I was reading some posts ages ago (so I don't remember which blogs) about grad school applications and "privilege". There are several ways to apply to grad school, but I think they break down into (a) contact a professor and essentially apply to be their student, and (b) apply to the department and once you're accepted, the department will match students to professors, either immediately or after the student has a chance to see all the research. Some posters believe that method (a) rewards privileged students who are insiders in some way.
Almost all of the departments I applied to followed method A. One or two may have been A/B: they seemed to accept students based purely on the strength of their general application, but professors had some amount of influence to take certain students who would fit in with their research.
So, do I consider myself to be a privileged student? No. I was completely clueless and had minimal help. And method A worked for me.
Let me walk you through my application process. Remember, I had been out of school for some time before applying to grad school. I was working full time and I didn't have the foggiest idea where I should be looking. But I had certain geographical restraints. I tried looking in one of those books that describe/rank all the grad schools in the US and quickly realized that for my particular interests, that was useless. So I pulled together a list of every single university in this geographical area, and I started surfing webpages.
I looked at all departments (as discussed here) related to contamination. I only considered departments that offered a terminal masters, not just a PhD, cutting the number significantly. And then I started firing off e-mails to professors whose research seemed interesting.
The emails went along the lines of: "Dear professor X: I am an environmental consultant interested in applying to grad school for a masters degree. I saw that one of your research interests is Y. I have done (some work vaguely related to Y) and find it interesting because Z. Are you currently working on area Y and are you looking for graduate students? Sincerely, Short Geologist."
This got a variety of responses, and if everything seemed to fit, further correspondence. Once I'd established that I did want to apply, I asked the professor how I should submit my application or who I should talk to about that aspect. I did go and visit most of the schools that fit what I was looking for. I'm not sure how common this is, but I had no idea what I was doing and that's what I did for undergrad. I also contacted my undergrad advisor to ask him what he thought of the various schools, but he didn't have a strong opinion either way on most of my options. So that was it.
My situation was slightly different from that of a stereotypical student because I wasn't coming right from undergrad. If you're working in contamination-related stuff, you find that a lot of the students may have worked in the environmental field in some capacity before going to grad school. Who has more of an advantage? Well, this is turning into an e-novel, so I'll save that for later...