Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative


American Dreams and College Nightmare: Higher Education as a Source of Hope and Anxiety

This post originally appeared on Compass Education Group’s blog.


It’s happening again.

In the early days of April 2015 headlines like “New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools” (Thompson), “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” (Inskeep & Montagne), and “Long Island High Schooler Accepted by All 8 Ivy League Colleges” (Shapiro) appeared in major news media outlets like NBC News and NPR. As these proclamations appeared, touting the success of high school senior Harold Ekeh, all I could think was:  “It’s happening again.”

For those who follow such things, there are particular months in the year when certain types of education stories tend to appear; timed to coincide with the release of admission decisions and the start of a new academic year, profiles on college admission and higher education follow a fairly predictable pattern in American mainstream news media. It was, for example, around this same time in 2014 that headlines like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” (Morton & Ferrigno) appeared, publicizing the similar accomplishment of Kwasi Enin. In 2013 Americans were exposed to the infamous “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” (Weiss), an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that articulated a high school senior’s frustration at being told to “be herself” only to discover that that self was apparently not worthy of admission.

Although “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” evidenced a particular lack of understanding with regard to the ways in which diversity can function in the admission process, the presence of the article—along with the other stories mentioned—is worth noting as it highlights a particular emphasis on the culture that can surround college admission in America. Beginning with an examination of how some Americans perceive, understand, and talk about college admission, this post will then proceed to offer theories for how some Americans have come to this point in their relationship with higher education before moving on to discuss implications for current and future practices. Please note that this is not designed as a comprehensive overview of the topic but instead aims to offer argumentation in the hopes of engaging readers in informed discussion of the college admission process.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Admission

A close examination of stories surrounding college admission in April 2015 suggests the emergence of two themes that are distinct but related:  (1) how students are dealing with their admission decisions and (2) profile pieces that culminate in the attainment of admission to a particular institution or institutions. In some ways, the former is potentially helpful as it can provide some insight into the pressures faced by young people applying to American colleges and universities. The latter, however, epitomized by stories like those of Harold Ekeh, Kwasi Enin, and Munira Khalif, present a rather more insidious danger for they work to perpetuate anxiety even as they proffer hope.

On their surface, articles like “New York Teen Gets Accepted to All Ivy League Schools” offer a form of celebration for a student who managed to achieve a task thought to be particularly difficult. Ostensibly combatting anxieties around declining admission rates at highly selective institutions—anxieties that news media itself sometimes plays a role in amplifying—stories like those of Ekeh and Enin seemingly remind us that the impossible is, in fact, possible. Taking nothing away from the efforts of the students, what is truly being lauded here, however, is not the achievements of the students themselves but rather a reaffirmation of the central American mythos:  that, in America, hard work and playing by the rules is rewarded. On some level, perhaps we want to believe that it is possible for anyone—here it should be noted that many of the students who have been profiled are children of immigrants—to come to America and succeed through effort and merit.

If we accept that these sorts of news items work to confirm our beliefs regarding the way the world works and thus offer a measure of solace, the price that we pay is that articles like “High School Student Goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions” work to reinscribe a hierarchy that ultimately condemns many more than it glorifies. Instead of leading us to interrogate the current state of affairs, stories like those of Ekeh and Enin can cause us to become staunch supporters of the status quo by propagating a sense of hope for us as individuals, if not necessarily for us as a group. Put simply, the achievements of these few only matter because so many others will try and fail.

Moreover, the structure of these stories matters:  written by people like Anne Thompson, who is NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent (i.e., not an education specialist) and reported on in segments like Good Morning America’s Pop News, which features the “buzziest stories of the day,” the fact that they are fundamentally human interest pieces distracts us from being able to talk about higher education in a more meaningful way. We are not asked to question why this hierarchy of elite schools is maintained and to what extent we should internalize schools like the Ivies as the preeminent institutions of higher education. Instead of asking what type of post-secondary experience is best for us or our children, we instead ask our young people to largely conform to a system that puts forth a particular vision of success.

