Timeline for going to graduate school in philosophy

Please note that the deadlines noted are not mere "guidelines." Rather, these dates are the latest possible times by which you can make decisions regarding graduate school in philosophy. Also note that these deadlines assume you are trying to begin a graduate program immediately after undergrad. If this assumption is incorrect, you can shift the dates accordingly.

By March 31 of your junior year:
If you are considering going to graduate school, you should first consult three philosophy department faculty members.  Discuss with them your research interests and academic record, and ask for their frank opinion regarding whether or not graduate school in philosophy sounds like an option for you.  If you get good feedback about your prospects, begin to think about your writing sample and a possible list of programs.

By May 10 of your junior year: Before you break for summer, reconvene with the faculty you have discussed graduate school with.  Make sure that you are ready to discuss a writing sample with them in at least broad strokes, as you will need to work on this paper over the summer.  Since your writing sample will most likely be based on a course paper, you should already have a draft on hand.  You should also be prepared to do at least two rounds of extremely extensive revisions during the summer, and you will need to make sure you have sufficiently engaged secondary literature.

Note: If you've never written a paper on the area/philosopher you wish to study in graduate school, take serious pause.  Without any background whatsoever on your given topic, you will not be able to compete with other applicants and will need to spend senior year developing your expertise by taking at least one course or independent study.  In this case, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to go to graduate school immediately after you receive your B.A.  That's fine though!  Schools don't care if you take a year, or even a few years, off.  The only risk of taking time off is that you get rusty/lose touch with your professors. 

Summer in between junior and senior years:  You have two tasks during this summer:

First, you need to begin studying for the GRE.  Take a practice GRE in the end of May to determine how much you will need to improve, and note that you want to score at least 650 on the verbal and math sections, and generally higher than 650 on at least one of those sections.  You'll also want to get at least a 5 on the writing section.  Bank on needing to spend at least 10 hours a week studying for the GRE, and try to read fine, difficult literature for fun (e.g., Herman Melville is often read by students prepping for the GRE). Also be sure to make index cards or purchase a GRE phone app, so that you can study whenever you can grab a half-hour here or there. You should take a new practice exam at the end of every month this summer, as you will not have much time to do this during the school year.  You are encouraged to take the GRE in early September, so as to have time for school-work during the academic year.

At the end of every month this summer, you should send to at least one - and preferably two or three - faculty members revisions of your writing sample.  The writing sample is by far the most important component of your application.  Or at the very least, it's the only part of your application you can really control at this point.  Moreover, revising is something you will be doing a lot of in graduate school, so get used to it. 

By September 1 of your senior year: If your summer has gone according to plan, you have by this date gone through at least two extensive revisions of your writing sample, and have studied extensively for the GRE. You should now schedule your GRE exam for as soon as possible.  You should also schedule a second test date for November, in case your first try doesn't go well.

By October 1 of your senior year: You should now be working on more minor revisions to your writing sample, and your GRE should be complete or scheduled.  You should also begin putting together a final list of schools in close consultation with several philosophy department faculty members, and you should also begin drafting your personal statement.  Personal statements are extremely important to your application, and while you will eventually tailor your personal statement to each school in subtle ways, you should start with a generic version that explains your intellectual development and research interests.

By November 1 of your senior year: At no later than this date, you should formally request letters of recommendation.  Unless you have legitimate academic reasons for getting letters from professors outside philosophy, your letter writers should all be philosophers.  Exceptions to this rule will be rare.  Make sure to formally ask for a letter, taking care to provide: 1) your writing sample (which should now be well on its way to complete); 2) an unofficial transcript; 3) a CV or academic resume (please ask to see a sample if you are uncertain about what does, or does not, belong on a CV); 4) your personal statement; 5) samples of previously written work in philosophy, including everything you wrote for your letter writer and philosophical work you are in general quite proud of; and 6) a list of all the programs you are applying for, their deadlines, and submission instructions if your letter writer will not simply receive an email request from the program in question. 

By December 1 of your senior year: Your deadlines will be fast approaching, as the earliest deadline is usually about December 20th or so.  Your writing sample and personal statement should be getting superficial polishes by this point, and you should start doing your individually tailored personal statements.  Moreover, given ETS's two-week turnaround, this is the latest possible date by which your second GRE exam sitting should be scheduled.  Note, however, that if this exam goes poorly, you might be out of luck since it will be too late to take it again. 

End of December through beginning of January in your senior year:  Applications will be due.  Do not forget to complete an application!  Check your credit card statement online so as to make sure that every school on your list has charged you, and keep an email folder with confirmation emails. 

February: Chew your nails and keep an eye on thegradcafe.com if you cannot help but fret about whether a school has made a decision.  Your deadline for accepting an offer will be April 15.  If you have multiple acceptances and schools invite you to visit, consult the following blog post for important issues you should get info about:  
                                     http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/04/deciding-betwee.html
Beyond this, rigorously inspect a school's placement record.  While philosophy is a highly competitive field, you can increase your chances of landing a job if you choose the right grad program.