AMA: Standing Out In the College Admissions Process With Former Admissions Officers

As you watch admissions decisions roll out, you may find yourself wondering, “How did those students get in? How can I follow in their footsteps?”

To shed some light on this process, we’re hosting an AMA where you can ask questions about the behind-the-scenes admissions process and how to create your application strategy. Your questions will be answered by Joel Butterly (@JoelAtInGeniusPrep), InGenius Prep’s Co-Founder and a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, along with a team of former admissions officers from top universities, including UChicago, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Duke, UC Berkeley, UMich, Bowdoin, and GW.

Ask your most pressing questions anytime from Tuesday, March 22nd to Monday, March 28th, and join Joel and Zak Harris for a free webinar on Standing Out in the Admissions Process on March 24th.

Bring your most pressing admissions questions to get answers!


Why did the UC application offer those that took tests the ability to show their ACT/SAT results? Did AO’s “peek” at these score for those that provided them and for those in majors where it might be helpful, such as engineering?

Although the answer to the question on the app is for “class placement”- but shouldn’t this be provided after the student was admitted?

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Great question, Luke! I discussed it with one of our Former Admissions Officers from UC Berkeley. All of the things you mentioned are viewed holistically in the context of the whole application. Students should be honest and upfront about their challenges and what they have faced so that admissions officers can take that into account with everything else. The more information, the better. If students think there’s anything an admissions officer might wonder, they should provide information about it somewhere in their application, such as in the additional information section. Students won’t be penalized for factors out of their control.

At what much of a disadvantage are students applying for aid as international? I know that UChicago as a special checkbox “international applying for aid”, and I was wondering if this meant auto-rejection?

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So in other words, they did look at the scores.


How do colleges like to see students spending their summers? Are there any summer programs that will make students will stand out in the admissions process?


As decisions are coming out its been disappointing and disheartening to see the rejections at top LACs for my child. I often see on this portal and hear that AOs look at the application holistically. However, if you are an Over represented minority and the schools are trying to set the distribution to represent diversity and can only take so many kids per state and with equal gender representation plus Test optional (hence lot more kids applying) has made the equation very tough. In ED round the acceptance rates have been around 3% at some of these LACs. My child’s stats are very strong according to the school counselor and in top 5% of class, Junior Olympic level athlete, taken multiple APs (11), school only allows APs in junior and senior year. SAT is 1510 (only attempted once. It took almost a year before getting a date for testing due to covid and than decided to not attempt again and focus on other things), summer research program, multiple leadership positions in school and outside school, ,countless hrs volunteering in hospital and community yet did not get into any of the top 4 LACs. We are still hopeful for the few top universities (including smaller ivies) that have not yet announced.

My question is that with Test optional and with so many more kids applying how is a child that’s an ORM to stand out and get into these top schools?


Seems more like more of a non-answer than confirmation one way or another. I’m not sure that “former” admissions officers would even know for sure, given the UC policy change is fairly new.

The UC’s are adamant that they do not consider test scores in admissions decisions, and given the recent lawsuit on the issue, they may be prohibited from considering the scores.

One of the recurring discussions on CC involves grade inflation:

  • Some believe that attending a school with a more strict grading policy (meaning generally lower grades) hurts a student’s college application chances, because the grades from such schools will pale in comparison to the grades of students from schools with grade inflation (generally higher grades.)
  • Others believe that grades are viewed in the context of the student’s school and/or similar schools, and that class rank (or relative performance within the class) matters much more than the actual gpa.
  • Other students and parents don’t know what to think and would appreciate some guidance from those who might know.

Can you shed some light on how top colleges differentiate between the grades of applicants who come from a variety of schools with differing grading policies and levels of rigor?



Seems like there are SO many kids getting waitlisted this year, mine included. Do you have ideas of why this trend is happening and how it will affect kids actually getting accepted off these waitlists? Is this year an aberration or a trend that will continue?

love to hear any waitlist tips Thanks!


Thanks for your question! Summer is a great time for students to gain further enrichment in the area(s) of their academic interest. It’s always nice to see students take college courses, participate in academic competitions, or residential programs. Some of the most popular academic programs are Yale Young Global Scholars, Telliride Association Summer Seminar, Program in Mathematics for Young Students, and Stanford University Mathematics Camp.

These aside, colleges will also appreciate seeing that students have pursued an interesting topic that’s unique to their field. Often students’ independent initiatives such as novels, app s they’ve made if they’re interested in CS, or perhaps a nonprofit they’ve started to help a community they care about can also go a long way.

Hi! This is an important question that certainly gains more and more relevance each year. Every year it can feel like waitlists are growing longer and longer as more students continue to apply to top schools. I know thiscan be frustrating! However, there is a lot of movement around May 1as students are making decisions with their accepted schools. Waitlisted students should write a letter of continued interest sharingany new updates/accomplishments that have happened since the student submitted their application, unlessthe school has a specific wait list process (MIT and the UC systems come to mind). If a school has a specific process in place, follow their instructions carefully as they may not want a traditional letter ofcontinued interest. Good waitlist updates to share are awards won or earning a higher grade in a course.

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Hello! Thanks so much for your question. For the most part, students are looked at within the context of what’s happening at their school. Admissions officers are provided acopy of your student’s School Report, which gives information about the rigor, grading scale, andavailable opportunities at their school. Of course, many top applicants at top schools all have great grades - often what really makes these candidates stand out is what they’re doing beyond what their school offers.

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Thanks so much for taking the time to explain your child’s case! Even though it may not be required, a strong test score can still help a student stand out in a test-optional pool of applicants! Students should also strive to pursue academic enrichment outside of what’s offered at their high school (while still doing well within the context of their high school) in order to stand out in the application process. Students are facing a lot of waitlists and rejections right now because application numbers are higher than ever. Your child should keep their chin up - if they don’t get the results they’d like, we’ve had students who have taken gap years, made really good use of them, and applied to schools that are better fits.

Thank you! Trying to read the specifics from schools on what to do is an art. Appreciate the response. Curious what you think in terms of how this year will be for kids getting off lists? Seems like more applications and tons of WL. Hard to know…

@JoelAtInGeniusPrep Hi Joel - In SAT/ACT test free world for our in-state public institutions: UCs and CSUs, how much emphasis on AP Exam scores will be placed by these in-state publics and privates? It feels like there is already an “AP Arms Race” vs. social-emotional health, and that it will get worse. My DH (a CSU professor) and I believe in mastery of content as we’ve heard what happens in college when students hadn’t developed deep understanding of the content.

We have suggested to our S24 to take APs only in the courses of interest. However, in our HS, APs are essentially the “honors” classes in 11th & 12th grade; it is either college prep (non-honors) or APs. I wonder if our philosophy – which will yield 8 2-semester AP courses vs 11 max in schedule-- puts our kids at a disadvantage relative to others in his HS.

Thanks in advance!

You did not answer my question, so I will copy paste it here:

At what much of a disadvantage are students applying for aid as international? I know that [UChicago] has a special checkbox “international applying for aid”, and I was wondering if this meant auto-rejection?
Most internationals who need aid seem to be rejected at least 90% of the time.

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