(Re)Framing the Discussion

Part of the problem, as noted in the recent books Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be:  An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (Bruni, 2015) and Excellent Sheep:  The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Better Life (Deresiewicz, 2014) is the way in which, when thinking about higher education, contemporary American culture tends to place an emphasis on entrance (i.e., admission) and exit (e.g., job placement, graduate school acceptance, etc.) but not necessarily on college itself as an experience. Perhaps we focus on these markers because they are more digestible—to talk about acceptance to an elite school acts as a shorthand for a much larger discussion surrounding a specific type of achievement and success—but a fixation on these indicators also shields us from having the much more difficult conversations about what college is for.

To ask, “Why am I going to college?” is not necessarily the same as “What is college for?”—the latter almost inevitably involves a deeper discussion regarding the role and purpose of higher education in American culture along with questions like “What could higher education be?” and “What should higher education be?”

This should not suggest that one’s college experience must necessarily involve philosophical questions regarding the life of the mind and whether higher education represents a space for personal growth but rather that we should, for each of us, achieve a clarity of purpose regarding the time that we spend in pursuit of higher education and even if such a path is indeed right for us! Do we think of college as a type of credentialing process that aids in securing a particular type of job? Do we see college as a space to explore intellectually and to interact with difference in its many forms? Do we want college to serve as a securer of social mobility in America? Do we expect college to produce individuals who can think carefully, act confidently, and become meaningful contributors to their communities?

It is by asking ourselves these types of questions—and thereby gaining a modicum of clarity—that we can then begin to resist the dominant hierarchy of educational institutions in America if we so choose. The answers to these questions are not mutually exclusive, nor should we think that they will be the same for each individual student. By deciding that our values and our goals do not necessarily align with an educational pyramid that culminates in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, we can then begin the process of searching out which schools are in fact the best fits for us based on what we prioritize the most. For example, we can contemplate what a low admission rate (i.e., being highly selective) means for a particular institution but we must then go one step further to ask ourselves whether this meaning is in fact something that we value; to simply say that a lower admission rate indicates that a schools is “better” in some fashion is to miss the point of the exercise.

A Call for New Assessments

But understanding what we want out of higher education is only one piece of the puzzle:  true progress happens when we see an alignment between what we expect of colleges, what colleges expect of us, and how the admission process works to facilitate that match. College admission offices must not only struggle with “What is college for?” but, more specifically, “What is the purpose of my institution?” and, further, “How do current admission practices forward the goals of the university?”

That is, to what extent does the current application structure allow admission offices to determine whether students will embody the hopes that the institution has for them? How does an application purport to assess the skills and talents that students now present?

Early attempts to recognize the media capabilities of students came through efforts like Tuft’s video supplement and, later, Goucher’s video application. On its surface, this move seems to be a positive one, for it recognizes that some of the students in this current generation have learned to express themselves digitally; what resulted, however, was that many of the publically-available supplements resemble reality show audition tapes. And although this might be embarrassing for students, it is hardly their fault:  admission offices have largely failed to help students to understand why media literacy and the presentation of the digital self is of value to the school and therefore how the videos will be used and evaluated. Students are therefore left to rely on the logics of attention that they have internalized growing up:  reality show audition tapes.

In contrast we might consider the newer efforts of some admission offices like Bennington College, whoseDimensional Application marks a departure from the traditional application in a way that is perhaps more productive. Asking students to be active participants in the creation of their application—and thus the presentation of themselves to the admission committee—ideally causes students to reflect on their own strengths (and weaknesses) and how those might be incorporated into Bennington’s community. In short, the Dimensional Application represents a move toward an interactive choice-based assessment that works to engage students in their own process of learning. Although it is too early to tell whether the Dimensional Application has indeed served its purpose, we might benefit by putting it in conversation with the work of scholars like Daniel L. Schwartz and Dylan Arena, who argue for a movement away from knowledge-based assessment (2013).

Ultimately, the road to a brighter future is not through stories like “Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago” (Jacobs, 2015) but rather through a careful and sustained conversation about the role of higher education in America, one that does not ebb and flow throughout the calendar year. It will be hard work to disentangle ourselves from the dominant modes of thought that have dictated college admission since the creation of the hierarchy in the late 19th century but the potential benefits are great.

