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The Gatekeepers: Inside the admissions process of a premier college

The Gatekeepers cover

The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg (Penguin Books)

First published a decade ago, Jacques Steinberg’s book “The Gatekeepers” still offers a revealing window into how the college admissions process really works

Every fall, as almost three quarters of American high school seniors prepare to apply to college, a new crop of teenagers and their parents wonder: who gets into the top schools and why? As anyone involved can tell you, it’s not based only on grades and test scores. Those are just two of many factors, some quite mysterious. In fact, how admissions offices at the most competitive colleges weigh those factors and make their decisions has long been a closely guarded secret. Oh, to be a fly on one of those ivy-covered walls!

A little over a decade ago, New York Times education writer Jacques Steinberg convinced Wesleyan University to let him be that fly. At the time, Wesleyan was a well-respected and up-and-coming school profiting from the rapidly multiplying number of college applicants in this country. As Steinberg describes it, the pyramid of elite colleges worked like a tower of champagne glasses, with applicants who didn’t quite make it into the Ivy League spilling down into the next tier of schools, which included Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Wesleyan.

If you’re concerned with quality education, that’s a simplistic way to think about any of these schools, each of which offers an excellent education and has unique qualities of its own. But if you’re tracking admissions statistics and developing marketing strategies, the image of a champagne pyramid makes perfect sense.

Certainly it fits in with the numerically obsessed rankings compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Throughout the last decade, that single metric was a force that dominated and—some would argue—warped college admissions policies. The rankings’ disturbing influence is one of the themes of “The Gatekeepers.”

In 1999 and 2000 Steinberg spent nearly a year sitting in on meetings at Wesleyan and trailing admissions officer Ralph Figueroa as he traveled to California and New Mexico to visit high schools and meet prospective students. We hear how Wesleyan’s admissions staff read students’ applications—often putting in 12-hour days to keep up with the onslaught of paperwork—coded and graded each one, argued with their colleagues over each candidate’s merits and finally voted on each acceptance.

By taking readers into admissions office meetings, Steinberg lets us understand how most competitive colleges evaluate applicants; how they “read” each student’s files, grades and scores. Figueroa, a Mexican-American from California, explains why minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not required to have the same grades and test scores as more affluent students. And he makes the case for diversity, which enriches not only minority students, but everyone on campus.

Junk science

Figueroa laments the influence of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which turn the entire admissions process into a giant numbers game. Worst of all, they essentially reward colleges for soliciting and then rejecting ever-greater numbers of applicants. That creates impressively low acceptance rates, suggesting that a school is highly desirable and very selective.

As bad as the situation was when Steinberg first researched his book in 2000, it has become more extreme in the intervening dozen years. In the updated 2012 edition, Steinberg points out that Wesleyan received 10,033 applications for its 2011 freshman class, a 43% increase over the number a decade earlier.

Of course, Ralph Figueroa is neither the first nor the last to attack the “junk science” of college ratings. But Steinberg’s insider observations point out some of the peculiar ironies the ratings system entails. In order to keep a college’s average SAT scores high, its admissions department must accept a super-achieving student for every lower-scoring, disadvantaged student.

The fact that SAT and ACT scores may not accurately reflect a student’s intelligence or academic abilities is a question Steinberg barely broaches. What’s clear is that, as long as Wesleyan and other schools agree to participate in the rankings, they will be beholden to SAT scores and other superficial measurements.

Steinberg describes how admissions officers favor star athletes, children of alumni and other special groups by assigning codes to their files that boost their chance of admission—sometimes by close to 50%. Then there’s the fact—no longer an “insider” secret—that applying to a college for early admission in November greatly increases a student’s chance of success. By the end of the 1990s, Steinberg tells us, “Some colleges, including Wesleyan, were admitting as much as 40% of the following year’s freshman class before most students had even applied.”

It might be comforting to think the admissions process at Wesleyan is somehow anomalous. But Steinberg assures us it isn’t. He chose the school for the similarities it shared with others on the “second tier” of the champagne pyramid, to say nothing of the first, and many other experts have backed his conclusions.

Following the applicants

Besides trailing Figueroa in his pursuit of prospective students, Steinberg follows six Wesleyan applicants to get a picture of the process from their side. This group includes Becca and Julianna, two girls from the prestigious Los Angeles prep school Harvard-Westlake; Tiffany, an Asian-American from a highly-ranked public school in Silicon Valley; Jordan, an ambitious public school boy from Staten Island; Aggie, a Dominican Prep-for-Prep student, and Mizigi, a film buff whom Figueroa recruits from the small Native American Preparatory School in New Mexico.

