I sit on the graduate studies committee in the History Department at Virginia Tech and we went through graduate admissions recently.
Based on that experience, I offer some advice for students applying to this kind of program, a mid-level MA at a fairly robust university:
Test Scores: There are a variety of attitudes about GREs. For many, GREs are of high importance since they are the only equivalent measure among students and disciplines. However, they are clearly problematic and in no way objective measures of ability or potential. For the most part, GREs are a kind of gateway or early filter for the application pile — your GREs have to meet a certain baseline number, but it is unlikely that it will get you in or be a decisive factor.
Personal/Research Statement: This is not a personal or autobiographical statement, whatever it is called. Grad admissions committees don’t particularly care about your personal story — that’s something undergrad admissions people look for. We do not want to hear how you have always loved history. We also do not want to know how you always wanted to become a history professor. The former means you have not been adequately challenged in your undergrad career and you don’t really understand what the intellectual work of a historian is about. The latter means you do not really understand what the job a history professor is about — there are few jobs, they are highly demanding, and things are getting worse.
What do we want to hear about in your statement? Your research interests and an analysis of the topic you want to study. This is more or less a research statement and should be written as such. You might include a few details about how you became interested in the topic (a professor’s course or a study abroad experience), but the point is you have to show that you are already prepared to do the intellectual work required in graduate school. Always be preparing for the next stage. Also, make some reference to members of the faculty you would be interested in working with and why — tell them why that department is the right place for you.
Letters of Recommendation: There is often a tradeoff or sliding scale between the prominence of the letter writers and the detail and amount of positive material they provide about you. A baseline for a strong application — three letter writers who are visiting assistant professors or tenure track professors (ie engaged in a research trajectory), with whom you have taken two classes each (and done well), and with one of whom you worked on an intensive, high-level research project like an undergrad thesis, a significant independent study, or some kind of capstone seminar. These people will have position in the field, a meaningful gauge of your research prospects, and the ability to write well about you. If this is not possible (and for all but honors college students or students at small liberal arts colleges, it is likely not), you will have some decisions to make. It is almost always better to have a letter from a tenure track faculty member than from a graduate student, even a candidate who taught his or her own course. The only exception is if the tt faculty member would write less than a page about you. An adjunct letter writer would not hurt you, for example, if they are a practicing professional at something and you are going into a professional program, like public history or museum studies. Much of this kind of information — what kind of letter-writer is senior professor so-and-so? — is not really available to undergraduates. What to do? Talk to your advisor (and if you don’t have an advisor who is your strong advocate, you might want to reconsider grad school) and ask about the people you are thinking of asking to write for you. Without getting into department politics, your advisor should be able to gently steer you to a good set of letter writers and away from any problem professors.
Writing Sample: You have to illustrate three things: you know how to work with archival or other primary source material; that you have read the relevant literature; and, ideally, that you understand how those works were shaped by intellectual forces and responded or revised the subfield. This paper has to be sharp, and will have to impress quickly, so take as many revisions as necessary. It is not necessary that this paper be the one you got the highest grade on — you may have had a great idea and project that just couldn’t come together and flopped, but it still has that top-side potential if you put a month or two of work into it. If you have an undergrad thesis, one of the chapters would be a good writing sample. Also, make sure you have structured the paper and writing well, so that it can be skimmed and evaluated quickly by the committee. Tighten up the prose and excise rambling digressions.
And good luck!
*Note, this is not advice for those applying to PhD programs. Some of the principles are the same, but in that case the grain is much finer and there is less room for error.