Your college acceptance relies on many parts of your application, and there are three items that typically are not the main factors, but can still influence the admission decision if the officials are undecided.
The personal essay and college acceptance
A great essay can really make an admission official sit up and take notice, although personal preference may prevail. Some evaluators are all about content and are impressed by sophistication and insight, while others won't get past your writing style and mechanics if there are errors. How do you know what you'll be evaluated on? You probably won't, unless it's been clearly defined in the application materials.
However, it's fair to say that most colleges aren't going to place the same emphasis on your essay that they will on your transcripts and test scores. If your grades and scores are middling to low, your essay isn't going to change that, but putting your best effort into it certainly won't hurt. You don't know who will be impressed with what you have to say, but it may be the one thing that sets your application apart from the 50 others they read that day.
Whatever you do, don't blow it off. That will most definitely work against you!
Letters of recommendation in the admission decision
The quality and depth of letters of recommendation varies tremendously. You won't be penalized if a recommendation is poorly written or offers only superficial information, but one that's clear and comprehensive can make a difference. You pick the letter-writers; you should choose those who you believe will do the best job and increase your chances of receiving college admission letters.
In general, admission professionals look for recommendations that include:
- Comparisons to others in the class, to those whom the teacher or counselor has worked with in past years, or with students who have enrolled at the college in question ("In twenty years of teaching, I have encountered few students as determined as Evan.")
- Information about grading and/or competition ("This year's Advanced Placement English class was the most able this school has ever seen.")
- Illustrative examples or anecdotes ("Jennifer is the swim team captain and a state record holder in the backstroke. However, her sensitivity is another special strength. She stays late after every practice to help a far weaker swimmer, to keep her from being cut from the team.")
- Personal information ("Ian struggled with his mother's drinking and finally caused an 'intervention' which led to her enrollment in a treatment program.")
- Other personal traits or study habits (e.g., maturity, response to criticism, acceptance by peers, timely completion of assignments, willingness to go beyond what is expected, participation in class)
The law entitles you to see completed recommendations. However, most reference forms include a clause that allows you to waive this right, which is what you should do in most cases. This enables counselors and teachers to be candid, which is what admission officials prefer. Recommendations normally become part of your permanent file.
Admissions decision and the personal interview
Interviews are often used to confirm the impression made by the credentials in your folder. An interview may help a committee to see another side of you, to understand why you made certain choices, or to appreciate the extent of your commitment. In other words, a good interview can go a long way toward getting you in.
Interview write-ups sometimes contain comments like "TAKE HER!!!" or "a solid student, but I'd hate to have to room with him." In some cases, a favorably impressed interviewer who isn't on your committee may go out of the way to lobby those who are for a "yes" verdict, but this isn't usually the case. Don't count on your interview as being the one thing that will overcome lack of substance in all the other areas of your application. Do take it seriously, though, because it could turn a "maybe" into a "yes" and lead to you getting that college admission letter you're looking for!