What Are the Most Important Parts of the College Application?

Focus on the essay, but don't underestimate the other parts of the college application, experts say.

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Grades, standardized test scores, personal statements, teacher recommendations—there are many different pieces to the college application puzzle. Do any of these components sway admissions officers more than the rest? This week our experts explain the most important aspects of the application. Peter O'Grady of Newton, Mass., asks:

Q: What are the most important components of the application?

A: It depends on where you apply.


Robin Groelle, founder, CollegeCounselling.com College admissions offices differ in the components that are most important. All colleges will take a close review of a student's transcript noting the rigor of the courses taken in the five core subjects and the progression of marks earned. Many will also review the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests or AP exams.

However, a growing number of colleges will review applicants without testing, thus enabling the readers to focus on other aspects of the application, including the essay(s), résumé of activities, and letters of recommendation. For the most highly selective colleges, these factors will "get you to the starting line," and it's the distinguishing features that can make the difference (noteworthy talents, accomplishments, leadership, connections to the college—the "it" factor—that all help an applicant stand apart).

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[Find out how to save time on your college applications.]

A: Can components on a college application be prioritized?


Jeannie Borin, founder & president, College Connections The entire application and how it is presented is important. Generally the most important thing is the GPA and challenging high school curriculum. That is followed by test scores for those colleges that require them. Quality extracurricular activities and outstanding essays are extremely important as well in that they can distinguish a student from other viable candidates.

Recommendations are carefully evaluated and if an interview is offered, the student should have one. The interviewer writes a report that goes in the student admission file. It's important not to underestimate any aspect of the application.

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A: Spend time writing your college essay for the strongest application.


Todd Johnson, founder, College Admissions Partners While all aspects of a college application are important, the most important factors are the copy of your transcript, your test scores, and your essays. By senior year the only thing you have much power over are the essays.

In writing your essays you need to make sure that you are answering the prompt and that you have no misspellings or obvious grammar mistakes. The best essays will communicate something about you that is not otherwise found in the rest of the application. They will also have a strong opening paragraph to get the reader interested in your essay.

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[Get more college application essay writing tips.]

A: The application has many important components.


Rachelle Wolosoff, founder, CollegeSearchExpert.com The most important components of the college application include the essay, extracurricular activities, leadership focus, and accuracy. The essay is the part of your application that helps you become three dimensional: You become more than academic statistics of GPA and test scores. Your personality and character should shine through.

You get a chance to show the reader who you are and why they would want you on their college campus. Your activities highlight your interests and your tendency to take a lead in them. Accurate applications demonstrate care and thoroughness.

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[Get tips on how to keep your college applications organized.]

A: Concentrate on the whole pie, not just a slice!


Patricia Young, independent counselor, College Advising Services Imagine a pie-shape form that signifies your application. Half of the pie represents your coursework and your grades. The rest of the pie constitutes other aspects of your credentials: SAT's, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, essays, various supporting evidence of who you are. These "slices" make up the whole pie and represent you.

College admission counselors take in the picture of who you are by looking at the whole pie. Do not underestimate any portion. All components are important in showing you as a potentially successful candidate for college admission.

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