Works Cited

Bruni, F. (2015). Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Free Press.

Inskeep, S., & Montagne, R. (2015, April 20). New York Teen Gets Accepted To All Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NPR:

Jacobs, P. (2015, April 20). Kid Who Got into All 8 Ivy League Schools Didn’t Speak English 10 Years Ago. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from Business Insider:

Morton, L., & Ferrigno, L. (2014, April 2). High School Student goes 8 for 8 in Ivy League College Admissions. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from CNN:

Schwartz, D. L., & Arena, D. (2013). Measuring What Matters Most: Choice-Based Assessments for the Digital Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Shapiro, E. (2015, April 5). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools.Retrieved April 20, 2015, from ABC News:

Thompson, A. (2015, April 7). New York Teen Harold Ekeh Gets Accepted to All Eight Ivy League Schools. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from NBC News:

Weiss, S. L. (2013, March 29). To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from The Wall Street Journal:

He Chose Poorly, You Have Chosen Wisely

 Chosen Wisely

In April the rhetoric surrounding college admission inevitably comes to embrace the notion of choice as many students weigh their options prior to the National Candidates Reply Date on May 1. To be sure, the month of April is a portentous period for college-bound students and their parents as families begin to transition and necessarily start to contemplate a change in their configuration. Emotions run high as excitement and hope twine with a nervous energy that, in part, stems from a fear of missing out (FOMO, if you must). Here it would seem that much of the work of counselors lies in our ability to help students and families retain perspective through this process, validating their concerns even as we try to reframe them. On a practical level, individuals are often concerned with selecting the “right” college to attend and yet I cannot help but think about the invocation of “choice,” its assumed power, and its relationship to young people.

Back in 2012 I taught an undergraduate class on marketing ethics for USC’s Marshall School of Business and I began to cause a minor fuss over a recent Old Navy commercial that I had seen. Ostensibly aimed at a demographic that was of my age or older, I began a rant over how a company had come to appropriate the notion of choice in order to sell jeans that were functional but not necessarily noteworthy (which, I mean, is the whole purpose of commercial advertising). Although my students were generally too young to understand the original reference, I began to explain to them that I was upset because this move represented a blatant effort to wrest agency away from persons, presenting them with the illusion of choice while absconding with its power.

Taking a different approach, I had the students read the Beverly Hills, 90210 “I choose me” scene against the love triangle presented by Twilight—and the relative impossibility of readers aligning with Team Bella—to think about how the presentation of choice has changed in recent years. Young Adult (YA) fiction, in particular, has become an interesting place to explore the concepts of choice due to its relatively recent mainstream popularity and the rise in dystopian settings, which are often concerned with people making difficult choices and their ability to do so. Although some of my thoughts regarding the theme of choice in YA are reflected in a piece for Slate that reads Harry Potter against Divergent with respect to clans/identity/choice, what is more directly salient is not just the relative importance of choice but the implications of being asked to declare a binding allegiance as a young person. While useful as entry points, I also encouraged students to push back against the presentation of choice in Harry Potter and Divergent as both tended to focus on the connection between innate qualities and group identity, legitimizing individualism and genetics over context, environment, and existing social structures.

In spite of my occasional quibbles with them, I still think that there is a way to use YA texts like Divergent and Harry Potter (or, if you like, Enclave and Quarantine) to think about what it means for young people to make a decision that is, for them at least, often perceived as life-changing and somewhat irreversible. At its core, what does it actually mean to make a choice—in this case perhaps the choice of which institution to attend—in the college admission process? Is there merit to reframing the discussion in order to deemphasize the name of a school in favor of highlighting what the experience itself might bring? How can we change the college-going culture so that young people (and their parents) feel better equipped to make choices when they are presented? How do we get students and parents to complicate the notion of choice in order to consider that while an individual decision might be their own, the range of choices that they have are often influenced by external factors—for example, while an institution’s ranking might not be important in which school a student ultimately attends, a larger view also considers how the logic of ranking infiltrates education and makes particular avenues more salient for particular students in the first place—while remaining cognizant of the information overload that already exists? In what ways must we be self-reflexive as we guide students and parents toward making particular choices? Put another way, how do we, like Old Navy, encourage students to make particular kinds of choices in favor of others and what are the potential implications of our actions?

