I'm in a different field and also applied this year, but I want to say that I couldn't agree with you more on the importance of reference letters.
I was also accepted in the T-10 range and believe that this is due to having strong references from 3 professors (I have been out of school for a while and spent two years building these relationships before applying, so this is possible to do even if you've been working for years). The profile evaluations on here seem to be of limited value because it seems that many qualified candidates apply and then being selected for an interview will ultimately come down to your references.
To add to your great post, I will say that things I would change (after applying and knowing what I know now):
- Completely agree to focus more on references and less on other aspects (like GMAT score)
- Prepare for interviews well in advance (i.e. when putting together applications). All of my interviews were completely different and most were not based on the traditional format that is posted on here. As well, I had about 1 day to prepare for each interview and my first interview came mid-December (two days after the application deadline). I expected to have more time to prepare and I also expected the interviews to be a casual conversation. As a result, I did not perform very well on some of the ones that asked specific questions. All of the questions I could have answered if I had more time to prepare, so I wish I knew that I would get essentially zero time to prepare so I could have done it well in advance of getting the interview request.