So far, grad school applications have been a really reasonable and practical process. Basically, you go to college, do well, write a thesis, decide you want to be a professor of some sort, conceive of subject you want to study further, describe it in 800 words, get recommendations, take a straightforward test, and send all that in. Unlike college applications, you don't have to play three sports and be president of the knitting club, you don't have to emphasize your obnoxious "uniqueness," and you don't have to write essays about how your mother is your hero, or how that one time you planted trees for orphans in Guatemala changed your life, or how you are an orphan from Guatemala, or your boring hobby is a metaphor for life, or Vladimir Nabokov once said this thing that you totally looked up on Wikipedia 30 seconds ago because you've never read Nabokov, but this quote nonetheless encapsulates your inner being. You don't even have to drive to a coffee shop 30 miles away to demonstrate your simultaneous but non-conflicting well-roundedness and obsessive driving passion for an extremely narrow pursuit to an alumnus from the class of '74. The removal of these expectations can only be a good thing.
Because I remember well how unreasonable the college process was, I am mostly pleased about how nice grad school apps have been so far. However, I have discovered one extremely displeasing step I had not previously counted on: apparently, I am supposed to email professors I want to study with? Given how comprehensive this whole application thing seems, what is there left to say after submitting your grades, scores, recs, resume, writing sample, and statement of purpose except, "Hello, I think your research is swell. I will soon be sending you an application. Would you mind considering it?" But this seems to be implied by the part of the process where I press "submit" and pay $75. My online message board perusal has unearthed up the possibility of asking if said professors are "taking students," but I already know most of them are, and even if I didn't and I asked, and they said yes, where would we go from there? "Ok, good to know, thanks"?
Other suggestions have included sending your cv, but that seems even more pointless because you're already going to include your cv in your application, and if Professor Swell is seized by an urgent desire to behold the glory of your accomplishments, he can do that. I have come across the suggestion that you describe your intended project and ask Professor Swell if he's into that kind of thing, but again, already part of the application. Elsewhere, it has been recommended that you talk about how much you liked his most recent book, but what could be more obviously brown-nosey than that? And if the point of emailing is, ostensibly, to get their attention, how effective is that strategy going to be if all 300 or whatever applicants email to ask exactly the same redundant questions?