Exclusive AMA w/ a Former College Admissions Officer: How to Hack Elite College Admissions

@“Gaelle Pierre-Louis” is a former college admissions officer and education reform activist. A graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown University, she has traveled extensively, speaking to large audiences of students, parents, and school counselors about the undergraduate admissions process.

Her book, [Hacking Elite College Admissions: 50 Surprising Insights on the College Application Process](https://www.amazon.com/Hacking-Elite-College-Admissions-Application/dp/1641379308), serves as a comprehensive guide that includes expert advice from countless admissions officers to help guide students with up to date information about the elite college admissions. In this book, students will find the answers to the most commonly asked questions and strategies that are helpful in order to stand out from the rest of the applicant pool.

She will help answer your questions about elite college admissions and discuss any questions you may have from how to build a balanced college list to the role that recommendation letters, testing and grades play in the college application process.

Gaelle has agreed to give away a free paperback copy of the book to the first 5 members that ask a question.

**This exclusive AMA will be open for just a few days, so make sure to ask all your questions as soon as possible.

I’m curious to know how heavily the essay weighs in the admissions process, particularly in a year like this when many students don’t have standardized test scores to submit. I just read, “Who Gets in and Why” and the author states that essays are merely skimmed, and usually only by the first reader. My D21 has worked for many hours on her essay and I like to think it will make a difference because it gives so much insight into who she is as a person.

I have a question about course selection. Our daughter who is a current junior has two main extracurricular activities, one is a sport and the other one is art related. A lot of her art is outside of school. She has taken several art classes at school and is considering taking another one at the AP level her senior year but it will be hard to fit in with her schedule (4 or 5 other AP core classes). Is it necessary to take AP art for it to be considered a serious EC? Should she submit a portfolio if permitted by the application? She is not planning to major in art but possibly minor.
Thank you!

What chances do unhooked applicants really have to gain admission to an elite college? What really stands out for an “average excellent” student? We hear so much about hooked applicants but what does that really mean for everyone else?

I’ve seen an uptick in students who plan to apply to elite colleges that they really aren’t qualified for, in light of the test optional policies most have adopted. I expect that they are going to see a huge rise in numbers of applications.

Do you think this trend will significantly impact the way colleges process their applicants? Will they have to find a way to streamline applications even more? Will they perhaps have an automatic funneling process to look more closely at, for example, applications from certain regions, or from inner city areas, or more simply, range of GPA?

And, do you feel that, as a result of an avalanche of applications, elite colleges will have to continue asking for test scores in the coming years, despite the trend away from testing?

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How can we stick out the most in our college essays? What do schools want to see?

Hi, my son is a founder of a tech business which will be launched in January 2021. He is thinking about writing his challenges that he is facing (investors, clients, it development etc). He has a team working with him who will be responsible for the startup while he is in college. Do you think it’s right to write about this in his essays or it might harm his application in case the colleges think he will not be focused in his studies? Please advise me! Thank you!

Do you think elite colleges will look to filling more seats than usual with ED this year?

What is your prediction for impact of COVID and DL on next year’s admissions (for this year’s juniors)? Do you think it will be more difficult to get into elite schools because there will be more applicants (since SAT/ACT will likely be optional for more schools) or easier because of fewer overall applicants (due to desire of parents/students for students to stay closer to home, including foreign students who otherwise would apply)?

@GoldPenn, in terms of how heavily the essay weighs in the admissions process, it is typically skimmed for context but every now and then, an essay moves an admission officer and helps differentiate students from others.

What you have to remember is that admission officers are reading thousands of essays and most of the essays are saying the same thing and approaching topics in the same way, despite the fact that all students think their essays are original. What truly matters is that you are reflecting on a topic that interests you and pertains to you. You would be surprised to see how essays we read that discusses everyone but the applicant. Applicants should be writing about themselves and that should be the focus.

As I mentioned in my book, be mindful to not paraphrase parts of your resume in the college essay. Schools are looking for “fit” and your essay can be a great opportunity to showcase how the unique skills and talents you possess can fit in with their curriculum and activities.

Lastly, do not forget to spell check! It is all about making a good impression so the small things speaks volumes to your candidacy.

Are applicants at small, lesser known schools at a disadvantage? What if they are parochial schools with mandatory religion classes and schedule conflicts? Thanks!

If I may ask, at which school or schools were you a college admissions officer ?

Thank you in advance for your response.

Can students be rejected from top universities because they do not have a test score?

@SCgirl1 , in terms of course selection, if she could take Art at the AP level, it might help to strengthen her application should she apply to be an arts major/minor. If not, she could take the AP Art exam or submit portfolios of her work as an Arts Supplement, which should suffice. In this case, it truly depends on the schools in which she is applying.

I would recommend reaching out to the Visual Arts Directors of the college to see if they could evaluate her portfolio as it currently stands and then send either a letter or email to the admissions office with their evaluation of your daughter’s potential after she submits her application.

I address this topic in Chapter 3, Section 12 of my book. Check it out for further insights!

@helpingmom40 , you have to realize that most applicants have a “hook” and it’s a student’s job to work with their guidance officer to get an idea of what their unique “hook” might be and to put that at the forefront of their application.

At times, a “hook” might be an athletic ability, but it’s also geography, intended major (if it’s not a popular one), type of high school you currently attend, among other things. I discuss this in Chapter 5 and 6 of the book!

If a student goes into the application process thinking that they are simply average, then it is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy where they will end up writing average essays, getting average letters of recommendation, and overlook the potential for them to leave a lasting memory in the application reader’s mind. So, if a student’s “hook” is not super obvious, I recommend that they talk to others who know them, such as their friends, teachers, and guidance counselors, so that they can help you figure it out.

For letters of recommendation, how much do admissions readers try to separate the quality of the recommender from the quality of the applicant? Often, an applicant does not really know which recommender will be better at writing the recommendation, or recommendation rationing at the high school or other access issues may prevent the applicant from getting the best recommenders.

https://mitadmissions.org/apply/parents-educators/writingrecs/ is written for recommenders to read and gives examples of letters of recommendation. But not all recommenders may have read that.

@Tenn_Food, elite universities typically use holistic factors when evaluating your applications and take into account many factors before rendering a decision. Therefore, a test score is not the sole reason for which a student would be rejected from an elite college. At this time, many schools have gone test-optional so students will not be penalized for not submitting a score.

How important is GPA compared to other factors since I personally see that many peers lose hope when they have a 3.8 or 3.9 or quick to assume that the smartest kid in their class will get into an ivy league but don’t see anyone thinking about extracurriculars or trying to find their own hook?

According to an internet search, the author may have been an admissions officer at Georgetown University. Is this correct ?

How long ago were you an AO (5, 10, 15 years ago etc?) How has the admissions process at the school you were an AO at changed since then?