For me, the answer begins with a critical examination of choice:  I want to support the ability of students and families to make informed choices but the question always remains, “A choice to do what?”

I want students to choose wisely.

Race and Education (Again)

One of the biggest challenges that I faced in helping students to think critically about pop culture and the world around them at large was helping them to think through the role that anecdotes played in their thought processes. “To what extent,” I would ask, “can or should a personal account constitute proof and how many data points are necessary to make a case?”

The answer was always, “It depends.”

A story can be a form of qualitative evidence but the question is always “evidence of what?” What I tried to convey to students was that what counts as evidence depends on what question(s) you’re asking:  arguing that something can occur, does occur, and consistently occurs are all very different propositions and students would often conflate the three.

It is with this background that I considered Kevin’s blog post for today along with the larger story that it gestures toward. It comes as no surprise that various entities are using the story to meet their own ends, often employing it in order to confirm what they already know about the world but yet I am worried about the same thing that troubles Kevin:  I fear that students and families will confuse what is possible with what is probable.

My worries about Enin perpetuating the model of the all-star student aside, I have spent some time thinking about the invocation of race in response to the original stories. I have not yet delved into the bowels of College Confidential (because that takes a special kind of fortitude and I might need to go wine shopping), but the comments on Reddit have been rather interesting to follow. Indeed, it is sort of difficult not to think about how discussion over Enin comes to stand in for a larger set of issues that surrounds race given the temporal proximity to the controversy surrounding #CancelColbert.

Without taking anything away from Enin or his achievement, I am saddened that the media coverage of the media coverage of him has focused on this case without largely incorporating the ways in which the story is already being invoked in conversations about affirmative action (see, for example, the comments of Valerie Strauss’ “Can we stop obsessing on the Ivy League?”). More importantly, how do we read this story against items like a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that confirms the continued existence of the achievement gap? Or the way in which “black” and “male” intersect with education in America? Additionally, even if we were interested in limiting the scope of our inquiry to a sample that looked at high-achieving black students, how does the focus on this one part of Enin’s story override the very real discussion that need to happen about the experience of minority students in these settings? Or the challenges that Enin might face in college, at a school like Harvard?

Ultimately I think that this story can be used to think through the ways in which dominant American culture can work to cultivate aspirations while systemically undermining those hopes. In recent years, I have been influenced by Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism to think through the promise of higher education in America and the connection between structures of hope and political passivity.

A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges

A Is for Admission:  The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges

Chris Tokuhama


Hernandez, M. A. (2009). A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Gide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Revised ed.). New York: Grand Central Publishing.[1]


Despite Hernandez’s assertion that she has called for reform (xiii), there does not appear to be much evidence for this stance other than pieces published for The Huffington Post on abolishing the SAT and doing away with the Common Application. Although Hernandez’s position on the SAT is more forcefully argued, neither article adds anything particularly compelling to the on-going conversation surrounding either topic, with the Common Application piece seeming more reactionary to recent troubles than anything else. Undercutting her position somewhat are write-ups[2] that suggest that Hernandez is indeed invested in the status quo of college admission as she has developed a company that profits from helping families navigate this process. In particular, a set of articles that discusses Harvard’s decision to terminate its Early Action policy (on Good Morning America and The Huffington Post) suggests that Hernandez is narrowly focused on students’ desires to be accepted by highly selective schools. Furthermore, the assertion that a single group (e.g., athletes) is the “problem” of perceived inequality in college admission is short-sighted and irresponsible. Ultimately, although Hernandez might be interested in tinkering with some of the components of the college admission process, she does not appear invested in rethinking it or interested in working to dismantle the anxiety-ridden culture surrounding it.


