Sending out dozens of grad school applications is time-consuming and expensive, so skip the blitz method. Instead of applying to every program in your field, focus your attention on a few, carefully selected schools.
Separate potential graduate schools into categories based on your chances of admission, just as you did when applying to undergrad. As a target list, we recommend selecting two schools you're fairly certain will accept you, two with whom you have a fighting chance, and one school that you'll get into if lightning strikes.
We know you're not taking out thousands of dollars in student loans to dine at the best campus cafeterias in the land. For grad students, the academic experience is paramount, and your career goals will impact what you look for in a program. If you want a master's degree to give you that professional edge, then the overall quality of the faculty may be more important than finding the ideal mentor. If you are aiming for a PhD, however, finding a specific professor to serve as your thesis advisor trumps the talents of the faculty at large. Apply to schools that have one or more professors who do research in your general area of interest, and with whom you can imagine working closely for a year (or six).
To get the real scoop on a school, you need to go to the source. A conversation with the faculty members you are most interested in working with will give you insight into the program and the dynamics of the department. And making personal connections with professors will certainly help your application.
You should also contact grad students currently studying in that department. Do they enjoy working with their professors? Do they feel they have been given enough guidance and opportunity to develop their own research? Are they pressured to follow a certain methodology? What are the positives and negatives of the department and the school at large?
Check to make sure that the institution has adequate facilities and resources for your particular needs. This could include labs, libraries, grants, teaching assistantships, and summer fellowships.
Finally, remember to peruse the graduate course catalogue. Even as a PhD candidate, you'll want to make sure classes offered are relevant to your interests and will complement your research.