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87 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I agree with the reviewer who is an admissions officer that this book could have been about any private college. The methodology and procedures are the same everywhere, I am sure.
The book only reinforced what I already believed...that parents of those kids who are not star material are the ones who end up paying the bills for those who are at elite private colleges. I am one of those parents who paid! AS Steinberg says: "To help offset their financial losses due to increased costs for financial aid, colleges initiated an intense search for other 'customers' who could pay full price, whether from the U.S. or abroad."
I think the author did a marvelous job of making this a really interesting book, and immediately recommended it to my sister and brother, who both have boys in high school now. I did warn them, however, that what they read might be somewhat discouraging.
First, these admissions officers are very subjective (and how could they be anything else?)with a huge case load to handlein a very short period of time.
Second, I was appalled that one of the most important issues for college admission staffs seems to be how their rejection/yield rate is perceived by U.S. News and World Report.
And third, the way admissions standards are tweaked for academic stars or to achieve diversity can seem very unfair to those who have sons who fall into neither of these categories (a star or a minority).
I think there are many lessons about the college application process to be learned from reading this book. Perhaps the most important lesson is not to set your heart on one school.
I suggest this book as "must" reading for parents, students, and high school guidance counselors.
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59 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2003
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
First, let me say that I thought that this was an excellent book and would recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in the college admissions process. Second, I was surprised at how many of the reviewers seemed shocked--shocked!--that applicants got bonus points for coming from minority backgrounds. Was this some kind of revelation? However one thing that surprised me a little bit is how--even moving beyond race entirely--the more advantages you have had in life, the more disadvantageous it will be for your admissions process. For example, I was unaware that having successful parents would be, in essence, held against you on the theory that more would be expected of you. While other reviewers have (jokingly?) said that they would advise their white kids not to check the "Caucasian" box, I might advise my (still very young) kids to say that their parents have been unemployed their whole life.
I suppose that the main issue which this whole process really boils down to is the following: As a college applicant, is it more important to succeed in life relative to the world around you (i.e. relative to your classmates, to others of your race, to others of your geographical area, to your own parents' life and accomplishments, etc.) or is it more important to succeed absolutely and not on a relative scale. This book clearly informs us that the answer is the former and not the latter. Whether that should be the answer is another question.
For example, say that a student's entire life could be distilled into 2 numbers each on a sliding scale from 1-10. The first number is simply your academic performance (grades, SAT's, course load, etc.) The second number is your background (race, economic circumstances, gender, etc.) In the case of Wesleyan, it seems clear to me that they would rather have a student whose first number was, say, a 6 if his or her second was a 2 (take Mig for example in Steinberg's book) than a student whose first number was an 8 if the second number was a 9 or 10 (take Tiffany Wang for example). Whether that is the right approach is certainly a legitimate issue for discusion and I'm not saying that it's not.
I suppose that one of the things that would be interesting to know (even though one never really can know of course) is whether those numbers will change in the future. For example, if one were to know that Mig would always be a 6 and Tiffany would always be an 8, would that change the analysis as to which is the right approach? I suspect that part of the reason that a school like Wesleyan would favor the overachieving 6 over the underachieving 8 is due to the hope or expectation that those trends will continue in the future and that one day the 6 will actually be ahead of the 8. And maybe that's the way it works. Who knows.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book paints a disturbing picture of the admissions process. I fingered through this book when I was applying to Wesleyan several years ago; recently, I read the book in its entirety as a college graduate from a similarly prestigious university. As a student who attended an average public high school, I was shocked to see the insane premium placed on obtaining students from elite private high schools (even students with quite mediocre grades and SAT's). I was, quite frankly, angered to see the pull that admissions officers allowed guidance counselors from private schools to have in the admissions process, and disturbed to see the preference given to pampered, wealthy children from a college claiming to value diversity. Goodness gracious-- affirmative action and racial/ethnic diversity right past (and current) wrongs and enable a broader perspective in the classroom. But denying middleclass students with good grades and high SAT's in favor of admitting mediocre students from private high schools to avoid harming the relationship with those "feeder" schools? Give me a break. (And read this book!)
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A must read if anyone close to you is thinking about applying to one of America's elite colleges. (Full disclosure demands that I admit that next fall my son will enter college, and his first choice at that.) A few facts to keep in mind before panic takes over.
