Yesterday, on my way to the laboratory, I met with an undergraduate on a condensed matter experimental internship. Little did I know that, while she wanted to conduct research in photovoltaics or organic semiconductors, which are, in fact, condensed matter topics, her file was a lot better than mine. And I then gave her advice pertaining to the GRE if she felt like she would be better served at an institution that requires it. Because, notwithstanding the GRE (both the general and subject tests) and that it is generally easier to publish as an undergraduate in experimental condensed matter than in particle cosmology, my own file is, by my own admission, below hers. For this reason, I feel targeted and I feel the need to commence negotiations with her so as to minimize overlap at the top of our common application lists. I have yet to receive a response on her part, though.
My advice: If you aim for highly-ranked programs, do not apply without first inquiring about the credentials of your classmates that intend to do the same, because you should be wary about internal competition. Many highly-ranked universities will not admit more than one student from an institution unless there is a glut of highly-qualified students applying from that place. If there is a large difference between you and another student and that you happen to be the lesser student of the bunch, consider dropping a school from your list if it is a reach to you. I know it is heart-breaking but sometimes maximizing the success of the class means making individual sacrifices.