A graduate of a top 20ish program (hereafter Department X) writes with the following interesting story about his experiences on applying to graduate school:
"I applied twice to graduate schools. My dossiers were identical, essentially apart from having an extra year of grad work. I was #30 at Department X my first year of applying and #1 my second year. So, somehow Department X had gone from admitting me only because I begged, really, to putting me at the top of their list of applicants. I also fared much better at [another top 15ish program], to which I applied both times. Two years later I went to [the top 15ish program] as a visiting student and was as competent as their best grad students. Overall, there was a huge difference between how I was received the first year and the second year. I think that had I had better advice on admissions (or the PGR), I would have gotten in at a top program. (I made two mistakes: First, I said I was primarily interested in philosophy of religion. Second, I was advised that in philosophy the GRE makes no difference; as a result I didn't take it seriously and didn't score very highly on it. (I found out later that e.g. at Yale it counts for 1/3 of one's overall rating; and everywhere it is taken very seriously. For instance, I went to [a state university with a PhD program] undergrad. I applied there, and was told by a long-time member of the admissions committee that I had the best letters he had seen in 10 years. These letters were from faculty at the school. Yet, I was #20 on the list because of my GRE scores.)
"Overall, grad admissions (like the job market) is capricious and too often not merit-based. So, the advice not to reapply is amazing to me. The candidate pool differs, the admissions committee differs and, most important perhaps, the sort of mood the faculty member is in when your file is read differs.
"Second, you can succeed if you don't go to a top 10 or 20 school. There is a disadvantage; often one will wind up with a 'teaching job' (a euphemism for a job where there is so much teaching that you can't even teach well). So, it may take intense work to publish one's way out of such a school. But it can be done.
"Also, going to a say, top-25 school and working with a prominent faculty member in a hot area of philosophy can pay off. [Department X's most famous faculty member's] students do fantastically on the job market, even when they're not as good as other students who worked with other people at [Department X]. Part of this is that [the famous faculty member in question] is a tremendous advisor and really works hard to get his students jobs."