Book Review: The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers
Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg
Paperback: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0142003085

The Gatekeepers goes a long way towards demystifying the college admissions process in the United States. Steinberg adapted the book from a series of articles that he’d written in the New York Times. Unlike most article adaptations, he actually has enough material collected to justify a full-length book. Apart from the somewhat overlong mini-biography of admissions officer Ralph Figueroa that opens the book, it's captivating reading.

I knew a fair amount about college admissions to start with. I went to a very competitive suburban high school. I applied during the 1999-2000 admissions season – the same season chronicled in this book. One of my apartment-mates in grad school went to Wesleyan, the college whose admissions office threw open its doors to Steinberg. I do admissions interviews for applicants to my alma mater, almost all of them students at a super-competitive suburban high school. So I have a better idea than most people of how the admissions game is played.

Inside look at admissions

But the book provided a more all-around picture of admissions than the narrow peeks I’d had previously. Did you know, for example, that interest in physics is considered to be a hook at small liberal arts colleges (SLAC)? That's because many of them had built brand-new science centers in the last round of facilities construction, and needed students to keep their science professors happy. It’s logical enough, but I’d never applied to a SLAC, so I’d never thought about it.

Admissions officers often develop close relationships with guidance counselors at “feeder” schools, including public schools that traditionally have sent a large number of students to a particular university. At private schools, guidance counselors help students to strategize their applications, telling them where to apply and reading over essays. In other words, college admissions consulting is one of the services that parents pay for in the private school’s tuition.

The book's main selling point is the insider's view that it presents of the admissions decisions being made. This is indeed fascinating, because Steinberg presents an internal monologue of the logic that the admissions officers use when arriving at their numerical scores. Got four AP classes in a school where the top students have nine? Well, then, I guess you're not taking the “most rigorous” curriculum available. Are you a Hispanic student with high SAT scores and a talent for acting? Not only is this a definite admit, but let’s also fly her out for free on a campus visit. Through these sketches (admittedly limited in number), you can get at least the broad outlines of how an admissions officer thinks.

Shortcomings of the admissions process

The committee decision process seems like the worst possible way to make decisions, except perhaps for all the others that have been tried. The admissions officers at Wesleyan gather around a conference table and make decisions collectively by a show of hands in a grueling multi-day marathon.

One student had turned herself in after eating a marijuana-laced brownie — the only one to turn herself in, from among dozens of students who’d partaken. Fellow students at her high school grumbled that she had just discovered a back door into college, a way to make herself stand out from the crowd. Indeed, she writes an essay about the experience. But the admissions officers’ numerical evaluations put her on the edge numerically, and the admissions committee decides not to take a chance on her her. Far from making her stand out as a person of integrity, her experience ended up making her look like a potential pothead.

This demonstrates the main drawback of the committee approach — susceptibility to groupthink. Whoever does the oral presentation of the candidate’s file gets to set the tone for the discussion. Once the group has latched onto an identifying characteristic, the discussion focuses on that one controversial aspect, and the rest of the application falls by the wayside.

Some schools do not admit by committee. Cornell has professors reading applications, paired with an admissions staffer assigned to that area. The two of them are authorized to admit applicants. Even Wesleyan gives up on the committee once a new director of admissions is hired. Also, as applicants began applying to more and more colleges, the increased workload on admissions officers makes it unfeasible to discuss every application in a committee.

Packaging yourself up for the admissions office

The students themselves make rookie mistakes — and why wouldn’t they? After all, it’s their first time applying to college. An underachieving Asian student in the Bay Area with some B's and a reasonably high (but not super-high) SAT score decides that her “Human Rights Club” is too personal a topic to write an essay about. The one-line mention on her application thus flies right past the admissions officers and becomes a mere resume-padder. Steinberg discovers that she did indeed start the club to pad her application, but ended up in fairly deep correspondence with a pen pal on death row. If she’d wanted to, she really could've told an interesting story about it.

A “cocksure” Jewish aspiring screenwriter from Long Island sends in short stories, long works that the admissions office clearly has no time to read, extra recommendation letters from Hollywood folks and the parents of the disabled kid he helped. What ends up getting him in is the essay that he wrote about the kid — a story that moved the admissions officer assigned to his file.

Important points for strategic college applications:

  1. It is better to have “maxed out” the opportunities at a less competitive high school than to be way down the list at a super-competitive school. This is particularly true for colleges that admit by region, since they will be more likely to rank applicants from a particular high school directly against each other.
  2. Some private schools limit the number of applications that a student may send out, because they know roughly how many spots they should expect to get at the top universities. While not a formal quota, colleges are unlikely to admit too many more or fewer — they are reluctant to jeopardize the “feeder” relationship.
  3. A surprisingly large number of students skip classes that they don't like at high school. This really, really, really hurts them like you wouldn’t believe. Three math classes instead of four? Looks terrible. Gave up on social studies? Ditto. “Well-rounded” does not just mean extracurriculars — it applies to academics, too.

The book definitely made me think. For example, I now have a better understanding of how affirmative action works in the holistic evaluation — the distribution of academic credentials for underrepresented minorities is so skewed to the left that as soon as the admissions officers see a decent candidate, they’re all over him or her. And if the candidate is not merely decent, but very good, that person can basically fly around the country on college visits for free and negotiate for additional “need-based” scholarships at schools that don't offer pure merit scholarships.

I also came away from it wondering, “What are we going through all this for?” Why do students have to bare their souls to get into the most competitive colleges? In Britain, Oxbridge conducts college-specific and discipline-specific interviews by professors and lecturers. Humanities applicants have to show that they are capable of scholarly discourse in their intended field. Science and engineering students have to demonstrate how they think about technical questions — by working out a topic, on paper, in front of the interviewer. This allows for a broader evaluation of academic credentials than that provided by examination scores, yet still remains entirely focused on academics and not on non-academic abilities.

Granted, it is possible to do subjective evaluation of academic potential in Britain because students in Europe have already begun to specialize during secondary education. In the United States, secondary education largely remains in the “college preparatory” mode — wider rather than deeper.

Assessment of the book

The main omission in the book is the lack of attention paid to very-competitive public high schools. This is the environment that I’m most familiar with, and probably also produces the parents most anxious about college admissions. He follows a number of private schools and boarding schools, plus a group of minority students. But the other applicants from public schools are described almost entirely individually, without presenting the overall context. How are these applicants (and their parents) faring in a world where their friends are all anxiously asking each other, “So, ’dja get in?”

The book also has a necessarily-limited viewpoint of the process from the viewpoint of the admissions committee, owing largely to the fact that he followed the admissions process at a small liberal arts college. On the other hand, it’s not like the IvyPlus universities offered to let him in their doors. The general process is similar enough at the selective universities that you can get a decent idea from this one example.

The book clearly isn’t the end-all and be-all of admissions exposés, but it’s a start. And that makes it worth reading, especially if you’re a teenager about to go through the process, or the parent of a teenager. Once you have an idea of how the process works, you might just improve your applications strategies — and you might also be a bit less devastated at any disappointments that result.