1) Of the 3000 colleges in USA, one can find at least 100 good colleges, many nearby and easy to get into, where one can get a fine education.
2) There are only about 50 or so elite colleges that play these admission games. I call them the Orwellian colleges based on George Orwell's book, not 1984, but Animal Farm. You remember the famous quote, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." Animal Farm should be required reading of all admission officers. Did Orwell saw this coming?
3) This book illustrates in a gripping story all the ups and downs of the admission process at one of the Orwellian schools. The racial and ethnic preferences can be disturbing if you were expecting merit to matter. Jonathan Kozol questions on the back cover, "Whether it is actually a 'meritocracy' at all." That is a euphemism for "It sure ain't."
4) Are all the elite colleges like that? I am afraid so. Only a few elite have avoided this fate. CalTech is still strictly merit. The CalTech admission officer said recently, "Race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. do not count at all." And Cornell gives a fairer shake than the other Ivies. My alma mater, MIT, is about the worst of all. MIT's admission policies are abysmal. If you can believe the president (Don't ever believe admission people!), over 75% of those accepted at MIT are based on preferences. I had thought it was only about 60%. No wonder that MIT has dumbed down so much that a significant percentage of freshman are taking remedial math and physics.
5) One last caveat: "Assume nothing!" Admission is one big ...shoot. Just because a friend who is a weak student gets into Harvard doesn't mean that you will even though you are a much better candidate. This is a common error. Acceptance is like a lottery. In fact, a giant lottery makes more sense and would save millions in admission staff.
6) "And who plays God in America?", a question posed by Samuel Freedman in a blurb. Admission staff is a motley collection. It includes young temps who do it for a few years until they get tired of reading thousands of applications and older ones who have variegated backgrounds. One was rumored to be in the federal witness protection program, probably not what one was expecting to find in a judge of one's abilities.
7) Are there great colleges or universities that are readily accessible? Two come to mind.
a) University of Chicago. It is probably better than any of the Ivies and much easier to get into. A word of warning: it is rigorous. This frightens away all but the serious student. No free ride there!
b) Reed College in Portland, OR. It is also rigorous and serious. It requires a comprehensive exam and a thesis from all. No wonder so many go on to graduate school from Reed.
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82 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2004
Format: Paperback
I read this book and had a wide range of emotions. I will start by stating my views tend to be fiscally and politically moderate. So, I had to temper my frustration in reading a book on college admissions written by a writer for the New York Times (a decidedly liberal newspaper)and of a quite liberal East Coast University, Wesleyan. The choice of school and admission officer to shadow express a liberal bias that may not entirely reflect the view of all top Universities, but is probably true to the nature of Affirmative Action nation wide. Mr. Figueroa, the Admissions Officer, deserves accolades for the passion he expresses in his responsibilities.
That said, my analysis must be dispassionate since my oldest child is currently looking at colleges. So here it is:
1. The Wesleyan pie is first divided this way, 30% African, Latino and Asian students. Many deserve admission, without question, no matter who you measure them against. These are the HP (high priority) minority students. Others are in the generally acceptable population range according to averages, courses taken, class rank, activities, leadership etc.. Some are at risk students, as are some in the other applicant cohorts. True, these students may be cut a little slack but, remember they still must pass courses to matriculate at the university. The U.S. News and World Report is watching and will note the number of non matriculating students. They will also note the number of students who are accepted and decide to go elsewhere. And so the games begin!
2. Foreign students are given 3% of the pie. Diversity by ethnicity and country raised in and state of origin produce robustness. The rules for foreign students are very similar I suppose although the book does not go into great detail.
3. 67% is carved out for those with European ancestry. My only beef here is that there are significant cultural diversity distinctions even amongst Europeans! We are not all rolled out of the same batch of flour or using the same cookie cutter, so to speak. But, alas I digress.
Of this group an expectation of SAT = 1340 or so is expected. This is the benchmark. Quality points are given for challenging AP courses as compared to your peers. The harder the competition at your High School and the more people apply to the same university the lower the probability you have to be picked over your classmates. Unless, of course, you are the one to apply early decision and have all the goods. Subjectivity always is a confounding variable. A wonderful essay read by an Admissions Officer at 3am on Saturday may work as well as the car built by the worst crew on the last Friday of the quota month. But chance does favor the prepared mind so make your essay special for you.
