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The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College [Paperback]

Jacques Steinberg
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Education reporter Steinberg presents a compelling tale in this account, told from the perspective of Ralph Figueroa, an admissions officer at Wesleyan University. Expanding on a series of articles in the New York Times, Steinberg provides an insider's look at how Figueroa and the school's admissions committee factored grades, test scores, essays, extracurricular activities and race into account as they winnowed 700 students for the class of 2004 from nearly 7,000 applicants. Using real names, applications and interviews, Steinberg follows six applicants of varying backgrounds from their first encounter with Figueroa to their final acceptance or rejection. Although not a how-to book per se, Steinberg's work does include helpful advice, such as "there's no way to outthink this process" and "if you've got something you want to write, then write it the way you want." Steinberg portrays Figueroa and the other admissions officers as doing the best they can to give each applicant a fair assessment, despite their responsibility for 1,500 of them. Among the book's surprises are that supplementary material, no matter how impressive, carries no weight in deciding who gets in, while honesty about a mistake in one case, an incident involving a pot brownie can influence an admissions officer to admit. Wesleyan's high standards e.g., a 1350 combined score on the SAT may put some readers off, but the process that Steinberg describes is similar at most private colleges and universities.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Steinberg had unparalleled access to the admissions process for the class of 2004 at Wesleyan, an elite liberal arts college in Connecticut. Originally presented as a series of articles in the New York Times, the stories were so compelling and the subject matter so topical, that he was convinced to expand them to book length. He followed Ralph Figueroa, a veteran admissions officer, for eight months, encompassing initial "marketing" trips, contacts with high school guidance counselors, the early-decision process, reading thousands of applications for final admissions, wooing reluctant candidates, and fighting for specific marginal cases. Evident throughout is the truth of Figueroa's assertion that there is no way to guarantee admission or any one thing that will make a certain candidate successful. Several high school seniors allowed the author to record their thoughts and concerns as he simultaneously followed the progress of their applications. While the close examination emphasizes the seeming inconsistency of the process, the resulting epiphanies and changes in perspective of the individuals followed in the year's march to college allow readers to see that a big name is not necessarily everything and that some students are much happier in a different atmosphere. The stories are so well written that teens will find this title a pleasurable read in the midst of much practical advice.
Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

New York Times education reporter Steinberg takes us behind the scenes to experience the arduous and even grisly process of admissions at a major New England college. From fall 1999 to spring 2000, Steinberg shadowed Wesleyan University admissions officer Ralph Figueroa as he traversed the country recruiting students. The author had the unprecedented opportunity to attend admissions meetings with Figueroa and his colleagues in which the applicant pool of 7000 was reduced to 700 openings. Steinberg also followed six students through the admissions process and carefully documented their personal experiences, backgrounds, and interactions with the admissions officers to discover why some students stand out in the officers' memories and actually become bargaining chips in meetings with their colleagues. Although the author explicitly states that this is not another "how-to" manual for gaining admission to college, it nonetheless reveals that there are no set formulas and that the decision rests on factors that may not be wholly within the control of the applicant. This insightful and readable book should be purchased by all academic and large public libraries.
Mark Alan Williams, Web Lib. & Document Storage Svcs., Hines VA Hosp., Chicago
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Steinberg, a New York Times reporter, offers an inside look at the admissions process to one of the nation's most prestigious colleges, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Steinberg followed an admissions officer and his colleagues for eight months as they processed thousands of applications for coveted slots in the freshman class of 2004. He starts with background on how the college admissions process, particularly at elite universities, has evolved from admitting the sons of the wealthy and powerful to the "messy process" of attempting to achieve diversity among the smart and talented. Steinberg chronicles concrete as well as amorphous criteria used to select freshmen, and the heartbreak and anguish of students waiting to hear if they're among the chosen. Among the revelations: high SAT scores and multiple extracurricular activities are not always as critical as students and parents think, and deciding who is selected often comes down to an admission officer's gut reaction to a student's overall package. Parents and college-bound students will appreciate this compelling inside look at the college admissions process. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Excellent... thoroughly engrossing drama." —BusinessWeek