Of this small group, three end up receiving acceptances from Wesleyan, two are wait-listed and one is rejected. But that, of course, isn’t the end of the story. It is then up to the high school students to make their own decisions. Steinberg follows all six of them through the entire process. In admissions parlance, the two who end up at Wesleyan are termed “the yield.”

What’s striking is how much effort Wesleyan spends trying to convince a golden few to apply, then how quickly they drop the ball, once they’ve sent out their acceptance letters. The lucky students are invited to visit the campus, but there’s little adult involvement when the high school seniors arrive.

One of Wesleyan’s top recruits, the beautiful, biracial Julianne, who has sky-high SAT scores and the perfect resume, is quickly alienated when her host student drags her to a vibrator “workshop,” and she scratches the school off her list. Steinberg blames this embarrassing slip-up on the fact that the admissions office is overworked and understaffed. But he doesn’t comment on how that understaffing reflects the school’s overall priorities.

More disturbing is what happens when Mizigi, the smart but high-risk American Indian boy from New Mexico, finally enrolls in September. Although he’s been forewarned by Figueroa that he’ll be the first and—that year the only—American Indian at Wesleyan, nobody steps in to ease his adjustment or mentor him. Predictably, Miz falls between the cracks and ends up dropping out. You want to cry or maybe shake a few of the adults.

Counseled and groomed

In contrast, the support Julianne and Becca receive from Sharon Merrow, their high school counselor at the Harvard-Westlake prep school in Los Angeles, is nothing short of amazing. Julianna is able to pop into Merrow’s office almost every day for conversation and guidance. As for Becca, when she’s wait-listed at three of her favorite schools, she collapses on Merrow’s couch and cries in the counselor’s arms. Merrow, of course, encourages Becca not to give up. “Someone out there loves you,” she says soothingly.

It’s no surprise to learn that, after a few speed bumps, both girls end up at prestigious institutions—not at Wesleyan, much to Figueroa’s disappointment, but at the competition, two Ivy League schools. It’s clear Julianne and Becca have been counseled and groomed by a savvy expert every step of the way.

High school students and their parents will probably sympathize with most of the applicants, and they’ll experience “The Gatekeepers” as a knuckle-biting tale. But even those uninvolved with the college search may find the tapestry of stories engrossing, maybe even distressing.

When Steinberg joins the admissions staff at the conference table in their office, this is what he hears as the assistant director rattles off summaries of each student: “2B, 2A, followed by 3B, 1A, then 3B, 2A and, at the quarter 3B, 2A.” This monotonous listing of grades seems to summarize how reductive the process can be. It’s hard for anyone not to wince. Can all of a teenager’s dreaming, striving and suffering really come down to this?

What the schools need and want

In the end though, Steinberg makes clear, the GPAs, SAT scores, class rankings, awards won and other quantifiable measurements are just a few of the ingredients that get stirred into a large pot. Some of the other ingredients include students’ essay writing abilities, their dramatic life stories, artistic portfolios and personal contacts. Not to mention serendipity: an oboe player who applies the year the college orchestra happens to need one can tip the scales in the right direction. When all is said and done, it’s really all about the school’s needs and wants.

“Admissions was a process,” Steinberg says, “in which the objective criteria were always changing, depending on the particular candidate and the institution’s specific need at that moment.” Anyone who believes that passage through the gates of America’s most esteemed colleges is based on a meritocracy will understand by the end of this book that it isn’t.

A dozen years after Steinberg’s initial research, there have been two big changes in college admissions. First, the thousands of file folders with their color-coded stickers have been replaced by electronic applications and tracking systems. “Remember those buckets and buckets of mail?” Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, Wesleyan’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, says to Steinberg in the book’s new afterward. “Almost gone!”

The second change is the astonishing increase, not only in the quantity of applicants, but in the number of applications each candidate files. While students once applied to five or ten schools at the most, many are now hedging their bets by applying to 12, 15 or even 20.

Acceptances rates keep dropping

This has caused acceptance rates to drop even further. In 1999, Wesleyan had a 33% acceptance rate. By fall 2011, they had attracted 10,033 applicants, causing the acceptance rate to drop to 24%. At the very top of the exclusivity pyramid is Harvard, which attracted 34,302 applicants this year, bringing its admitted student rate down to an intimidating 6%.

Despite these two changes, the admissions process is pretty much the same as it was more than a decade ago, Meislahn assures Steinberg. “I would say that priorities have changed very little,” she adds.

Although that may have the cadence of an upbeat ending, the issues raised in this book should give us pause. First and foremost: when the competition for a good education is this fierce, can anyone—either individuals or the society—truly win?

In the short term, “The Gatekeepers” works an insider’s guide that strips away much of the mystery from the admissions process and can help students navigate it successfully. In the long term, one can only hope it will inspire fundamental change.

– The College Strategist

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