Activities count, clubs, organizations, etc., but being an officer or say President of the Student body counts more for showing Leadership. Life experiences expressed in a well written essay could tip the scale, as well.
Sports are important if you are "the one" who is needed for the team, but usually not without the other components mentioned. A much needed Oboist should get the nod, sometimes even if some deficiencies need to be overlooked.
Diversity by domestic geographic origin also is a consideration. Schools want to recruit and report diversity from all 50 states. Obviously, East coast schools will attract more people from the east and therefore you compete with other east coast students for a subset of the seats to a greater degree than you think!
So, keep the grades up, take the most challenging curriculum, be a leader in school organizations, express yourself in your essays, note any ethnicity that is accurate and listed (or not listed), take an SAT prep course, grind through old SAT exams, know the TEST and how to take it. Take it twice unless you have exceeded the requirements of the schools to which you have applied or you dialed 800 verbal and 800 math. Check out the requirements for financial aid, this sometimes requires persistence. Make a list of schools prioritize them as, dream schools, desirable schools and safe schools. Visit as many schools as possible to be sure they are a good fit for your academic major, that you like the culture of the school, the feel of the campus and that the location makes it easy to get home to see the family...
Roll the dice! Then it all becomes the mathematics of probabilities. Good luck! Remember, the harder you work the luckier you get! And you may find yourself thinking the refrain from an old song which stated in self proclamation, "My future's so bright I gotta wear shades!"
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
First off, I'd better admit that as someone who attended a mediocre public high school, and received virtually no help from its staff in my college application process, some of these stories left a bitter taste in my mouth (even after 10 years). Yes, I was slightly jealous; even though half these kids were minorities, almost all attended schools that were outstanding and supportive. Nor did I, like one boy, have a celebrity endorsement from a famous author, nor was I told to start my essays my junior year, nor did my guidance counselor cozy up to the staff of the schools I applied to. Yet, I was accepted where I applied anyway. But standards are higher now, and I wonder if things would still be the same should I apply today.
I found this book very intriguing and well-written, a "page turner" as one reviewer mentioned. I admired the subjects who allowed the author to interview them without even using pseudonyms. That's pretty brave, especially when their stories are told warts and all.
I believe the admissions staff of Wesleyan does honestly try to do its job well. Yet, I found myself thinking repeatedly how hypocritical these admissions officers are. They tell seniors not to pin their hopes on just one school, and then focus almost all their energy to snare a few prep school stars while ignoring quite a few who could probably do equally as well, given just a fraction of the encouragement and attention they're lavishing on the stars. I knew a lot of people, myself included, who performed fine in high school but really "hit their stride" in college and were much happier and involved with extracurriculars.
They also tell students not to use gimmicks, but look at what they do to attract students. They greet the overachieving applicant who's almost too good to be true with hugs and red carpet treatment. They get Chelsea Clinton to endorse the school. They inform a new Wesleyan student via e-mail that he is their "absolute favorite" and that they're going to create a fragrance in his name, and even if it's meant in jest, it's still in my mind, absolutely inappropriate.
It's an unenviable job, and certainly I'd probably burn out fast. I'd advise admissions officers not to put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to choosing students for the incoming freshman class. Some of the biggest overachievers are going to make a difference, but some are going to eventually have breakdowns or transfer or drop out. They can woo all they want, but ultimately it's up to the student to figure out how to fit in.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2004
Format: Paperback
As I sit down to write this review, schools around the country are starting another academic year. For parents, this time of year may signal a reminder that time passes far too quickly, even if they are glad to send the little ones off. Parents of high school seniors may experience this pang a little more acutely since their children are just about ready to step off into adulthood. The seniors themselves are probably looking forward to being the top dogs, maybe finally playing on varsity, getting ready for the senior prom, and, of course, the college application process. While it's certainly not a how-to book by any means, both parents and students would do well to read THE GATEKEEPERS: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg, for it provides a fascinating and in-depth look at how one college selects its freshman class.

