The Best Book Ever Written On Elite College Admissions

What’s striking is how much effort Wesleyan spends trying to convince a golden few to apply, then how quickly they drop the ball, once they’ve sent out their acceptance letters. The lucky students are invited to visit the campus, but there’s little adult involvement when the high school seniors arrive.

One of Wesleyan’s top recruits, the beautiful, biracial Julianne, who has sky-high SAT scores and the perfect resume, is quickly alienated when her host student drags her to a vibrator “workshop,” and she scratches the school off her list. Steinberg blames this embarrassing slip-up on the fact that the admissions office is overworked and understaffed. But he doesn’t comment on how that understaffing reflects the school’s overall priorities.

More disturbing is what happens when Mizigi, the smart but high-risk American Indian boy from New Mexico, finally enrolls in September. Although he’s been forewarned by Figueroa that he’ll be the first and—that year the only—American Indian at Wesleyan, nobody steps in to ease his adjustment or mentor him. Predictably, Miz falls between the cracks and ends up dropping out. You want to cry or maybe shake a few of the adults.

Counseled and groomed

In contrast, the support Julianne and Becca receive from Sharon Merrow, their high school counselor at the Harvard-Westlake prep school in Los Angeles, is nothing short of amazing. Julianna is able to pop into Merrow’s office almost every day for conversation and guidance. As for Becca, when she’s wait-listed at three of her favorite schools, she collapses on Merrow’s couch and cries in the counselor’s arms. Merrow, of course, encourages Becca not to give up. “Someone out there loves you,” she says soothingly.

It’s no surprise to learn that, after a few speed bumps, both girls end up at prestigious institutions—not at Wesleyan, much to Figueroa’s disappointment, but at the competition, two Ivy League schools. It’s clear Julianne and Becca have been counseled and groomed by a savvy expert every step of the way.

High school students and their parents will probably sympathize with most of the applicants, and they’ll experience “The Gatekeepers” as a knuckle-biting tale. But even those uninvolved with the college search may find the tapestry of stories engrossing, maybe even distressing.

When Steinberg joins the admissions staff at the conference table in their office, this is what he hears as the assistant director rattles off summaries of each student: “2B, 2A, followed by 3B, 1A, then 3B, 2A and, at the quarter 3B, 2A.” This monotonous listing of grades seems to summarize how reductive the process can be. It’s hard for anyone not to wince. Can all of a teenager’s dreaming, striving and suffering really come down to this?

What the schools need and want

In the end though, Steinberg makes clear, the GPAs, SAT scores, class rankings, awards won and other quantifiable measurements are just a few of the ingredients that get stirred into a large pot. Some of the other ingredients include students’ essay writing abilities, their dramatic life stories, artistic portfolios and personal contacts. Not to mention serendipity: an oboe player who applies the year the college orchestra happens to need one can tip the scales in the right direction. When all is said and done, it’s really all about the school’s needs and wants.

“Admissions was a process,” Steinberg says, “in which the objective criteria were always changing, depending on the particular candidate and the institution’s specific need at that moment.” Anyone who believes that passage through the gates of America’s most esteemed colleges is based on a meritocracy will understand by the end of this book that it isn’t.

A dozen years after Steinberg’s initial research, there have been two big changes in college admissions. First, the thousands of file folders with their color-coded stickers have been replaced by electronic applications and tracking systems. “Remember those buckets and buckets of mail?” Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, Wesleyan’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, says to Steinberg in the book’s new afterward. “Almost gone!”

The second change is the astonishing increase, not only in the quantity of applicants, but in the number of applications each candidate files. While students once applied to five or ten schools at the most, many are now hedging their bets by applying to 12, 15 or even 20.

Acceptances rates keep dropping

This has caused acceptance rates to drop even further. In 1999, Wesleyan had a 33% acceptance rate. By fall 2011, they had attracted 10,033 applicants, causing the acceptance rate to drop to 24%. At the very top of the exclusivity pyramid is Harvard, which attracted 34,302 applicants this year, bringing its admitted student rate down to an intimidating 6%.

Despite these two changes, the admissions process is pretty much the same as it was more than a decade ago, Meislahn assures Steinberg. “I would say that priorities have changed very little,” she adds.

Although that may have the cadence of an upbeat ending, the issues raised in this book should give us pause. First and foremost: when the competition for a good education is this fierce, can anyone—either individuals or the society—truly win?

In the short term, “The Gatekeepers” works an insider’s guide that strips away much of the mystery from the admissions process and can help students navigate it successfully. In the long term, one can only hope it will inspire fundamental change.

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts. She can be reached at The College Strategist.