In 'Gatekeepers,' a Real-Life Peek Behind Closed Doors of College Admissions Offices

By Budris, John | The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

In 'Gatekeepers,' a Real-Life Peek Behind Closed Doors of College Admissions Offices


Budris, John, The Christian Science Monitor


Give or take a few weeks, D-Day looms: the day on which college applications are due.

On or about New Year's, 12 years of sacrifice, tears, athletic and artistic practices, missed meals, and wee-hour nights are consigned to paper and slipped into manila envelopes on the way to some distant ivory tower for judgment by an anonymous jury. It's as if our high school seniors are set adrift on those paper rafts, in the hopes of a safe landing at a pedigreed university gate - preferably one with climbing ivy.

What happens behind closed doors at those colleges - until the results come back in early April - has remained largely myth and speculation.

With "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College," the intelligence report goes public. Jacques Steinberg, an education writer for The New York Times, spent the 1999-2000 school year shadowing Ralph Figueroa, a senior admissions officer at prestigious Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Mr. Steinberg was privy to everything on the table. Each application, each deliberation became his uncamouflaged quarry. He witnessed the up or down vote on each applicant - decisions made with the swiftness and surety of judges in the Roman Coliseum.

Steinberg's account offers insights on affirmative action, standardized testing, and the importance of the arts in the rubric of admissions officers. Consistent with a practice at all premier universities, Wesleyan's admissions team uses double standards when evaluating candidates, according to Steinberg. Applicants with rigorous academic backgrounds, especially those whose parents are college educated, are held to higher standards than those whose families or communities are deemed less advantaged. He underscores an unwritten, yet puzzling, ethnic hierarchy, one that disturbs Figueroa: Asian-American students must clear an even higher bar than white candidates and other minorities.

Steinberg's dominant message, however, is that no secret formula governs admissions. The process is imperfect, human, and "utterly messy." At times, the choices seem almost impossible, considering that 9 of 10 applicants will be rejected. Wesleyan seats only 700 new freshmen from a sterling applicant pool of more than 7,000. At Harvard last year, rejection letters went out to more than 18,000 of some 20,000 superb candidates. …

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