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The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
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In the fall of 1999, New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg was given an unprecedented opportunity to observe the admissions process at prestigious Wesleyan University. Over the course of nearly a year, Steinberg accompanied admissions officer Ralph Figueroa on a tour to assess and recruit the most promising students in the country. The Gatekeepers follows a diverse group of prospective students as they compete for places in the nation's most elite colleges. The first book to reveal the college admission process in such behind-the-scenes detail, The Gatekeepers will be required reading for every parent of a high school-age child and for every student facing the arduous and anxious task of applying to college.

Customer Reviews:

    I have read key excerpts from this book and an older book about the same topic written by Jean Fetter, former admissions dean at Stanford. While both admissions personnel discuss the subjective manner and sometimes mental anguish that goes into the process, I think the common denominator in both books is performance: good old fashioned hard work with a smattering of a little bit of smarts and an almost zealot like desire to succeed in everything you do. Case in point, my child recently received admission letters from Stanford, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD. Only rejection notice came from Yale. What do I attribute the high percentage of acceptance letters too? A 2320 SAT score (800 in reading), 4.4 GPA, a score of 5 on 8 out of 10 AP exams, President and co-founder of the schools National Honor Society, President of the Mentoring Club (Club that essentially runs the after school peer tutoring program), Secretary of the interact club, recommendation letter from an AP calculus teacher. Are you huffing and puffing yet. The bottom line is giving your child a goal to set their sights on and encouraging and mentoring them to meet those goals. Guess what: she attends a public school that is overcrowded. ...more info
  • Absoutely Fascinating...
    I just finished reading "The Gatekeepers" after it was recommended by other mom in my daughter's senior's class. Since several of the schools my daughter is applying to are mentioned in the book it was definitely a must read for me. However, it is a must read for any parent whose child is applying to a selective college/university.

    "The Gatekeepers" is written in a wonderfully thoughtful and fascinating manner that it reads like a novel you just can't put down. The insight it provides into the admissions process is invaluable not only in the useful information it provides but also in the "shot in the dark" aspect to applying to a selective school. I think it may help my daughter and myself to relax a bit during this whole thing since so much of it seems random, especially for white middle class kids with great grades and scores.

    My daughter is off right now on college tours with my husband and I keep calling her with advice I've learned from the book--she may start blocking my calls. But if you want to know what goes on, read this book, you won't be sorry you did....more info

  • untangling the ivy
    "The Gatekeepers" follows not only the admissions crew at Wesleyan, but five or six seniors undergoing the admissions process. Although some were minorities, almost all attended outstanding private schools with supportive staff and guidance counselors who communicated with Wesleyan and other elite college staff via warm personal notes. Which was probably why, as someone who attended public high school ten years ago, which lacked any kind of helpful program to assist its students into getting into the school of their choice, reading this book left a bitter taste in my mouth.

    Too often, as much as the Wesleyan staff seemed to genuinely care about their job and do it to the best of their abilities, they seemed more than a tad hypocritical in the advice they gave to high school seniors. Don't pin your hopes on just one college, but they were the ones who pinned their hopes on a few outstanding (mostly) prep school stars, many of whom, wanted to go to an Ivy. This just widens the gulf between private and public school applicants, the latter of whom (like me) do just as well once they're finally in a stimulating, diverse college environment.

    I also found some of the "gimmicks" these schools used to snare students more than a bit inappropriate. One admissions officer informed a senior via email that he was his "absolute favorite," another that he was going to "create a fragrance" in this boy's name. Even in jest, that seems to cross the line between wooing a student and out and out begging for his presence.

    For every overachiever that goes on to set the world on fire, there's another who winds up struggling due to financial, emotional or other problems beyond his/her control. I knew a lot of people who went through a period of being exceeingly miserable at the school they chose; ultimately, despite fancy packages meant as bait, it's up to the student himself to make his way....more info

  • Boring book about boring job.
    Boring book about a boring job. Another article stretched out into a book. Still in all well-researched and obviously appeals to some....more info
  • fair read
    This is quick two day read for those who have some spare time on their hands. It does not prompt any changes in thinking or raise any critical questions but serves as a straightforward but in-depth view into the subjective world of college admissions.

