I want to say thanks, as well. GradCafe has helped me through two extremely stressful rounds of applications now!
Last year, as a college fourth-year completing my thesis project, I applied to eight schools and was roundly rejected by every single one. I was so confident that I'd get multiple admits, but once the last rejection letter rolled in, I realized that I had had no idea what I was doing and my confidence was beyond crushed. My professors had little time to help me with application materials because they were also teaching me classes and helping me with my thesis, and I had little time to commit to the applications for the same reasons. I used pretty much the same statement of purpose for every school. I harped on the irregularities in my transcripts (I attended three different undergrad institutions). I used papers from my second year as writing samples. I chose schools I liked the sound of without doing nearly enough research into their strengths, their faculty, and the types of students they admit. I applied to UPenn (one of the most competitive in the country!) and SUNY Buffalo (where my interests were a terrible fit!), and several other places that just CLEARLY wouldn't have worked. I felt like an idiot, and no one had the time to bother telling me what I was doing wrong.
So I decided to figure it out for myself. This year, I was out of school and working a full-time job four days per week. Luckily, the job didn't follow me home (it's retail), and I was able to commit A LOT (seriously, A LOT) of time to my applications. I carefully researched many, many schools and selected eleven that were strong in my fields of interest. I contacted several faculty members, particularly at my top choice school, and even met with a faculty member at my top choice. I wasn't shy with any potential or former professors: I told them exactly what my goals were and straight-up asked for advice about what should go in my personal statement. All of them were remarkably helpful and none of them were put off by my boldness. I created a hanging file system for my applications, as well as a checklist for each one, and methodically completed them in the order that they were due. I wrote a completely new statement of purpose for each program. I carefully edited my best thesis chapter and used it as a writing sample.
Disaster struck when, as the due-date for my first (and top choice) application neared on December 1st, I realized that one of my recommendation writers might not come through. She stopped responding to my emails about ten days prior, and never acknowleged receiving the packet of carefully printed, stamped, and organized materials I had mailed to her. I tried to have some faith, but decided that I HAD to err on the side of caution. I contacted another former professor and asked him to overnight me a set of letters for all of my schools. Eight letters. In less than two days. I felt like an absolute asshole. But he came through, and I got my first-choice application mailed the morning of December 1st. The materials from my first recommender never arrived, and I haven't had any emails or letters from her since.
To my complete surprise, I ended up getting in to five schools, and was wait-listed at a sixth where I later withdrew myself from consideration to accept an offer from my #1 choice. I could barely believe it when I got my first admit, much less the subsequent ones, and I practically fainted both when I was wait-listed and when I was taken off the wait-list at my top choice. In one year, I went from nothing but form-letter rejections to mostly eager acceptances at awesome schools.
Most importantly, do not give up if grad school is really what you want to do. And in the application process, never be timid or shy about asking for what you need; just ask for it straightforwardly and then thank everyone profusely.
Congrats to everyone and GOOD LUCK!