If you’re applying to December deadline schools like UC-Irvine, Brown, Cornell, the Michener Center, Ohio State, or Vanderbilt, make a checklist of what you still need to do, and stay organized.
GREs: Sign up and take them if you haven’t already. Most schools just want to see that you’re an intelligent human being; the department will have a set minimum score. You don’t need to ace it, but do your best. If it feels like too much effort to take the GRE, compare that effort to how much you may receive in return (funding, healthcare, access to writers, teaching). It may be worth it.
Recommendations: Send requests or reminders to your recommenders. Allowing 3-4 weeks for a recommendation is good form. Be sure to include your CV and a short blurb about the work you completed in the course, with the advisor, etc. Don’t forget to send your recommenders a small gift, card, e-card, etc. You never know when you’ll need help again.
Statements: Draft or redraft your personal and/or teaching statements. These aren’t throw-aways. Consider the purpose of submitting a statement (rather than just the manuscript). The review committee, made up of professors, wants to know about you. You get to speak for yourself here, so make it count. Research the schools, decide who you want to work with and why, look through the coursework, and spend time making sure your statements are both professional and personal.
Manuscript: This is the most essential element of your application. Time and again, faculty will often quantify this as 95-99% of the determining factor for admission. It’s not necessarily important to be extremely polished, but it is important that you are self-aware about what you are doing. Consider what will set you apart. Is the language precise and simultaneously full of depth? Are the characters intelligent, and self-aware? Is there tension, dynamism, a reversal, an arc, a sense of reward in reading your manuscript? Is there emotional investment in the stories? If you’re bored, your readers will be too. Revise, research, revise more. With so little time to go, it can be difficult to look at your own work from an objective viewpoint. Find a generous but critical reader to help with your manuscript.
Good luck! I’m really rooting for you.