    No book should ever serve as the sole reasoning behind college decisions but only as a complement to logical thinking, supportive parents, and a well-advised high school counselor. But if you find yourself in the crazy world of college admissions and want to read something helpful about the admission process, then pick this up - but don't expect too much....more info
  • Should be required reading for kids, more so for parents
    Two things struck me most about this excellent book. First, it shows the inner workings of what colleges are up against trying to get the cream of high school students to attend. From my point of view as someone in the middle of the pack at my high school, though, it's an alien world. The idea that elite colleges would be going out and trying to get people to apply, even as fodder to boost their rejection rate for US News, was a big surprise. This book really points out the bifurcation between the academic stars, who they madly chase after, and the other 99% of students, who get a passing yawn.

    The second thing to strike me was the wide latitude the admissions officers have in admitting what they personally consider to be a racially diverse student body. With all due respect to the main character Ralph, I got the sense in reading this book that at least some admissions officers are on a personal quest to right what they consider to be wrong with the racial make-up of the student body. I kept thinking that when my son applies to college, I'll tell him whatever you do, don't check the Caucasian box. It's a real advantage to check the Hispanic, African American or Native American boxes. You can always make the case that you have some minority genes, if you go back far enough.

    This book should be required reading for students and parents. Although it takes place at a liberal arts college, it should be required for science majors as well....more info

  • Insightful, Heartfelt, Great read for all especially parents
    I found this true tale to be touching. I was empathetic to all those involved whether they were those selected from "merit" or "action". I was overjoyed for all the applicants and their growth (and mine) through their experiences. I applauded the thoughtful way applicants were reviewed and considered for admission. There are several views when discussing "merit" versus "action". I believe that in Wesleyan's case, at this snap shot in time, their process although flawed like all other schools does look at the merit of diversity. There action based merit is what eliminates strife with the knowledge we all gain of one another in a diverse environment where all share a common goal. Parents this is a exceptional book, look beyond reading this a purely a guide to admission into your college of choice but devourer these words and walk away with a growth that "will ad" to your life an the world as a whole. You are a "Kevin Bacon" relation to everyone you encounter or never encounter on this planet....more info
  • Excellent book!
    As a former admission officer, I found the book to be quite honest and descript. Unveiling the process behind the ever-elusive curtain, it is a book for anyone who is truly interested in how a class is shaped on a College or University campus. I thoroughly enjoyed this quick read and was captivated at the stories of the students....more info
  • The Human Elements of the College Admissions Process
    "The Gatekeepers" is not a "how to" book, but rather a "how it truly is" book. Jacques Steinberg's non-fiction account of the college admissions process reads like a mystery novel. He presents sensitive portrayals of the students who submit their applications and of the admission officers who plow through them to fashion a freshman class that is consistent with the university's philosophy.
    Mr. Steinberg is a gifted storyteller who keeps the reader glued to the page and begging for more.
    The book is a terrific read for students, parents and anyone curious about how the college selection process works....more info
  • Very Strange culture
    This book is a fairly good read, especially in the second half, and gives an interesting view of what can best be described as a very strange dimension of U.S. culture -- kids and adults who define their self value through affiliation with elite institutions. As one applicant who goes to Central America before enrolling finds out, most of the world does not care where you go to college. I am all for a good education and applaud students who can be accepted at somme of these colleges and universities -- I have attended some of them myself -- but the desperation of some of these students (and the admissions officers who take their colleges so seriously) speak more than anything about class/status anxiety. Wellesley is a good university but so is Miami of Ohio and UC San Diego -- and thus I wonder about admissions officers who act as if they are ruining lives by not admitting certain kids. In other words, the colleges are into reproducing a sense of themselves and their graduates as special.

    The book does offer insight into the admissions process, some of it disturbing, and shows that smart people can be very shallow. ...more info
  • not a REAL insider's guide
    I found Steinberg's account interesting for a reporter's perspective -- he somewhat lionizes the director who from all accounts is a typical "try to do the right thing" type of guy. However, after reading about 10 college guides, I have to conclude that the only real "insider's" guide I've read is ... written by a real admissions officer, not a reporter parrotting what admissions officers want him to see. Parents will learn something about the process, but if they want to know real details and a true insider's perspectives, hernandez's book is the real groundbreaking one, with Howard Greene a close second. This book is solid, but nothing really new. Even the term Gatekeepers was coined by a NY Post writer who used A is for Admission's results for the term....more info
  • More tangled than I thought
    A wonderful underscoring of the fact that these decisions are made by humans, not automatons. This, I suppose, is both good and bad: on the one hand, qualified applicants with some quality that doesn't necessarily manifest itself as anything special in test scores often still comes across to admissions officers. On the other hand, you get all sorts of biases, and admissions officers who hope to "discover" themselves in the applicant pool.

