Book Review: The Gatekeepers
From time-to-time, as we receive career-related and job-hunting books and other resources from publishers, the staff of Quintessential Careers will review them to help you make better decisions about the best books to use in your career and job search.
The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, by Jacques Steinberg, 352 pages, Viking Press: ISBN: 0670031356, $25.95.
Reviewed by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Before I begin the review of this book, let me reveal to you some biases on my part. First, I am an educational junkie; I love reading about the inner workings of various types of educational institutions, especially at the college level. Second, as someone who holds three academic degrees, I have quite a bit of personal experience in the game we call college admissions. Third, as the parent of high-school age children, I have witnessed the anxiety, pressure, and excitement that college planning brings to today’s teenagers. Finally, as a professor at a small private university that has consistently been ranked as one of the best regional universities in the south by U.S. News & World Report, I have an appreciation and first-hand knowledge of the recruiting and admissions process.
Let’s cut to the chase. Above all else, the college admission process is really about people, but it is how these people — the high-school students and their families, the high-school guidance counselors, the college admissions officers, and the college faculty, staff, and administrators — interact and impact each other’s lives over the course of the 12 to 18 months of the college courting/admissions process that is an absolutely fascinating and life-changing experience for all involved, and Jacques Steinberg’s storytelling and writing abilities help the reader experience this interaction from the viewpoint of all the participants.
Because of the importance and emotional impact of applying to college, any number of books have been written to guide and support teens and their families. Some even promise inside secrets or quick fixes to typical problems faced in the admissions process. But Steinberg is quick to point out in the beginning of The Gatekeepers that his book is not one of these “how to” book about college admissions, nor is it a book that reveals the secrets that high-school students need to know to gain entrance to a top college or college of their choice. Instead, his stated goal is simply to “convey a real-life sense of what it is like to be an admissions officer at a time when more American families than ever are intent on passing muster with such people.”
But The Gatekeepers is so much more than the story of one college or one college admissions officer. Instead, it’s a rich tale of the intertwined lives of prospective students, their families, their guidance counselors, and the college admissions officers with whom they meet and interact. Yes, this tale originates with one admissions officer at one prestigious college, but in also following the lives of a handful of the applicants — who apply to a number of other colleges and universities — the reader gets an intimate portrait of how the college admissions process impacts the lives of all the major players in the process.
Will this book give students and parents something to think about, perhaps some inside information into the admissions process? Unequivocally the answer is yes. But some of the inside information may surprise or perhaps scare you. For the admissions business at all colleges, though especially at smaller colleges, is based on one key factor: the power of people’s actions and inactions can have a dramatic impact on the fate of a college applicant.
If you’ve done any research, you know that the typical college application includes one or more personal essays, transcripts and class rankings, teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, and standardized test scores. But how colleges and universities use this information — and how other factors such as race, geographic region, educational level of parents, hardship, and even gender can impact a decision — may surprise you. Clear-cut “no-brainer” decisions become cloudy, and students who appear to have no chance of gaining admittance suddenly become more viable candidates when a “guardian angel” (such as a university admissions officer or donor/supporter, guidance counselor, professor, or coach) steps into the admission process.
The college admissions process is certainly not scientific, and most certainly not perfect. There are disagreements about the value of almost every aspect of the admissions application, except the personal essays. Grades and class rank show a dimension, but the quality of the school and grade inflation comes into the equation; the number of advanced and challenging college-prep courses versus elective courses is an ongoing debate; the validity and reliability of standardized tests on different types of applicants is suspect; and even teacher or guidance counselor recommendations can be discounted or interpreted the wrong way. In fact, some of the best students can get lost in a numbers game that more and more colleges play, whether because to the sheer volume of the number of applicants or the numbers colleges use and manipulate to impact their rankings in various publications.
The Gatekeepers will keep you engaged as you follow the lives of the major characters — all actual people, all identified by their real names. The stories are compelling, and if nothing else, this book should help teens and their families feel both a bit more comfortable about the whole college application process (from college fairs, to developing and narrowing college choices, to campus visits, and college admissions) while at the same time causing some alarm as to the many imperfections within the process.
Steinberg is an educational reporter for The New York Times, and the sharp focus and crisp writing of The Gatekeepers is a testament to his skills as a reporter and a storyteller. And, if nothing else, you’ll gain both respect and empathy for these college admissions officers, especially those working at colleges and universities in high demand, for the number of hours they toil in good conscience trying to find the best fit of applicant and college.
Besides the great read, here are some specific things you can learn from this book that make it even more worthwhile reading:
- While efforts are made to make college admission decisions seem based on objective measures (GPA, class ranking SAT scores), many decisions are made subjectively.
- It helps to have a champion promoting your case, either a well-connected guidance counselor or a college admissions officer, but neither is a guarantee of gaining acceptance.
- Attending college fairs or going on campus visits — where prospective students can meet and interact with key members of a college staff — can have a positive impact on admission decisions.
- Teens who have a direct connection to a college through a family member will have better odds of gaining admittance than those with no connection.
- Early-admission acceptance rates are generally higher than for regular admission.
- For some schools, race/ethnicity and family background can play an important role in the admissions process.
- College admission essays can play a pivotal role and should be taken very seriously.
- Any abnormalities in grades, test scores, or activism must be clearly explained (and ideally shown to be rectified) as part of the application — ideally in a letter of support from the guidance counselor.
- Following each college’s application directions is extremely important, but it may be possible to bend the rules to include supplemental supporting materials.
- Teens should not let themselves — or their family members — to get so emotionally involved in college choices and acceptances. College admission decisions should not be allowed to have such a major impact on self-esteem and self-worth.
- College applicants not only compete against every other applicant to a college, but are specifically compared to and ranked against other applicants from their high school.
- Teens, no matter how challenging their first three years of high school, must continue taking as rigorous a schedule as possible in their senior years — all the while maintaining the best grades.
- Enthusiasm counts! Applicants need to determine their top college choices early in the admissions process — and then be sure to convey that interest and enthusiasm to those top college choices.
- Some colleges offer all expenses-paid campus visits and amazing financial-aid packages to their hottest prospects in an effort to convert them from prospects to incoming students.
- Colleges use different systems to evaluate applicants, though most examine three general categories: academic, personal, and extracurricular.
- Leadership and distinction in a small number of extracurricular activities is generally better than membership in a larger number of organizations.
- Many college and university administrators probably pay too much attention to how admission decisions will impact their school’s rankings in the various college guidebooks, sometimes resulting in questionable admissions policies.
- Using a for-hire college admission consultant may actually hurt a candidate’s chances for acceptance.
- The only secret to college admissions is that there is no one sure-fire method of gaining admittance to college.
Bottom line advice: read this book for the insights, for the emotional support, and for the entertainment value and quality of writing. It’s a excellent addition to any teen’s or parent’s bookshelf.
Check out all our book reviews in Quintessential Reading: Career and Job Book Reviews.