Steinberg, an education reporter for the New York Times, spent an entire year with Ralph Figueroa, a senior admissions officer for prestigious Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. His reports initially appeared in the Times. Considered by many to be just a slight notch below the Ivy League, Wesleyan offered Steinberg complete and unfettered access to every step of the admissions process. Steinberg followed Figueroa through recruitment meetings with prospective students, the arduous application reading process, two rounds of admittance decisions, and eventually the wooing of admitted students. I attended a large midwestern university, which, at the time, offered admission to all graduates of any accredited in-state high school. Being an out-of-state student, I was held to a slightly higher standard. I believe I had to demonstrate my ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. So, I really had no idea of the extent of agony and debate that takes place in the admissions offices of these highly selective schools. Steinberg invokes empathy for both the admissions officers and the students.

Steinberg masterfully creates a sense of community by closely following six high school seniors from application through matriculation. He is at his best when describing these students, all from widely disparate backgrounds. Surprisingly, no names have been changed. Steinberg reports their names, scores, hopes, and dreams with complete frankness.

With permission, Steinberg describes students like Becca Janol, an outstanding leader whose adolescent flirtation with a marijuana laced brownie creates a nightmare for Ralph Figueroa and the admissions committee. He also follows, among others, brilliant, biracial Julianna Bentes, who scored a perfect 1600 on her SAT, and Jordan Goldman, a cocky aspiring writer. As you might imagine, the students agonize over their decisions, especially those who are, at least initially, rejected. We must remember that these kids are the cream of the crop. All of the students are exceedingly bright and most have ultra-supportive parents. I found it difficult to cry too many tears over someone who "only" got into 4 selective colleges and eventually ends up in the Ivy League. Some of the students draw this conclusion themselves, and it is refreshing to see the maturity with which they address their youthful shortcomings.

Steinberg is at his best when describing the process and the students. At times, he gets bogged down in numbers. I felt I was drowning in a sea of SAT scores and ratings. Likewise, Steinberg spends too much time detailing the background of Ralph Figueroa. While relevant, it certainly could have been edited more tightly. The main message that Steinberg drives home is that there is no magic password, no formula of X test scores times Y grade point average plus Z extracurriculars that will guarantee admission. It is an imperfect, human process, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view. Steinberg treads lightly on the issue of race, clearly elucidating Wesleyan's affirmative action policies, however controversial they will seem to some. He forces the reader to address their own views as well, since Wesleyan believes they are obliged not just to admit the best students, but to find students that will fit best with their open (some might say too open) atmosphere.

Even if you're not a parent of a pre-frosh, to use Wesleyan's term, you'll still enjoy THE GATEKEEPERS. It provides a glimpse into the lives of some interesting, high-powered kids. It's a fascinating peek behind the curtain into a process that is sometimes unfair, sometimes fatiguing, but always compelling.

--- Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran (shanp@swbell.net)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Being a retired director of admissions having worked at three independent colleges and a public university, I am interested in reading books dealing with admissions offices. "The Gatekeepers" is well written, an interesting read, and appears to be carefully researched and a fairly accurate depiction of the operation of a rather selective admissions office.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't put this book down. My kids are only in elementary school, but I'm glad I read this book now. No, I'm not a pushy parent who wants my kids to go to an Ivy-league school. But this book gave me a good sense of what my kids can expect when it's their turn to apply for college, and how hard they will need to work in high school if they want to have choices.
I don't agree with other reviewers that you're sunk if you're not a minority or a prep-school kid (or both). It just so happens that the author found these students to have compelling stories. But I got the sense that all hard-working students who are compelling in some way, from both public and private schools, get ample consideration. I also got the sense that it is just not enough to have good grades and score well on the SAT. You have to be a person with special qualities, i.e. a special talent, a special interest, proven leadership qualities, etc. to be sought-after by these schools.
A fantastic book I wish all my friends would read.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I applaud Jacques Steinberg on his reporting on the selective college admission process. As an "insider," I was impressed by how much he got right. Substitute almost any selective liberal arts college's name for Wesleyan's, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what goes on.
Steinberg did a terrific job researching higher education issues and capturing the personalities of the admission officers and prospective students. The Gatekeepers is an excellent read, and should be required for anyone who works in higher ed or in college counseling.
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