September 23, 2002

Spotlight on: The Gatekeepers

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In an attempt to de-mystify the college admissions process, New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg’s new book The Gatekeepers offers a personal account of the complex application process. Cornell appears in several capacities throughout the text, primarily through the story of one such Wesleyan applicant, Rebecca Jannol ’04, now a student in the College of Arts and Sciences’ College Scholar Program.

The Gatekeepers, released Sept. 12, follows Ralph Figueroa and the admissions committee at Wesleyan University as they worked to narrow 7,000 applicants to fill 700 seats for the Class of 2004. The narrative also features the personal history and experience of several high school seniors Figueroa encountered during the Wesleyan selection process.

“I think that the only way for an outsider to understand this process is to actually watch it happen. I got in there and I’m trying to give readers the same experience,” Steinberg said. “I really wrote it with parents and kids in mind, to inject a bit of sanity into the process.”

Jannol initially caught the attention of Steinberg for her decision to discuss in her college essay a disciplinary incident that had occurred when she was a high school sophomore. Steinberg recounts how Figueroa stood up to many of his colleagues who viewed the incident — taking a bite of a pot brownie — negatively.

While Jannol was ultimately accepted to Wesleyan after placement on the wait list, Steinberg’s analysis of her application at Cornell and at Wesleyan offers a poignant portrayal of the efforts that admissions officers make on behalf of students whom they believe deserve to attend their respective institutions.

“An application is just these pieces of paper that can become people to certain admissions officers, like Ralph Figueroa and Ken Gabard [assistant dean for the College of Arts and Sciences]. That’s what this book shows,” Jannol said in response to the discussion of her application.

“This book gives perspective students some sort of hope because it shows that there is no formula for success,” she added.

The Gatekeepers developed from a series that Steinberg wrote for the Times as an educational correspondent. Steinberg said he hopes the story will serve as a “counterpoint” to the typical instructional books that claim to offer a successful approach to admissions.

“I felt very strongly that college how-to guides were really irresponsible. The process is much more complicated and not as easy as these books made it out to be,” he said.

According to Steinberg, Wesleyan served as a paradigm of a highly competitive institution working to narrow a large collection of applicants to a fraction of positions. While schools such as Bates College and Bowdoin College consider the SAT’s optional, Wesleyan followed a relatively typical admissions process, specifically for its partial reliance on the SAT’s.

“I definitely wanted to follow an admissions office under a lot of pressure. Wesleyan has 7,000 applicants for 700 freshman seats,” Steinberg said. “I have a broad portfolio with national college correspondence. Wesleyan was one of the few highly selective schools that would have me because this is such a secretive process.”

Steinberg cited as an example of the similarities in the admissions processes the experience of Nancy Hargrave Meislahn ’75 who served as the director of admissions at Wesleyan during the selection of the Class of 2004. Hargrave Meislahn entered that position days after leaving her post at Cornell in the fall of 1999 after nearly 20 years.

“I think what sets us apart is the involvement of the faculty. In Arts and Sciences, faculty are reading applications ar every stage. It offers a lot more insight into the applicant. They are looking for key elements like intellectual enthusiasm, intellectual engagement and involvement. That’s their bread and butter,” Gabard said.

In response to the circumstances involving Jannol’s admission, Gabard said that he viewed the incident surrounding Jannol’s essay as an ultimate triumph.

“At Cornell, in Arts and Sciences, we’ve always felt that if students made a mistake, faced it, dealt with it and the school knows about it, then we’re fine with that. And you move on and look for things that the student can contribute to the campus,” Gabard said.

In reacting to The Gatekeepers, Gabard said, “I hope that, in general, this book will encourage families to be adventurous. If they’re interested in applying to an institution they should go for it. Not just at Cornell, but at peer institutions as well, a lot of personal attention is paid to the applicants, into the backgrounds and personalities of students applying.”

Jannol echoed Gabard’s sentiments, encouraging future applicants to share their personal stories in the application process.

“If there is any way that an applicant can let his or her voice be heard, that’s so much more meaningful than scores,” Jannol said.

Steinberg’s interest in the college admissions process began during his own application process.

“I had gotten into Dartmouth for the class of ’88 from a small public high school. My SAT’s were below median for the class I was admitted to with 9,000 applicants and 1,000 seats. I had always wondered why and thought someday I’d like to figure out how the process works,” Steinberg said.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Steinberg briefly worked for the Hartford Courant before entering a position as a clerk for a columnist at the New York Times Washington Bureau. Then, after a month-long tryout and then a year-long trial period with the Times, Steinberg became a staff writer. He is currently a national education correspondent.

Last week, Steinberg began a 28-day tour of 18 cities where he said he anticipates speaking to audiences of mostly parents and students. He plans to continue writing for the Times after his return from the book tour.

Archived article by Laura Rowntree