Thanks, NewGrad. Now that I received an admissions decision from UT-Austin, I can tell you guys that contacting faculty at prospective programs is a very smart move. I will share that one very big name at UT-Austin agreed to meet with me during a conference last fall. She offered wonderful advice on the admissions process and even urged me to apply to additional programs she felt might be an ideal fit for my interests. I also took a phone meeting with another very big name at UT-Austin (who echoed my POI's advice), reached out to one of his students who just joined the faculty at my current institution, and received insider advice from the graduate coordinator. I worked very hard to take control of the admissions process and it paid off in spades.
I think that many of the students on this forum have solid application packets and should not require this additional step. So, don't kick yourself if you didn't do this. Since my GRE scores were very low (imagine your worst nightmare) and my academic trajectory was a bit wacky (sociology to justice policy to social work to demography), these meetings gave me the opportunity to quell any concerns the admissions committee might have. It also helped that I have one publication, stellar LORs, and presented my research at ASA, PAA and ISA.