This forum was extremely useful during my application process, and my results were far better than expected, so hopefully I can be of use to others through this post:
Program Applied To: MPP/MPAs (also MPhil Econ @ Oxford, MSc Econ & Phil @ LSE and MSc Behavioural and Economic Science @ Warwick)
Schools Applied To: WWS, HKS, Duke Sanford, Chicago Harris
Schools Admitted To: all -- WWS (tuition + stipend), HKS (full tuition), Duke Sanford (90% tuition), Chicago Harris (no funding)
Interests: applying behavioural science to social and microeconomic policy in developed countries
Undergraduate institution: 'top' Australian university
Undergraduate GPA: 3.98
Undergraduate Major: Economics and Psychology
GRE Scores: 170 / 170 / 6.0
Magoosh was extremely useful for this, particularly on the quantitative side. For both the quant and verbal I did a lot of Magoosh practice questions. I also got a copy of the Official GRE book and did all the practice exams (one before I started preparing). On AW, I watched the Magoosh videos and also picked a few (maybe around 5) essays to write at random from the list on the GRE website whenever I felt up to it. Quizlet was super helpful in building my vocabulary: I'd add a flash card with a definition whenever I encountered a word I wasn't familiar with during my Magoosh practice. That being said, I've done a lot of standardised tests in my time, so was probably more comfortable than most during the actual test. I was also very lucky.
Years Out of Undergrad (if applicable): 6 and a bit
Years of Work Experience: 6 and a bit
Describe Relevant Work Experience: ~5 years in analyst roles at central bank and ~1 year developing and briefing on policy at a federal treasury department.
Strength of SOP (be honest, describe the process, etc): I can't self assess overall strength, but I felt like it was strong on detail and motivation (i.e. I could convincingly use examples to show my motivation was genuine and sustained over many years). It was also probably a bit on the dry side. The process I followed was:
Used coggle.it to create a mind-map of all the policy issues I was interested in, going from general (e.g. 'education', 'well-being', 'consumer protection') to specific (e.g. 'best ways to allocate funding', 'difference b/w decision and experienced utility', 'making disclosure more effective'). I then used the mind-map to figure out what I really wanted out of grad school, and to select and consolidate interests to mention in my SOP.
Gathered all the different aspects I needed to cover across each SOP (re: motivation, interest, skills, experience). I then drafted a 'master SOP' that included everything on this list.
After selecting the programs I was going to apply to, I spent a fair bit of time going through the website of each university/faculty and identifying the courses and faculty members/research topics that aligned with my interests.
For each program, I tailored the master SOP to fit the requirements of that specific application, and weaved in details of specific courses and faculty members to demonstrate why I had chosen that program at that university. Some unis required 'special' essays but I was mostly able to use material from my master SOP. I also asked my partner to proof read each SOP.
Strength of LOR's (be honest, describe the process, etc): I have no idea how strong my letters were, but I had some variety both in terms of seniority and background: one very senior manager from my current organisation, an immediate manager from a previous organisation, and my thesis supervisor from undergrad (an Assistant Professor in econ). I had a very good relationship with my previous immediate manager, so I emailed her straight out explaining my plans and asking if she had time to write a letter. With the other two, I used this strategy:
Emailed saying I was interested in grad school but wanted to get their advice.
Met in person to talk about what I was interested in learning about, what I wanted to get out of grad school, and to ask about recommendations of programs/universities. My thesis supervisor assumed he would be writing a letter for me, and the senior manager got very excited about a common interest and offered to write a letter without me having to ask.
I followed up with each by emailing: a list of programs I was applying to with short description of each; resume; transcripts; GRE scores; and my draft 'master SOP'.
I had to send multiple email reminders and some of the letters ended up being submitted at the last moment.
Decision: HKS. This was really tough, and ultimately came down to personal reasons. On paper, HKS was my top preference. But I ended up visiting Duke, Princeton and Harvard and was impressed by them in that order (most to least). Duke was impressive and welcoming, but didn't feel cosmopolitan enough; WWS felt like the safe option with lots of great people; HKS felt less personal, more daunting and with a less consistent mix of new admits. In the end I chose HKS because I thought I would grow more by being out of my comfort zone, getting to know people I wouldn't normally get to know, and because it had the most opportunity for someone interested in applying behavioural science to public policy. My partner will be moving with me, and Boston seemed to have the best job opportunities for her outside of NYC.
Words of Advice:
Before even deciding on a specific type of program, think about what you're really interested in, what you want to do with your life, and why. 80,000 Hours is extremely useful for this -- check it out! For example, I was considering PhD vs. academic masters vs. professional masters, in economics, psychology and public policy. This will really help with making your SOP sound coherent and convincing.
Ask for help and advice from people in your network that might have gone through a similar process in the past. I was amazed at how willing people who I hadn't really kept in touch with were in helping with my applications and providing advice and tips.
Don't be afraid of aiming high. I am not at all like the super humans described in the bios section of top schools. I got good marks at undergrad because I was genuinely interested in what I was learning, and managed to land a good job afterwards, but I am also shy, anxious and quiet. I haven't founded a start-up or non-profit, haven't held many official leadership positions and only did a few (low-key) extracurricular activities during undergrad. The length of my work experience and consistency of volunteer experience probably helped balance this out, but the point remains -- don't be intimidated by the descriptions of the students they choose to put up on their websites!
Take care of your mental health. I found that practicing mindfulness through meditation to be really helpful in managing stress and in embracing whatever results end up arriving (check out apps like Headspace or Insight Timer).
Hope this helps!