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.
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.”
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Weighted GPAs. Unweighted GPAs. AP scores. Dual Enrollment grades. Essays. Recommendation letters. More essays. SAT scores. ACT scores. PSAT scores. Composite scores. Writing Scores. Volunteer requirements. FAFSA. And that’s all before your child’s actual senior year of high school!
Overwhelmed yet? I bet you are! But don’t fret, because there are numerous resources available to help you navigate the college application process, potentially making it a little less stressful and a lot more enjoyable. Because seeing all the work you’ve done raising a college bound kid finally come to fruition doesn’t have to be something you groan through.
Rather, it can be a process you celebrate through. These college admissions books, and other titles that will help you pay for college, have all the info you may need to help get that celebration started.
Note: We receive compensation from purchases made through some of the links on this page which helps us to pay our writers –
Best College Admissions Books
Fiske Guide to Colleges 2018
by Edward B.Fiske
The Holy Bible of college rundowns, the Fiske guide has been rating and reporting on all things post high school education for over 30 years. When you don’t know where to start, start here.
Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
by Loren Pope
Exceptionally researched and written, pick up this title if you’re looking to find the diamond in the rough of colleges. If you’re seeking more than football game and keg parties, and need a comprehensive and regionally targeted list of options and their academic offerings, don’t let this one get by you.
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
by Frank Bruni
This book is your first defense against the overly competitive and anxiety laden process of trying to (and maybe failing) of getting into the college you think you’re supposed to be at. Reassuringly, Bruni defends the fact that what college your child ends up attending is anything but the sole determining factor in what kind of successful future they will have.
College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step
by Robin Mamle and Christine Van De Velde
With the help of 50 college admission deans, this is a definitive resource on the entire process from beginning to dorm move in day. Practical and very applicable advice, and a great one to have at your disposable to fill in the holes left by your high school guidance counselor. And the fact it uses well-timed humor at parts is a much appreciated bonus.
College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You, 12th Edition
by Dr. Steven R. Antonoff
If Tinder wrote a book on finding your perfect college match, this would be it. Updated, revised and full of worksheets to help students begin the narrowing down process of college choices, this title also helps you find what college guidebook is right for you.
Countdown to College: 21 ‘To Do’ Lists for High School
by Valerie Pierce
The only checklist title out there, and one that covers your to-dos starting freshman year through senior year, Countdown is a comprehensive resource to ensure you have dotted all you “i’s” and crossed your “t’s,” and don’t miss a single deadline.
B+ Grades, A+ College Application: How to Present Your Strongest Self, Write a Standout Admissions Essay, and Get Into the Perfect School for You
by Joie Jager-Hyman
Country to popular belief, you don’t need 10 AP classes, score in the 95% percentile on the SAT, and have a 5.0 GPA to get into college these days. B and C students have just as many great college options as valedictorians, and you can learn all about them in this guide written by a former Dartmouth admission officer. If you need help turning an average impression into a stellar one for college admissions, this book is for you.
On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice
by Harry Bauld
Written by a former admission officer at Brown and Columbia, add this book on college admissions to your must read if you’ve got several essays to write and need some help taking the intimidation factor out of the college admissions essay equation.
How to Pay for College Books
Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents
by Zac Bissonnette
Here’s undeniable proof that radiating college debt free can be done. With smart and frugal tips and strategies on paying for college yourself, not bankrupting your parents, and still being able to graduate from a high quality university, Bissonnette wrote this best seller while still in college. Now that’s saying something.
Paying for College Without Going Broke, 2018 Edition: How to Pay Less for College (College Admissions Guides)
by Princeton Review, Kalman Chany
Including the latest FAFSA forms, guidelines, and help for the 2018-2019 year, Newsday proclaimed this to be a “first rate guide to the financial aid maze,” and covers everything you think you’re missing when it comes to funding college.”
The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2018: Billions of Dollars in Scholarships, Grants and Prizes
by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tunable
At a whopping 850 +pages and subdivided into more categories than you thought you needed, this is your go to start book when seeking college funding other than student loans. Jam pack full of all the info you will need to apply for each of the entries, this is your one stop shop for all things scholarship.
Parenting a College-Bound Kid
Grown and Flown: From 11th Grade Stress to College Success
by Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington
Available in Kindle format only, this title is authored by the beloved duo of been there done thatmothers from Grown and Flown, a website dedicated solely to parenting issues raising teenagers and college kids. Their honesty and frankness is refreshing, and you will find encouragement and thoughtfulness to help you through what can often be a the difficult process of preparing your child to head to college.
NEW! All Grown and Flown picks for grad gifts, birthday gifts and dorm shopping in one place!
The Best Books To Give Your College Student
What This Mom Learned the Hard Way About College Applications
Soiling the Nest: What’s Good About Teens Being Bad
Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.
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