Scouring previous years' versions of this thread was extremely helpful to me in deciding on which schools to apply to and what my chances might be, so I can't imagine not paying it forward.
Program Applied To: They all have a different acronym, but all masters in public policy/management/administration
Schools Applied To: Princeton WWS, Cornell CIPA, Michigan Ford, UT LBJ, Texas A&M Bush, Carnegie Mellon Heinz
Schools Admitted To: Cornell CIPA (half tuition), Michigan Ford (no funding), UT LBJ (no funding), Texas A&M Bush ($10k/year, which almost covers their insanely affordable tuition), CMU Heinz (3-semester track, full tuition)
Schools Rejected From: WWS
Still Waiting: N/A
Interests: Nonprofit management, inequality/health care policy
Undergraduate institution: One of the NESCAC schools
Undergraduate GPA: 3.4 (an upward trend, rigorous coursework, and academic curiosity to a fault that led to some low grades that bogged down my GPA)
Undergraduate Major: Political Science, Economics, and a liberal arts major that I did "for fun"
GRE Quantitative Score: 161
GRE Verbal Score: 165
GRE AW Score: 5.0
Years Out of Undergrad (if applicable): 4
Years of Work Experience: 4
Describe Relevant Work Experience: I've spent the past four years rising through the ranks of the communications department at a medium-sized think tank.
Strength of SOP (be honest, describe the process, etc): I was pretty happy with them. My boyfriend's mom is a writing teacher and professional editor, and she was enormously helpful in taking them from "probably would've been fine" to "probably really helped my applications." I started writing last summer and reworked and revised sporadically throughout the fall, submitting my final application sometime in mid-December. Don Asher's book on graduate admissions essays has been recommended a lot on this forum, and I think it helped me get into a good frame of mind to start writing.
Strength of LOR's (be honest, describe the process, etc): I was very stressed about not having kept in close contact with a lot of my professors and not being sure how strong their letters would be. I realized that the solution was right in front of me: have 2 from work and use the 1 professor who had very strong things to say about me. I ended up with one from my boss, one from our director of health policy, and one from a professor I took two courses with who liked me quite a bit. My best advice on letters is to ask early and often. Cornell doesn't have a specific deadline, but my goal was to have all my materials submitted my November 15. I gave that as my deadline to all my letter writers, and two turned them in on the 15 and my professor didn't submit hers until mid December- which was just in time for all the hard deadlines that I had. Those were an incredibly stressful few weeks as I started wondering if she was even going to write the letter, and I was very thankful that the November 15 deadline was there to give me a cushion for the others. My understanding is that this is a fairly common situation, and I get it: these are very busy people with a thousand other priorities who are doing you a favor for pretty much nothing in return.
Decision: CMU Heinz. They weren't my first choice going in, but seemed like a program that fit my interests and tended to give a lot of funding, so I applied. I thought that I would almost certainly end up at UT or Cornell (unless I got into Princeton), and I was willing to go into (a reasonable amount of) debt to go to those programs. But I'm glad CMU offered me so much money- it made me really look at their program and realize that it was the best fit for me. I want to be involved in think tank management & operations, and their program is absolutely phenomenal at providing the practical skills necessary to excel in that area.
Words of Advice:
Before you even start finalizing your list of schools, really think long and hard about where you want to be 5-10 years from now and how graduate school will help get you there. People say to do this to make sure grad school is the right choice for you, which is obviously an important distinction to make, but it's also very helpful for figuring out which programs make the most sense and getting your personal statements written. Every school's questions are a little different, but they all essentially want to know where you come from, where you're going, and why you need their program to get from A to B. I really thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do and why I wanted to go to school, and this process still took a while for me.
Once you've accomplished the above process, make sure the schools you choose really reflect your goals and interests. In hindsight, Princeton didn't reflect mine, and I put a lot of energy into that application because who DOESN'T want a free master's from Princeton, but that could have been spent elsewhere with a school that was a better fit.
If you're interested in the public/nonprofit sectors, don't get hung up on prestige. First of all, there's no universally agreed upon ranking system that can tell you if school A is more prestigious than school B. If you're on gradcafe, chances are you're looking at and will get into programs that are well-respected and will open doors for you. Sure, if you're looking to go into certain career paths (consulting, etc.) or are an international student where name recognition matters, you may need to take perceived prestige into account. Otherwise, focus on what you'll learn from the program and where the alumni go.
Once you have your acceptances and are making your decision, two pieces of advice: (1) talk to as many current students as you can at admitted students' days (and go to them in the first place!). The presentations are helpful, but the most valuable information I got at each event was from current students. How's the workload? What do they do for fun? What don't they like about the program? And (2) don't be afraid to ask for more money!! The worst they can do is say no. Carnegie Mellon originally offered me 90% tuition, which I was blown away by, and then sent an email saying we should let them know if we had a better offer. I sent them the offer from the Bush School and they upped it to full tuition. If they hadn't sent that email, I probably wouldn't have been brave enough to ask because I felt like 90 percent was amazing, and I would've spent several thousand dollars that I didn't need to. I also asked LBJ for money and they didn't budge, but there was no harm done in the process. If you like one school the best but are tempted by another financial offer, there's absolutely no harm in asking.