This is going to totally out me to any adcoms, if I haven't already done so (but hopefully very few lurk here)
Type of Undergrad Institution: R1, somewhere in the top 30-55 ranked polisci PhD programs. Ranked 50-100 of undergrad schools. Yes, I'm trying to be a little vague.
Major(s)/Minor(s): econ, stats, political science
Undergrad GPA: a hair under 3.9. It's probably worth noting that my last 2 year GPA was much much better than the first 2 year GPA.
Type of Grad: none
GRE: 94-98th percentile on all sections. Only took once.
Any Special Courses: 3 PhD-level courses (All A's), plus all the mathematical goodies that come from a major in stats (including calc 1-3 and linear algebra)
Letters of Recommendation: 3 professors, 2 tenured, 1 assistant. 2 are big enough names in their subsubfields and polisci is small enough that application readers probably know who they are even if they're in different subfields.
Research Experience: some RA work, some research intense coursework, one independent project funding by an honors college fellowship, published in only an undergrad journal
Teaching Experience: 3 years of TA work, but in math
Subfield/Research Interests: American, methods, behavior. Specific interests include inequality, political participation, public opinion, REP, policy, geography, and how these all interact via cool methods.
Other: 1 year at an unrelated but quantitative job. Experience with coding. Again, I'm pretty decent at math relative to the typical applicant. Also gonna mention that I'm not an underrepresented minority, nor do I come from an underprivileged household, or anything like that, so no big diversity points for me. For schools that asked for personal/diversity statements, I explicitly said something along the lines of "yeah I'm probably here somewhat because of some privilege. I had a 20hr/week part time job in school, but if you really think about it, only needing to work half time while getting to go to school is really freaking lucky relative to so much of the country" RESULTS:
Acceptances($$ or no $$) -- all $$: Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Berkeley (no word on funding for another week actually, but I think they always fund everyone), UCSD, MIT, Columbia, Duke, UNC, NYU, UCLA, Ohio State, WashU, Emory
Rejections: Harvard, Michigan
Going to: I have a vague idea abut I'm waiting for visits to decide for sure.
LESSONS LEARNED: This is the part where I say that I applied so many places because I expected maybe 3 acceptances, and I'd apply to all of these schools again. I don't know what exactly I did "right" that other people haven't done. But I'm going to take a stab at it.
1. Coming from a large R1 where students rarely pursue PhDs in political science probably helped in a way. Less competition and professors really notice when you say you want to go into political science. When recommenders send their letters, they often also fill out a survey section asking stuff like "Is this student: a. best I've ever had (or best in years), b. excellent (top 1%), good (10%)" etc. and my situation made it much easier to get an a or b vs. coming from somewhere like Reed or Swarthmore. Letters really matter, especially if the people who read your letters know and trust the people who wrote your letters, which gives R1s a big advantage.
2. I never contacted any prospective advisers. I think it can sometimes help but I know a lot of professors are very lukewarm-to-cold about it. Also I'm awkward, which is really why I didn't do it. Didn't seem to matter in my case anyways.
3. Work on the SOP a lot. People who have read mine include: 3 professors, 2 parents, 1 bf, 1 ex-bf (I feel the need to point out that my SOP writing period did not span two relationships, but rather the latter was an ex when I let him read it). Some will give you good advice, some will give you bad advice, and you'll absolutely get contradictory advice. I leaned on the side of professional as opposed to fun-to-read, which meant no sarcasm, only 1 half-joke, and very little personal background that isn't directly relevant to my skills. It took a long time for me to get mine to a place where I could say "it isn't going to get any better than this" but I did get there!
4. Don't refer to the Harvard Government department as the Political Science department like 3 times in your SOP. This probably isn't really why I got rejected from Harvard, but I'm pretending that it is.
5. Try getting your writing sample published somewhere, even an undergrad journal. Even if it doesn't get published, you'll get a lot of experience in editing and polishing that mofo. I did all of this in the spring and summer, and didn't even have to touch my writing sample come application season (other than to mess with margins to get it to conform with grad school requirements). Major time-saver.
6. A few less-than-perfect grades won't sink you. As a recovering high school valedictorian, having my first two years of undergrad be filled with B+'s and A-'s was a little painful. All my B+'s were in major courses, too. There were definitely nights when I anticipated my semester GPA dipping below 3.5 and it freaked me out so much. I worried that this blemish would sink my graduate school prospects. In hindsight, it's clearly fine.
7. While looking at grad schools, I noticed that so many PhD students at the most prestigious institutions were all graduates of prestigious, expensive undergraduate and master's programs, and often also had prestigious work experience (ie central banks, prominent NGOs, cool politics-related companies and organizations, big-name management consulting). This does not describe me at all. I'm not saying that there isn't an admissions boost for students who don't come from prestigious schools (and I wholeheartedly believe that the BA-to-PhD pipeline is much much better supported at those places), but it's not an obstacle that can't be overcome. In fact, 2 of the exact schools I most had this worry about both accepted me and offered me money beyond their standard stipend package.
8.There's a lot of really good information at GradCafe, especially for those of us who again don't come from common PhD pipeline schools. There's an older thread where people actually posted their statements of purpose. These threads are really good to see the level of competition that is present for many schools. BFB's stickied thread is a must-read. There's also a lot of good information on PSR, but I wouldn't recommend going there unless you're used to reading reddit or 4chan. There's a learning curve before you can recognize what is trolling vs. good information, but that's, unfortunately, the best aggregated place for information on what's going on in the field.
I know I just said a lot, but if there's more that anyone would like me to speak on, feel free to DM me or ask here.