Last summer I quit my job and took off for a distant corner of the world for several months. I fully intended to complete my graduate school applications before packing away everything I own and leaving the country. In spite of my good intentions that didn't happen.
This left me in the less than ideal position of doing the entire application process from abroad. I had some ideas of people I wanted to work with and schools I wanted to apply to, but I hadn't really corresponded with anyone yet. I spent hours on snail-paced internet connections reading about professors' research, graduate programs, and application deadlines and procedures. I agonized over the emails of interest that I sent to people I was interested in working with. I tried desperately to read most of the papers they'd written (as much as I could without academic associations) and comment on them in my initial emails.
I greatly underestimated the amount of time and energy I would have to put into this first "contact" phase of the application process. I literally spent weeks contacting people. One of the first people I contacted was from Large Attractive City. Her response was enthusiastic and encouraging, except for that part about how she just took a new position at Middle of Nowhere University. My partner said we'd have to break up if I went to grad school there.
Some people never responded to my emails. I know you're busy people, but c'mon. Too busy to type a sentence? Send a form email of non-interest? I hope I'm never like that.
There was one person whose research I was really interested in who just didn't reply. I assumed he was a busy person and didn't take his non-reply personally and decided to just keep trying. I think I sent him 5+ emails over 3 months before he finally wrote back and told me to apply to his lab.
By November 2006 I'd decided to apply to 6 schools in various parts of the country: UC Somewhere, U of Someplace South, U of Midwestern State, U of New England State, U of East Coast State, and U of Big City. The people whose labs I decided to apply to were the ones who wrote back and encouraged my application. In the case of UC Somewhere I knew it was kind of a long shot (over 100 people applied to his lab) but I decided I didn't have much to lose since I could get an application fee waiver (the UC school was the only fee I got waived).
Unless I'm remembering things incorrectly already, once I had a list of schools I was applying to the process seemed to get easier in one sense. What I had to do and who I had to contact was much more straightforward. I had to follow the application instructions and get everything sent to the right place by the right time.
Piece of cake, right?