If your transcript and test scores are perfect, why should you spend time on your application? Is anyone going to read your essays? Will anyone notice that you visited three times and interviewed once?

The answer is yes. Here is what schools are looking for:

Essay
“The essay is both a writing sample and an indication of the student’s personality,” says David Murray, a former admissions counselor at DePauw University in Indiana. “Exceptional essays–or poorly written essays–can swing borderline cases. The closer you get to what we call the muddy middle, the more difficult it becomes to decide. A student must present a hook–what is it that makes this student special?”

Special talents
Find out if the school will accept extra material. Are you a cartoonist? Send your portfolio. Do you play the violin? Send a tape of one of your performances.

Extracurricular activities
Create and reinforce a picture of who you are by focusing on a few roles: leader, artist, athlete, and scholar.

“Do not have a four- or five-page résumé of activities. It’s as if students think that if they send you this large, large package of materials that it will make them a better candidate,” says Barbara-Jan Wilson of Wesleyan University. “You want to focus the admissions office’s attention on certain things. If you send me too much, I’m going to get lost. I’m not going to know which recommendation to read–and I’m not going to read everything.”

Interview
The admissions interview is probably the least important element of your application.

Recommendations
Letters from teachers who know you well and are familiar with your performance, character, and goals can make a difference in the selection process. Their letters can explain gaps between grades and test scores and illuminate an area in which you excel, such as public speaking, that might be overlooked. Letters from employers can also help. But rarely do the general platitudes of an acquaintance–alumni included–make a difference.

Neatness and punctuality
Neatly write or, better yet, type your application. Meet the deadline.

Family ties to the school
How important is it that your father or mother graduated from your first-choice school? It depends.

Sending additional material
Be sure that it adds something new to your profile. Some schools do not accept additional material. Be sure to find out before you send an extra package. Gimmicks don’t work.

Follow-up
Don’t pester, but it is a good idea to stop by the admissions office if you are on campus or call to be sure your application is complete.

Early admission
Applying early admission shows that you are strongly interested in the school.

For well-qualified students who know where they want to go to school, the best strategy is to request an early decision from the admissions office. One potential drawback of early admission is that you have no room to entertain competing financial-aid offers.