How the College Crapshoot Works

By William C. Symonds


Inside the Admissions Process

of a Premier College

By Jacques Steinberg

Viking -- 292pp -- $25.95

The competition to get into Harvard, Stanford, and other elite schools has never been more frenzied, yet the process used to admit a fortunate few is little understood. No wonder. The institutions have guarded such secrets "behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope," writes Jacques Steinberg in his excellent new book, The Gatekeepers.

Steinberg's effort goes a long way toward lifting this veil of secrecy. It's a gripping account of an entire season--stretching from the fall of 1999 through the spring of 2000--during which the author was allowed to observe the admissions process at Wesleyan University, a premier liberal arts college that prides itself on openness. Remarkably, the Middletown (Conn.) institution gave Steinberg unimpeded access to even the most sensitive matters, including animated debates over candidates. Simultaneously, Steinberg also shadowed six impressive student applicants through months of anxiety. The author changed no names, even when he retells personal incidents, such as one applicant's explanation of her decision to accept and eat a marijuana-laced brownie, and later to confess to her high school principal.

The result is a thoroughly engrossing drama depicting how nine overworked members of Wesleyan's admissions office accepted roughly 1,800 applicants from almost 7,000. Steinberg, an education reporter for The New York Times, presents all this with little editorial comment. Yet he's clearly a sympathetic observer who is impressed by the school officials' drive to find the most promising students. Steinberg is especially moved by their extraordinary efforts to seek out minority students from tough backgrounds, those whose lives might be transformed by Wesleyan. But the account prompts disturbing questions about how the admissions game treats some of the nation's most promising high school seniors.

The contest is driven by the obsession of Wesleyan and most other elite colleges to maintain or improve their rankings in the college guides used by high school seniors, most notably the one published by U.S. News & World Report. That newsweekly currently ranks Wesleyan as the nation's 11th-best liberal arts college. Rankings are based in part on how "selective" a school is--measured by the percentage of applicants it accepts, how many of those attend, and the class rank and SAT scores of those who enroll.

In effect, these numerical measures serve as a scorecard. And as the fall admissions season kicks off, the "largely unspoken, but always understood that Wesleyan would have to have an even better year this year" judged by these measures, writes Steinberg. That means more applicants overall, higher SAT scores, more valedictorians, etc. To reach that goal, every autumn Wesleyan officials fan out to drum up interest at the nation's top high schools. In 1999, this campaign yielded 455 more applications than the year before, an impressive 7% increase.

But the growing flood of suitors inevitably means more and more rejections. And it puts an almost impossible burden on admissions workers. To do his part, Ralph Figueroa, the idealistic officer whom Steinberg follows throughout the year, must read 1,500 applications over 10 weeks. "Read faster and say `no,"' his wife tells him, as he labors 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. When the two officers assigned to an application can't agree, cases are sent to the full committee. In its grueling sessions, just five minutes are allotted to each case.

Figueroa and his colleagues pay keen attention to the aspirants' essays--the best of which he reads to his wife before going to bed each night--as well as their personal accomplishments. But they never lose sight of students' SAT scores, despite rising debate over their value in predicting college performance. Similarly, because U.S. News pays so much attention to "yield"--how many accepted students actually enroll--about 40% of Wesleyan freshmen arrive via the early-decision process, which binds those accepted to attend. That limits students' freedom during one of the most critical junctures of their lives.

The Gatekeepers also opens a window onto affirmative action. One of its most touching stories centers on Figueroa's efforts to recruit a Native American student--Wesleyan's first. He finds a candidate at a remote private school in New Mexico. While bright and intensely interested in film, this student has a checkered past, including a C average during the three years he spent at a Bemidji (Minn.) high school. But since his grades had improved dramatically in New Mexico, Figueroa is able to persuade colleagues that he's worth the risk. Admissions officers are less eager to embrace Tiffany Wang, an Asian American student from Palo Alto, Calif., who learned English as her second language, has far higher grades, and scored an impressive 1470 on her SATs, well above Wesleyan's median. But with Figueroa reasoning there would be "other, better-qualified Asian American applicants," she only gets as far as the waiting list.

The Gatekeepers won't aid those seeking a prescription for entry into an elite private college. The best news is that admissions are a lot more sane and predictable at the vast majority of U.S. schools, including many of the flagship public universities. But if you're still determined to seek the prize of a prestigious college, The Gatekeepers will at least help prepare you for the ordeal.

Symonds covers education issues from Boston.

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