‘The Gatekeepers’: an Illuminating Look at College Admissions

January 9, 2013

Whether adults have attended college themselves or their kids will be the first generation to earn a degree, ‘The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College’ is one audio book that no parent can afford to pass up. New York Times writer (and national education correspondent) Jacques Steinberg draws on his knowledge of the admissions process, as well as an invitation to observe the ins and outs of admissions at liberal arts college Wesleyan University to deliver an in-depth look into just how students get selected for entrance into one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the U.S., and what it means for students looking to crack the formula. In truth, this audio book may offer not only an eye-opening revelation, but also a rather disheartening obstacle for many students.

What quickly becomes evident in this study of the admissions process is that the decision to admit one student over another is somewhat arbitrary. Steinberg bases the majority of his narrative on admissions officer Ralph Figueroa, who allowed the author to follow him for eight months, documenting the lengthy process of visiting schools to woo potential candidates for admission all the way through to deciding which students would gain admittance while the larger number of applicants got the axe. Although the account is padded with student interviews that Steinberg collected along the way, tracking the trajectory of applicants for a human counterpoint to the numbers game of admissions, the real meat of this story lies in the frightening truth that there is no sure-fire way to get accepted.

While grades, exams, extracurricular activities, essays, and so on are certainly examined by boards of admissions, the sad truth is that these decision-makers must often go through thousands upon thousands of applications that are practically identical in order to narrow down the list of students to the scant few hundred that will actually be allowed entrance. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for individual attention and it certainly doesn’t allow for a cookie-cutter formula that will guarantee a slot. In fact, listeners may be surprised at some of the reasons that students are selected over their competitors, like in the case of an applicant who admitted to drug use, citing it as an example of a lesson learned the hard way. The panel was drawn to the honesty present in the essay and it was enough to gain the student admission. And yet, another board of admissions might have dismissed the student outright.

For students and parents alike, this revelatory look down the rabbit hole of the admissions process could be jarring. And yet, for students looking to show their individuality, it may also provide a ray of hope. With no real formula to dictate who is granted admission, a creative and heartfelt essay could just tip the scales. Prestigious institutions like Wesleyan, theĀ University of Southern California, or perhaps even Ivy League schools could be a possibility for students with the right GPA, adequate test scores, and a killer essay. According to ‘Gatekeepers’, anything is possible, which is equal parts hopeful and disconcerting.

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