New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg spent the 1999–00 admission cycle observing Wesleyan’s inner workings. He found surprise and reassurance, chronicled in his new book, The Gatekeepers.
Motivated by a desire to demystify the admission process, Wesleyan provided Jacques Steinberg with an unsanitized, wide-open view of its admission process over a period of months. Steinberg, then new to the education desk at the Times, produced a series of articles that appeared on the front page, now expanded into a new book,The Gatekeepers. He portrays Wesleyan’s deliberations through the eyes of Ralph Figueroa, a former admission official who has since become director of college guidance at a private school in New Mexico. Newsweek said the book “should be required reading for any student or parent who seeks insights into what Steinberg correctly describes as a process &lduo;hidden behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope’.”
Q: Was your access to Wesleyan’s admission process unfettered?
Jacques Steinberg: Absolutely. Nobody ever told me to close that folder or leave the room. I was able to become a fly on the wall. I saw several hundred decisions, and I know that they forgot I was there at some points. I didn’t pull any punches with Wesleyan; there were certainly things Wesleyan would have preferred not be in the book.
Q: Were there any ground rules?
JS: One ground rule was that I couldn’t reach out to a student until that person had received a decision letter. I spent a lot of time with Nancy [Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, dean of admission and financial aid] making sure that the details we used were not so telling that kids would recognize themselves. After the first piece ran in which we talked about a Latina girl from the Northeast who had a SAT score in the 1100s, the admission office heard from several guidance counselors who were furious that their kid was mentioned; none was right.
Q: But several applicants were later named in the book.
JS: Viking drew up a very stiff release in which the kids agreed to let us have access to all of their papers in their files and let us use their names. I wanted to profile a half-dozen kids, and I wanted each to represent something different about the process. We approached six kids and got six releases signed. I told them up front that there would be things in the book they wouldn’t like. I told them that the portraits of them would not be believable if they each looked like saints and I was going to let the chips fall where they may. Without question, all of them said they thought this would help kids in their shoes.
Q: Why did you conclude that there is no way to game the admission process?
JS: There’s an industry of books that claim to hold the secret to how to get you in. Having spent the better part of a year watching that process, I don’t know how anybody in good conscience could tell you that there was some secret code. It’s so messy up close. When you see them wrestling with case after case, you realize there are very few generalizations you can draw on. It was surprising to me that the admission officers spent so much time looking at how rigorous your high school curriculum was. It was only then that they looked at your grades. Another revelation to me was that it wasn’t the list of extracurricular activities as long as your arm that they wanted. They prize: did you love the activity and were you committed to it? Did you spend enough time at it that you were a leader?
Q: Why were you surprised at the emphasis on a tough curriculum?
JS: A lot of us are raised to think they are looking for straight A’s. I’m sure there are kids out there who think that it might be better to get an A in an easier course than a B in a harder one. It was reassuring, frankly, that this would be recognized.
Q: What are your observations on the way students approach the application essay?
JS: It saddens me that there is so much second-guessing that goes on among applicants. There’s a story in the book about a girl who wrote a fairly ordinary essay about her parents and feng shui. When I found her afterward and said there was nothing in her application that made her come alive as a person, she talked about her correspondence at the age of 14 with inmates on death row, telling them not to give up hope. I said, “I’m no college counselor, but did you think about writing that essay?” She said she had thought about it, but decided to play it safe. It’s possible the essay might have offended someone, but why not take the chance?
Q: Do private high school kids have an edge?
JS: It cuts both ways. One of the more subtle things in the book is that there is some resentment about Ralph’s pushing particularly hard for kids from Harvard-Westlake [a private school in California] where his best friend from Stanford is a college counselor. Ralph knows that sometimes there is backlash against Harvard-Westlake applicants. That hurts when it’s a kid getting a rougher time for something he or she has no control over. But each of them knew they had their own favorites and that Ralph’s relationship had brought a lot of good people to Wesleyan.
Q: Did you think Wesleyan applied affirmative action fairly?
JS: I would have a hard time defining what’s fair. If you accept the premise that a racially and ethnically diverse class is educational both for students of color and for students who are not of color, then I’m not sure that there is a better way to practice this. You’ve got an office of people at Wesleyan who subscribe to the notion of affirmative action. Yet there is such a range. Ralph’s definition is often so different from Greg Pyke’s [senior associate dean of admission]. It’s the nuance that gets missed in the national discussion.
Q: How did you react to the amount of personal judgment that goes into selecting applicants?
JS: If you are somebody with a 1400 SAT and a 4.0, I’m sure you would love it if those numbers were just fed into a computer. But if you are not that person, I would think that you would be thrilled to know that at Wesleyan people are really going to look at you and get to know you. I remember being in an information session at which Greg Pyke gave parents a briefing on how they make choices. A father stood up, furious, saying this process sounds so subjective. Greg said, “Yes, thank you. I’ve been heard.” It’s not scientific and they don’t want it to be.
Q: Do you think the process is fair?
JS: I’m not sure I could design a better process. Knowing the limits of standardized testing, I would not want to throw all these scores into a computer and come up with a class. If you decide you are not going to do that, then you have to let people respond to these files as people. We quote Doug Bennet as saying that fairness is not the only or the first objective of this process. I don’t know how you would define fairness.
Q: Did you detect a Wesleyan type of applicant?
JS: They are trying to build a community. They want it to be diverse in the broadest definition of the word. They need oboists and tuba players, second-basemen and philosophers, physicists?there are so many opportunities for kids to make their case that they would fit into this community. When you actually see them wrestling with case after case after case, you realize there are very few generalizations you can draw on. It was hard to anticipate whom they were going to take or not.
Q: Admission officers don’t have much time in committee to present their cases, do they?
JS: Some applicants will surely be surprised to learn that at Wesleyan your application is read by two people and in all likelihood the dean or her deputy at least familiarizes herself with the case. If there is not consensus between the first two readers, Wesleyan goes the extra mile by throwing it to the committee. Even if you only get a five-minute committee hearing, they are still giving you one more chance. The lengths to which Wesleyan went to try to get it right were amazing to me. There are so many checks and balances in this process, and I would hope that is reassuring to people.
Q: Is the job of being an admission officer different from what you expected?
JS: I found what I was hoping I would find: individuals who felt, in most instances, this responsibility in the very fiber of their being. Ralph had this wonderful line, “I can’t bring them all to Wesleyan.” They know that they will not make everyone happy. Ralph’s wife was always telling him to read faster, say no. I was glad I saw that Ralph and his colleagues really sweat these decisions. You could tell that they knew they were handling precious cargo. Ralph gave every applicant a chance, and I know he’s not unique. I hoped that I would find people who agonized, who welled up with tears over the occasional essay. I found what I hoped to find.