Usual disclaimer: my opinions are based on my personal experience only!
- GMAT. If you haven't taken it yet, take care of this first. You have time. I started studying in February last year and took the test in May. If I wasn't happy with my results I still would have had time to retake at least once before application season. If you think you need help studying, you also have plenty of time to take a class with Manhattan GMAT or Kaplan, etc. I didn't do this, but it seems like a great way to keep yourself motivated by having a structured way to go about relearning high school math and grammar (because honestly, who remembers this stuff?)
- Research. After the GMAT, or in between study sessions, this is a good time to start researching. The Clearadmit blog is a good place to start. There you can find rankings to help you figure out the types of schools you are interested in. From there you can read some of the postings with news and facts about each school to start to get a feel for them. Each school has a personality, if you will, and it's important to understand it so that you later show these schools how you are a good fit. There are also links to blogs of applicants and students. These can be fun ways to read about other applicants and students and will help you wrap your brain around how the process works by "watching" others go through it. There are also a number of books out there that are good. Montauk's is a great one, and I also liked Your MBA Game Plan.
- Reflect. This is a really important step in the process that I think many people overlook. I can't stress enough how important it is to have a solid understanding of yourself when you begin writing your essays. Schools say it over and over: they want the essays to help them get to know you. Well to be able to write those essays, you need to go through some honest self-reflection. It's best to do this well before you plan to apply so that you are not under pressure. How to do it? I'm sure it will be a different process for everyone, but I recommend asking the following questions: what is my story? (i.e. how did I get from high school to here?), what have I accomplished so far?, what motivates me at work?, in what aspects of my life have I made an impact, and how? what am I passionate about at work and outside of work? what are my goals for my future? The passion factor is really important. Schools really want to see this in your application because it shows them that you will also approach the MBA experience and your subsequent employment (and hopefully alumni involvement) with passion, and that your fellow classmates will be able to learn from you because you are able to share your passion. It is also very important to understand your goals. If you aren't sure about your short term & long term career goals yet, that is OK. You have time to explore, but you need to have something at least directional when you apply. Try to link your interests and passions to what you might want to do post-MBA. Don't be humble in this step. Top schools want to see that you dream big (within reason of course). The thing about attending a top MBA program is that career tracks that may be unrealistic for you now will not be once you graduate, so you might need to recalibrate how you've previously thought about your career. If you aren't sure, current students and alumni are a great resource, which brings me to my next topic.
- Network. Start talking to people. People in your company that work in areas (finance, marketing, etc.) that you might want to work. Alumni at your company or within your professional network that went to an MBA school you are interested in (or any MBA school for that matter). Current students if you know any. Use any social or family networks you have access to also. Ask people to lunch or coffee and talk to them about career paths, advice for applying, industry trends, and who else they think you should talk to. You will be surprised how much this helps you increase your knowledge, and it will be invaluable once you sit down to write those essays. Especially if you are contemplating a career change, it's important to show that you've done some legwork and understand what you are aiming for. Schools don't want to get the impression that you picked a career out of a hat and said "yes, that might be fun!"
For the sake of an example, here is what I did: Talked to my dad's friend who went to one of my target schools for undergrad. Turns out her nephew just got in to the MBA program and she helped him with his application (and yes, she was more than willing to help me with mine). Talked to someone in marketing at my company that I'd been introduced to once. Found out about types of jobs that MBAs get when they come in, and what schools my company recruits at. Joined an industry group for women. Met someone else from my company who met with me later to tell me more about marketing. In a company announcement email, saw that a grad from one of my target programs just got hired in marketing. Sent her an email to see if she'd had lunch with me. Got insight on the school and more marketing insight. On a visit to a school, got a name of the recruiting coordinator at my company. Invited her to lunch to talk about the school. From her, got the names of two others and set up coffee dates with them. Talked to a friend who just graduated from a target school. When I went for a campus visit, he set me up with some 2nd years that he knew that were more than willing to discuss the school with me. Talked to my husband's uncle who hires MBAs, found out a cousin works at one of the schools. Talked to her and she gave me the number of her boss who is a prominent professor. Talked to him and it turns out he used to be a faculty admissions advisor (back when that group existed) and had some advice for applying. My father-in-law found out his golf buddy when to one of my schools and I reached out to him. He talked with me too and offered to send an alumni letter of support.
Now obviously, everyone's network is going to be different. But you can see that it really only takes a little legwork and the network begins to grow.