This is less a matter of “currently” than of type of college. Some colleges, particularly state flagship public universities like the University of Minnesota, don’t care at all about recommendation letters or essays. There’s no place in the application to include those things.
Other schools practice “holistic” admissions, which means they take all of these things into consideration. Lets look at what admissions officers gain from each of these application pieces:
- Transcript: Your grades in individual classes show your level of mastery of the material in those classes. Some students just do better in STEM classes than they do in English/history, or vice versa. Your cumulative GPA gives a feeling for how you do overall in the context of your school. Your transcript also shows the amount of rigor of your high school program. Have you taken the hardest classes available to you?
- Standardized test scores: Your SAT and ACT (and, in some cases, SAT subject test) scores show how you compare to other high school seniors across the country. If the admissions officer isn’t familiar with your high school, this helps him or her get a feel for you as a student.
- Honors and Awards: These show your achievement and ability in comparison to the others in the area the award covers. Did you make it to all-state in football? Did your team get an honorable mention in a national quiz bowl? Were you the best senior in German at your high school? Each of these compares you with others but in different groups of others. Obviously, being the best in the nation is better than being the best in the state, which is better than being the best in the school. However, any way you’ve been recognized a performing better than your peers is something colleges want to know about.
- Letters of Recommendation: These give a picture of you as seen by another adult who knows you well. They probably don’t know everything about you, but they can comment on your academic ability as well as how you interact with others.
- Essays: The essay or personal statement is your opportunity to speak directly to the Admissions Committee. I’ve spoken to admissions officers who read the essay first, to “evaluate the record in terms of the student,” and some who read it last “to give the student the last word.” In both cases, however, the essay is one of the most important parts of the holistic admissions process. It can really allow you to connect with your admissions officer in a way no other parts of the application can.
In terms of which has most weight, this depends a lot on the school. Some have minimum achievement numbers, or “floors,” that you have to meet in order to be worth reading the entire application. Typically, these are the schools that have way too many applications for each seat in the freshman class, and the achievement floor allows them to narrow their focus pretty easily.
Other schools have an emphasis on each student, so they value the more insightful parts of the application—the letters and essay—more highly than simply grades and test scores. This is especially true of the many test optional colleges, and colleges where the application allows more creativity through ZeeMee, video applications, portfolios, etc.
In short, you should make sure that the real you shines through on all parts of your applications, but evaluate carefully to make sure the colleges that you apply to really fit your strengths.