Skip to main content

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College


The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

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 on September 16, 2002

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg

  • Publication Date: September 16, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670031356
  • ISBN-13: 9780670031351