No matter how much research you've done, you've probably encountered unanswered questions about the elite college admissions process, which is often shrouded in mystery. One former college admissions officer aims to demystify that with her new book, Hacking Elite College Admissions: 50 Surprising Insights on the College Application Process.
Gaelle Pierre-Louis read thousands of applications during her time at Georgetown University's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and decided to take some of the insights she gleaned there and put them into book form. Her new release also features tips and strategies from people who have worked in the admission offices of schools ranging from Harvard to Johns Hopkins and beyond.
College Confidential sat down with Pierre-Louis to ask some questions about how students can best position themselves for success during college admissions season.
Here's How Admission Officers Read Your Rec Letters
College Confidential: In the book, you note that admission officers not only read every line of students' recommendation letters, "but they also read between the lines." Can you explain to applicants what that means, and what types of things admission officers like to see in rec letters?
Gaelle Pierre-Louis: We read between the lines for two reasons: To tell if the person actually knows you and to evaluate what that person actually thinks about your candidacy. I highly recommend meeting with guidance counselors and sending them your resume and a brief paragraph with your accomplishments. Make it easier for your recommenders so that they can, in turn, make your life easier as well.
We review thousands of recommendation letters from teachers and guidance counselors every year. When you read so many letters, you will inevitably be able to identify trends over time. Not only that, but we are able to see the letters and compare them with what others from your school are getting. Some guidance counselors will have seven kids applying to a certain college, but six of the letters will say the same generic information and then the seventh one will include certain phrases like "this student is one of the best within my 23 years of college counseling" or "this student will receive my highest recommendation." There will be key words that differentiate that recommendation letter from others. It is important to put your best foot forward when meeting with your guidance counselor so that they can write a great letter on your behalf.
When evaluating your recommendation letters from your teachers, we want to see one from a rigorous course in which you performed well. You do not necessarily have to get an "A" in that class to get a great letter. For example, if the teacher says you might have struggled in your first exam, but you took opportunities to stay after class and you did extra homework to eventually get a "B," that tells us a lot about your grit and tenacity, which are skills that we want you to have in order to survive college. We want to know how you will do in the classroom based on the rigorous courses you took in high school.
Low Stats? Here's What Might Move the Needle
CC: The book describes the holistic admissions process that Georgetown and other schools use. Can you share a tip on how students can offset lower-than-average stats by highlighting other aspects of their applications?
GPL: Yes, schools tend to be truly holistic when evaluating your application. To be honest, for students who have below-average stats, usually an essay or recommendation letter is not going to move the needle on their application. From my experience, it is the depth of their extracurricular activities, timeline of the application (meaning early or regular decision) and their interview that weighs more in those cases.
Check How Your Extracurriculars Are Viewed
CC: When it comes to extracurricular activities (ECs), are admission officers drawn to unusual or interesting ones? Or is it more important to show a several-year commitment to the same ECs, no matter how common they are?
GPL: It truly does depend on the institutional priorities set by the university for that application cycle. One year, we might need more students on our debate team and another year, we might be seeking students who play percussion instruments for the orchestra. If it is something we need and you are involved in it and someone can vouch for you, it matters!
Make the Essay About You
CC: Are there any essay topics that you would advise students to never, ever write about?
GPL: I feel as if most essay topics that students think are original, we have seen them so many times. So there is not anything that I would advise students not to write about. This year, due to COVID-19, I do believe that students might choose to write about COVID- 19 and how it has affected the student, which is great, but it will not help you stand out since everyone will be doing the same thing. I would write about it in a supplementary essay and not the personal one, but it truly depends on the situation.
The most important thing with essays is that it concerns you. You would be surprised how many students talk about other people in their college essays. That does not help us understand who you are as an applicant. As far as topics, you could truly write about anything. We have probably seen the topic before, but it is more about the perspective you bring with the topic.