know that grad programs will be even more competitive going forward so I'd obviously like to have the strongest applications I can. I'm trying to continue familiarizing myself with the research/publications in the areas I'm thinking about, and I've started to look into faculty I might want to work with at the programs I'm interested in. I'd like to start writing some of these application materials now, since my schedule is more open than it will be during the school year, but I also don't want to waste my time if I'll end up totally rewriting them later in the year.
Hopefully these questions aren't too redundant, I'll definitely appreciate any tips from past applicants!