A reader will sit down to review a file (in much less time than you think, by the way) and typically work through the “one sheet” (name, biographical data, test scores, undergrad, major, GPA, age, etc.) so they can get the basics. This frames the expectation going in and is why some of these data points become obsessed over. A low GMAT tells the reader “long shot” (and that’s the best case scenario). An extreme age makes them extra sensitive to the appropriateness of the degree. There are a lot of ways the perception can be framed at this very initial stage, and while nobody’s mind is made up yet, there is definitely an influence on the way the file is read.Next, it’s the application itself (transcripts are usually skipped or skimmed unless there is something to investigate, like a really low GPA next to a monster GMAT score), which is very quick. The resume brings to life work experience in a snapshot, which is why you must always construct your resume as a sales tool. Now, the reader has a much better sense of how qualified this applicant is, how well this person has done professionally, and so forth – the reader can probably prognosticate admissions chances with about 60% accuracy at this point. The essays are where the variance kicks in. Some who look good on paper will blow it, by either failing to articulate proper reasons for the degree, or writing bland content that they think is what someone wants to read, or for failing to really connect to the school in question. Others will rise far above the initial impression with “great” essays (that do accomplish the things above).
Once the essays are completed, the reader is about 90% of the way there and more or less has decided. The only thing left is to check the recommendation letters to make sure that other people – people who know the applicant better – concur with the assessment. Again, we want to stress that this is about validating an already-formed opinion. If you were an experienced professional who prided yourself on bringing in a great class of students every year and you know what works and what doesn’t, are you going to cede the power of making the decision to someone writing a letter? Of course not, so unless it is an extreme case (like Stanford, where far more stated importance is put on letters of recommendation), you can assume that your letters will account for about 10% of the ultimate decision. Good letters will help affirm a reader’s decision to “admit” (note: this just means you will get an interview invite at this point, but within admissions offices they flag people as admits until they are demoted down to wait list or deny), is basically what it comes down to.