"[The Gatekeepers] provides the deep insight that is missing from the myriad how-to books on admissions that try to identify the formula for getting into the best colleges...I really didn't want the book to end." —The New York Times



"Compelling...should be required reading for any student or parent who seeks insight into a process hidden 'behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope'." —Newsweek

About the Author

Jacques Steinberg has been a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years and currently is a national education correspondent. In 1998, he was awarded the grand prize of the Education Writers Association for his nine-part series on a third-grade classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

One

The Tortilla Test

The lime-green Saturn raced along the winding roads of northern New Jersey, past trees strung with leaves that glowed tangerine, gold and maroon. But the driver was too preoccupied to notice the glorious foliage, his eyes continually darting to the passenger seat. There he had laid out travel directions printed from the Internet, along with a well-worn road atlas pocked with green asterisks spread across a half dozen states. Each designated a community that he had visited previously.

On that bracing morning in early November of 1999, Ralph Figueroa was beginning his fifth year as an admissions officer at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges. But from the vantage point of a passing driver, Ralph was just another motorist wearing a gray wool suit, white starched shirt and deep red tie. He sat hunched over the wheel of a rental car that was too small to contain his body, which unfolded to more than six feet and weighed well over two hundred pounds. With his thick, blown-back black hair, which he had neatly arranged at a Courtyard by Marriott just after daybreak, Ralph looked like someone on his way to sell a $350 vacuum cleaner, rather than the product of a $35,000-a-year education that came with the unwritten guarantee of a happy and meaningful life.

At ten-thirty, a few minutes early as usual, Ralph pulled up in front of Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, a boxy, tan-brick public school that looked nothing like the private Tudor-style academy that he had left a half hour before. This was his second sales call of the day, and one of four visits that he had scheduled within a fifty-mile radius. He had allotted just six hours for the day's work, so he would have to speak quickly. As he moved purposefully past green-tiled walls and gray lockers on the way to the guidance office, he fumbled to pin on a plastic badge embossed with his name and that of Wesleyan in big letters.

The popular image of university admissions officers is not unlike that of Hollywood studio executives. Both are assumed to spend most days sitting imperiously behind desks well out of reach of the general public, from which they deign to approve only a fraction of the endless series of pitches that are presented to them in rapid-fire succession. But to the handful of seniors and juniors who sat around a conference table that autumn morning listening to this smiling emissary on leave from his ivory tower, the message was unmistakable: Wesleyan Wants You! The university's gates, it seemed, had been flung wide open. And here, before their very eyes, was one of the gatekeepers who could escort them in.

From his seat beneath a giant map of the United States that a guidance counselor had labeled "College Acceptances"-so far, it had only one pin pushed into it, in the vicinity of Wilkes University in the Pocono Mountains-Ralph belied the familiar notion of admissions officer as intimidator. His voice was as soothing as a pediatrician's. He urged them to call him Ralph, not Rafael, his given name, and certainly not Mr. Figueroa.

The pitch Ralph delivered to his small audience seemed to promise that Wesleyan could fulfill virtually anyone's fantasy of higher education, if only the students would give the university the chance. And just to make sure that the students kept a vivid snapshot of the Connecticut campus projected on the screens in their minds, the university had sent along piles of posters of a Wesleyan landmark, Foss Hill, photographed on a fall day as beautiful as this one.

Even a devoted alumnus might not have noticed that the creaky football bleachers had been digitally removed, as had the many patches of brown dead turf. Instead, the late-fall grounds had the freshly tended appearance of the infield at Fenway Park. While the poster made a good first impression, some applicants would be disappointed when they saw the real thing. The curriculum, as described by Ralph, sometimes received a similar gloss.

"One of the first things to remember about the university is that there are no requirements," Ralph told the assembled group, tantalizing them with the prospect of never again having to take a dreaded subject like math or chemistry. "Wesleyan stresses a real-world approach."

Moreover, Ralph explained, while other institutions had begun only recently to appreciate and celebrate the differences among students, "We started our focus on diversity in 1965."

"That's the year I was born," he said, before adding that thirty-four years was indeed "a long time ago."

