I think it's a great idea to start this thread. I'll also share a bit about my experience, if that's okay. I applied to six programs and received four acceptances, no rejections (this was my first year applying). I applied to UCSF, Seattle U, OHSU, Penn, Columbia, and Boston College. I was accepted to four programs (UCSF, Penn, Columbia, Boston College) and invited to interview at Seattle U and OHSU. I subsequently cancelled both my interviews with Seattle U and OHSU, because I had already been admitted to my top choices (Penn and UCSF).
I think one reason why I had such a good experience this time around is that I didn't really have any negatives on my application (strong GPA, strong GRE, lots of research/work/clinical experiences with my populations of interest, including the underserved, etc.) I also only used recommenders who I was absolutely certain
would sing my praises. However, the most important thing that I think got me in was presenting a coherent narrative in my personal statement, interviews, etc. that "gelled" together with my resume/academic history. In other words, you want to weave it all together... Why nursing? Why advanced practice nursing? Why your specialty? How does this relate to your background? Why this particular program? And most importantly - what are your (specific!) career goals and how will a MSN degree at X University lead to you achieve them?
If you don't have tons of hours as a volunteer or if you haven't "saved the world", don't panic. You can still get in. Just play up your other experiences in a way that relates to your goals and nursing (such as, I have x experience with x population or x skill in x discipline and I plan on translating that to my nursing experience in this way...) I had few hours volunteering in a hospital, really my experience was mostly academic and research (although my research experience was technically clinical, even though it was in psychology, not medicine). Don't worry about the number of hours you have, worry about your coherent narrative and *how* this relates to nursing, your goals, etc.
To me it seems like nursing (especially top schools) is in an interesting place as a field. As the NP role becomes more expanded and supported (along with the DNP, hopefully), nursing seems to be a field that is seeking to assert itself as a legitimate "discipline" and get rid of the negative stereotypes (doctor's handmaiden, etc.). If you present yourself as a career-driven, academically inclined individual who knows what she/he wants and has clearly done your homework on the field and your specialty, you'll do well. Expressing interest in research and teaching (and being able to back that interest up with your history) will help you go far. But of course, comprehensive patient care is number one.
I agree with others that using allnurses is an excellent resource. Also, I'll be blogging about my experience as well, including getting into knitty gritty details about applying. I really want to spend an entire blog post about the goal statement, since I believe that's the best tool you can use to secure an acceptance or interview. Tip #1 would be to spend at least 30 minutes tailoring your goal statement each time you submit for a school, incorporating that individual school's mission statement and playing up what seems important to them (underserved populations, research, critical thinking, whatever).
Good luck to all future applicants!