    One interesting observation. Many people who've reviewed this book have expressed near glee that the underqualified affirmative action admit went on probation and failed to return to Wesleyan. This is exactly what affirmative action has done to us: instead of bridging gaps of culture and inheritance, it pits us in some sort of imagined zero sum game where we actually start crowing over someone's misfortune.

    Steinberg is obviously sympathetic to affirmative action throughout, but he does an incredible job of displaying its pitfalls, too....more info

  • an absorbing read
    Our son, (product of a large urban public school) is part of the Wesleyan class of '04, so I was curious about the process that ended up in his being accepted there.
    I found the book absorbing and informative, as well as reassuring. The admissions officers do pay attention to each applicant, not just the GPAs and the test scores. I came away with the feeling that, while no admission system is perfect, the officers at Wesleyan do the very best they can to be fair to each candidate while trying to achieve diversity (broadly defined to embrace different interests, talent, as well as race and ethnicity). I do wish, though, that Becca Jannol had been admitted to Wesleyan.
    We met Ralph Figueroa briefly at orientation. Though our son was not part of his "jurisdiction" I was impressed that Ralph remembered him.
    The book itself reads like a page turner. It made me care about both the officers and the applicants....more info
  • You'll enjoy THE GATEKEEPERS.
    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 (
    ...more info
  • The god's do play dice with the universe
    I read this book and had a wide range of emotions. I will start by stating my views tend to be fiscally and politically moderate. So, I had to temper my frustration in reading a book on college admissions written by a writer for the New York Times (a decidedly liberal newspaper)and of a quite liberal East Coast University, Wesleyan. The choice of school and admission officer to shadow express a liberal bias that may not entirely reflect the view of all top Universities, but is probably true to the nature of Affirmative Action nation wide. Mr. Figueroa, the Admissions Officer, deserves accolades for the passion he expresses in his responsibilities.

    That said, my analysis must be dispassionate since my oldest child is currently looking at colleges. So here it is:

    1. The Wesleyan pie is first divided this way, 30% African, Latino and Asian students. Many deserve admission, without question, no matter who you measure them against. These are the HP (high priority) minority students. Others are in the generally acceptable population range according to averages, courses taken, class rank, activities, leadership etc.. Some are at risk students, as are some in the other applicant cohorts. True, these students may be cut a little slack but, remember they still must pass courses to matriculate at the university. The U.S. News and World Report is watching and will note the number of non matriculating students. They will also note the number of students who are accepted and decide to go elsewhere. And so the games begin!

    2. Foreign students are given 3% of the pie. Diversity by ethnicity and country raised in and state of origin produce robustness. The rules for foreign students are very similar I suppose although the book does not go into great detail.

    3. 67% is carved out for those with European ancestry. My only beef here is that there are significant cultural diversity distinctions even amongst Europeans! We are not all rolled out of the same batch of flour or using the same cookie cutter, so to speak. But, alas I digress.

    Of this group an expectation of SAT = 1340 or so is expected. This is the benchmark. Quality points are given for challenging AP courses as compared to your peers. The harder the competition at your High School and the more people apply to the same university the lower the probability you have to be picked over your classmates. Unless, of course, you are the one to apply early decision and have all the goods. Subjectivity always is a confounding variable. A wonderful essay read by an Admissions Officer at 3am on Saturday may work as well as the car built by the worst crew on the last Friday of the quota month. But chance does favor the prepared mind so make your essay special for you.

    Activities count, clubs, organizations, etc., but being an officer or say President of the Student body counts more for showing Leadership. Life experiences expressed in a well written essay could tip the scale, as well.

    Sports are important if you are "the one" who is needed for the team, but usually not without the other components mentioned. A much needed Oboist should get the nod, sometimes even if some deficiencies need to be overlooked.

    Diversity by domestic geographic origin also is a consideration. Schools want to recruit and report diversity from all 50 states. Obviously, East coast schools will attract more people from the east and therefore you compete with other east coast students for a subset of the seats to a greater degree than you think!