Almost immediately, the students' hands shot up. Would there be opportunities at Wesleyan to perform in a musical? one girl asked.

"Wesleyan does a lot of theater," Ralph responded. He mentioned that a first-string quarterback had played the lead in a recent production of Sweeney Todd, and that Wesleyan had a disproportionate share of alumni working in Hollywood. They included the writer of Batman Forever, the director of American Pie and the actor William Christopher, who, Ralph assured his listeners, would be well known to their parents as Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H.

Just then a girl interrupted: Was the biology department any good?

"The physical sciences faculty does more research than just about any other liberal arts college," Ralph said. "Haverford beat us," he added. "But don't tell anyone."

Was there enough time for students at Wesleyan to study and to play sports?

"We want students to be scholar-athletes," Ralph said. Nearly two-thirds of Wesleyan undergraduates played an intramural or team sport. "The only thing that students do more of than sports at Wesleyan is community service."

How's the food?

One of the high school seniors, who had already visited a friend on the Wesleyan campus, answered before Ralph could. "There's always free frozen yogurt in the cafeteria," she said, describing the unique donation of a wealthy alumnus with a sweet tooth.

"Ice cream, too," Ralph added, sounding like Willie Wonka beckoning kids to the chocolate factory.

How fast are the Internet connections?

"Very fast," Ralph said.

Were there cable television jacks in the dorm rooms?

Ralph smiled. "There actually are," he said.

Only two questions drew answers that dimmed the Technicolor portrait that Ralph was painting that morning. But, then, an admissions officer from almost any other college would have had to give the same responses, if he or she was being honest.

One was posed by a serious-looking boy, who inquired: "Do you have any Nobel Prize winners on the faculty?"

"We don't have any Nobels," Ralph admitted, momentarily taken aback. "But we do have professors who have won Guggenheim and MacArthur and other grants."

The boy had been advised by his father, a Yale-educated ophthalmologist, to ask Ralph this question, and was obviously unimpressed.

The other tough question was a follow-up to Ralph's earlier point about diversity.
"Do the races mix?" he was asked.

"Yes and no," Ralph answered. Wesleyan had acquired nicknames like "PCU" and
"Diversity U" by attracting and admitting more black and Hispanic students than nearly any other top school, Ralph told his audience. "People think it's a place where students are holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' "

But, he had to acknowledge, "There is a tension. It's a process to address these issues and forge a community. Students will mix together one moment, only to segregate afterward."

And then, nearly an hour after his sales call had begun, it was over.

After making a note to contact the campus rabbi on behalf of one student, and passing out business cards with his e-mail address to several others, Ralph was back in his rental car and on his way to the next group of potential customers: a high school in the neighboring community of Ridgewood. He had spoken too long, and as he turned right onto Oradell Avenue, he was going to have to rush to make it on time.

But in all the talking he had done at Northern Valley Regional High, Ralph had neglected to mention a fact that the students surely would have found relevant: Wesleyan had just come off a year in which it had attracted a record number of applicants. Nearly 7000 students had sought the 715 spots available in the freshman class-almost 10 applicants for each seat. Though the university had offered admission to more than 715, because some of those accepted would invariably choose to go elsewhere, Wesleyan had still rejected 7 of every 10 who applied. The median SAT score of those admitted-a combined 1370 on a scale of 1600-was not only the highest in Wesleyan's history, but also higher than that of all but a handful of other colleges.

And as Ralph spoke, two months before all applications were due, there were already indications that this year would be even more competitive, with thousands more students projected to graduate from American high schools than in the previous school year. Rather than spend six weeks of the fall on the road courting applicants, as Ralph and his eight other colleagues from the admissions office were doing, they could easily have stayed home and still assembled a stellar class-several classes, in fact, given the pool of highly qualified applicants. But like a politician wading into a room full of strangers, Ralph and his colleagues were not going to rest until they had given every last college applicant a reason to cast a vote for Wesleyan.

Ralph had a particular voter in mind. He was hoping to seize the imagination of that elusive senior who hadn't given Wesleyan much thought, if he or she had given it any thought at all, but who appeared to have credentials so impeccable as to fairly sail through the admissions process. Ralph knew, though, th...

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