The Gatekeepers is an engaging account of a year in the lives of an admissions officer and six high school seniors whose paths converge at Wesleyan University. Steinberg, an education reporter for the New York Times, garnered the opportunity to observe the Wesleyan University admissions office assembling the 1999 freshman class.
Those reading The Gatekeepers
to find tips on how to gain admission to an elite college will not find much here. As Steinberg states, “I have made a conscious decision not to write yet another volume for the buckling shelf of books that promise to reveal the secret password for gaining entrance to a top college” (p. xxii). Instead, we learn that “the job of an admissions officer at an elite private college has become one of the most powerful, stressful, and least understood occupations in the nation” (p. xxiii).
Steinberg’s interest in undergraduate admissions stemmed from his own query concerning his admission to his “dream college,” Dartmouth, years ago: “How had I managed to get in, when so many others had not” (p. xi)? This question led Steinberg to cover the world of college admissions, and he sought out admissions officers willing to let him observe the admissions process. Due to the private nature of collegiate admissions, Steinberg was rebuffed at several colleges, but successfully persuaded the staff at Wesleyan to allow him access to the process of creating the class of 2003. Specifically, Steinberg follows the life of Ralph Figueroa, an eight-year veteran of the admissions profession. His intensive shadowing of Figueroa shapes the majority of The Gatekeepers.
Early in the book, readers learn of Figueroa’s strong familial ties to education and community service. They also gain a perspective on Figueroa’s close friendship with Sharon Merrow, a guidance counselor at Harvard-Westlake, one the nation’s most prestigious prep schools. The discussion of their friendship foreshadows the professional challenges college admissions brings to their personal relationship over the course of the year. There are interesting vignettes of Figueroa in action at college fairs, working to establish personal relationships in order to recruit top students to Wesleyan.
The countervailing perspective to Figueroa’s in The Gatekeepers is provided through Steinberg’s periodic, yet probing, reporting of the lives of six Wesleyan applicants. Julianna Bates is an academically stellar student-artist at Harvard-Westlake with an ethnic background that many colleges find compelling — she is both African American and Latina. Figueroa has been recruiting Julianna since her freshman year of high school. Another Harvard-Westlake student, Becca Jannol, takes a risk in her essay by detailing the ethical lessons she learned after eating a marijuana-laced brownie, hoping that her integrity and strong record of leadership will land her a spot in a selective college, like Wesleyan. Mig Pensoneau, a student from the Midwest who initially catches Figueroa’s attention through his extensive knowledge of film trivia, turns out to be a serious student committed to his academics at a Native American charter school after an unspectacular three years in Minnesota. Jordan Goldman is an aspiring writer with well-placed connections who initially has his mind set on attending Brown and little else. Aggie Ramirez, a New York City student from a working-class family, strikes a chord with Figueroa. Despite her low class rank, she flourishes at a Maryland preparatory school, becoming one of the first Latina campus leaders the school had ever had. Finally, Tiffany Wang is a student with stellar test scores and a comprehensive extracurricular activities portfolio that does little to impress Figueroa; however, we later learn that her letter-writing to prisoners on death row, something she never mentions in her applications, makes her stand out.
Steinberg’s portrayal of Ralph Figueroa and his colleagues cast the admissions officers as competent, yet very human administrators. While many of the selection criteria at Wesleyan are objective measures (class rank and so forth), admissions officers are often drawn to candidates with similar histories to their own, or to those applicants who fit their interpretation of “campus leader” or “intellectually curious.” Steinberg notes that, “like fortune-tellers, the admissions officers were engaged in a task that was, in fact, anything but scientific” (p. 96).
The toll this scrutiny takes on students is evident in their personal accounts, as readers discover in the words of Becca Jannol: “I’m sorry so many kids have to go through this process. It makes you fell really bad about yourself at times” (p. 261). Interestingly, admissions officers share similar feelings when students “reject” their schools. Referring to a student who chose an Ivy League school over Wesleyan, despite Figueroa’s intervention, his close friend Sharon Merrow states:
I felt for [Figueroa]. [The student] had genuinely considered Wesleyan as an option. I knew Ralph had followed her for so long. When you let yourself believe there’s the chance you might get them, and you don’t it hurts. And then they’re out of your life. (p. 251)
Steinberg manages to convey that there is no “magic bullet” in elite college admissions, but proffers the advice Figueroa gives to aspiring Wesleyan students at Harvard-Westlake: “Whatever you do, don’t send me poems. . . . Don’t use gimmicks, they sometimes work. . . . Be] true to who you are . . . [rather than] write about what you think the college wants to hear” (p. 37). This point is perhaps best illustrated in the delightful story of Carter L. Bays, a student waitlisted at Wesleyan a decade ago. Dismayed that he was not admitted immediately, this student’s plan of action directly contradicted the advice Figueroa gave the students at Harvard-Westlake. Bays decided “to send [the admissions office] a postcard every day until you accept me” (p. 255). This ploy paid off for Bays, as he was eventually admitted and, appropriately, netted a job after graduation answering viewer mail for David Letterman.
Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers
details the complex and sometimes idiosyncratic college admissions process and preserves the humanity of the students, staff, and their families. The gatekeepers have the unenviable yet exciting task of balancing externalities such as median SAT scores, favorable U.S. News & World Report rankings, and the desires of alumni and faculty with fulfilling the dreams of more academically capable and curious students than they have space to admit. Nevertheless, readers will walk away with an appreciation for the effort put forth by all constituents in this book.