    So, keep the grades up, take the most challenging curriculum, be a leader in school organizations, express yourself in your essays, note any ethnicity that is accurate and listed (or not listed), take an SAT prep course, grind through old SAT exams, know the TEST and how to take it. Take it twice unless you have exceeded the requirements of the schools to which you have applied or you dialed 800 verbal and 800 math. Check out the requirements for financial aid, this sometimes requires persistence. Make a list of schools prioritize them as, dream schools, desirable schools and safe schools. Visit as many schools as possible to be sure they are a good fit for your academic major, that you like the culture of the school, the feel of the campus and that the location makes it easy to get home to see the family...

    Roll the dice! Then it all becomes the mathematics of probabilities. Good luck! Remember, the harder you work the luckier you get! And you may find yourself thinking the refrain from an old song which stated in self proclamation, "My future's so bright I gotta wear shades!"...more info

  • Interesting viewpoints...
    Once I began reading this book, I couldn't put it down. I should also admit that I am a college counselor to high school students. This book was interesting to read because of the different viewpoints the reader got. The Gatekeepers doesn't just provide insight into how an admission counselor does his or her job, it offered the perspectives of everyone - students, high school counselors, other admission officers, directors of admission and even college presidents. I think The Gatekeepers effectively demonstrated which aspects of an application are under one's control, and that some simply are not. The ending was satisfying, because one was able to hear about where each student enrolled, and how his or her college years unfolded. ...more info
  • Behind-the-Scenes Information, you normally wouldn't get
    About a week ago my English Teacher suggested us to purchase this book and read. She has been prepping us for the College process ever since September, and figured that the book would be a great way for us to understand what kind of thought that will be put into are applications. At first I was not excited about the book because I thought it would be dry and boring, but after reading the first couple pages, I could not put it down. Not only was the information very helpful, but the author really knows how to write a book, and he keeps you interested. I litterally could not wait to know what happens to the students protrayed in the book.

    On the bad side though it did scare me a little, because I realized that different students are put on different pedistals. It really goes to show you that school are look for diversity and they will take some pretty major steps to get it (for example a minority student that attends a Prep School with a 3.2 GPA and a 1150 on the S.A.T.'s got excepted with a full ride with a non-minority student at the same prep school with a 3.9 GPA and a 1350 SAT did not).

    The Other complant about the book is that it describes the admissions mostly for IVY or IVY-like schools (NOT STATE SCHOOLS), which for the first hundred pages make for confusing calculations (like when they say they like to see scores higher than 1350, for a state school that means 1000).

    But all in all I am glad that I picked up the book and started to read, it was one in a long time that I could not put down, and one that I am happy that I have to put on my ever growing book shelf (Thanks Mrs. H!)....more info

  • Compelling!
    What a great book...The inside scoop on the hidden world of admissions. I've worked in an admissions office before (at a highly competitive school) and this was pretty much on target.

    Steinberg's narrative style was enjoyable, making this a quick, easy read. The anecdotes make you wish the book would never end, really. I even cried at one part. I want to know where the students are now that were tracked through the book!

    This would esp. be a good book for any rising junior in high school...

    A couple quotes from "The Gatekeepers" I found quite inspiring...

    --From a HS guidance counselor to one of her students re: the entire admissions process: "If they spent a month with you and rejected you then you could feel bad about yourself. They're only rejecting a bunch of pieces of paper, not you."

    --From a student's application essay: "I have big plans, but I also have contingency plans. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou's mother advised her to `hope for the best, be prepared for the worst, and you'll be ready for everything in between'."...more info
  • As good as non-fiction gets
    Jacques Steinberg is a very gifted writer who makes a topic one would hardly consider riveting into an absolute page-turner. So what if the admissions process is different from the perspective of an admissions officer? The entire process is subjective and often arbitrary to begin with. Steinberg provides a fascinating perspective on this process that should let prospective applicants and parents alike gain a better understanding of the process and the types of people engaged in it. Bottom line reality comes through loud and clear. And it's a damn good read!...more info
  • Great Book
    Quite exhaustive in it's look at admissions to Wesleyan. I really must commend the college and the six students profiled, all of whom provided the author with complete access to their beliefs, feelings, SAT scores, high school records, etc. Without all that information, this book would not be what it is. Great job by the author.

    I suggest reading it and pairing it with Ms. Hernandez's "A is for Admission".

    ...more info