One of the main issues with this work is Hernandez’s propensity to generalize across the Ivy League (a term that itself has shifting boundaries depending on how the author feels like employing it at a given moment) based on what seems to be limited (i.e., four years) experience at a single institution (Dartmouth). Hernandez often does not provide sufficient evidence for claims that extend beyond her own opinions and it remains incredibly difficult to separate out the solid-but-general advice from the statements that simply seem like bad information. Moreover, although one can see how discussing each of the individual elements separately might make it easier for readers to initially comprehend them, isolating the components has the effect of severely limiting the way that readers can potentially think about how these parts come together to form a complete application. Hernandez’s book is also riddled with conflicting information, including contradictory stances on privilege and standardized testing. The larger picture that emerges from this practice is the position that Hernandez is interested in encouraging students to mold themselves in whatever way they can to seem most advantageous to the admission committees, essentially gaming the system in the process. Although a larger discussion of particular topics could help to tease out nuance and further develop a view that contains both critique and praise, the ability of Hernandez to argue her positions does not do justice to the ideas themselves.


Introduction – From the outset, Hernandez seems prone to bits of doublespeak, mentioning how the prestige associated with the Ivy League is of a “superficial nature” (xv) while also maintaining a college counseling practice that caters to—or at least establishes its reputation by—students interested in these very same prestigious institutions (xiv). In employing such language as “precious offers” (xx), Hernandez implicates herself in a practice that stokes anxieties in order to proffer solutions. Also convenient is Hernandez’s criteria for credibility—having worked in an Ivy League admission office—as this justification neatly aligns with Hernandez’s own credentials. Given Hernandez’s background as an entry-level officer for four years, however, we must question the degree to which her perspective on the Ivy League admission process is limited to her own institution and how her limited experience informs her perspective on the larger workings of the industry. Further suggesting that Hernandez is capitalizing on a perceived ability to provide clarity and calm is the assertion that readers will be privy to “the secret formula used by all the Ivy League schools” (xxi) although a “formula” as such does not exist.[3]

Chapter 1 – Although experience would suggest that the general age demographics that Hernandez provides are accurate, her description of these groups warrants some scrutiny. Noting that junior staff tend to be recent graduates, Hernandez describes them variously as “not very experienced in admissions,” knowledgeable “because of their firsthand experience,” and “extremely qualified to judge candidates in terms of their intellectual potential” (1-2). A more careful consideration of this group would consider the implications of this practice (e.g., how choosing applicants because of their similarity to readers can perpetuate class inequality) and the degree to which “not very experienced in admission” intersects with “extremely qualified to judge candidates.” In contrast to these risk takers are the “lifers” or seasoned staff, a group that, Hernandez suggests, is comprised of individuals who did not graduate from highly selective colleges and are removed from students. In describing admission officers at selective schools Hernandez endeavors to validate the perspective that she offers (as a Dartmouth graduate) while simultaneously reinforcing a false hierarchy between professors and professional staff.[4]

Continuing the practice of presenting contradictory messages, Hernandez repeats her unfounded accusation that admission officers might resent children of wealth (i.e., wealth will hurt you in the process) immediately after mentioning how Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admissionfocuses on the way in which class advantage challenges notions of meritocracy in Higher Education (i.e., wealth will help you in the process). Hernandez’s solution, then, is to be wealthy but pretend like you are not (6).[5] Here Hernandez misses a great opportunity to discuss, in detail, the way in which various applicants present items of value to the university and the extent to which class or wealth is one of these. In treating the subject this way, Hernandez creates a false antagonism between “bitter” undereducated admission officers and persecuted rich families. It seems highly irresponsible for Hernandez to cast the relationship between applicants and admission officers in this way and doing so has an effect of shunting families away from a real consideration of how and why something like wealth is noted in an application. Frankly, suggesting that readers are “threatened or jealous” (8) of applicants is rather insulting and Hernandez’s case for comparison completely ignores how one can make an argument for a student’s ability to maximize resources in a way that has nothing to do with being resentful.[6] Of course, this is not to suggest that an honest discussion about the ways in which the college application process is subject to bias is unwarranted but it would seem that Hernandez’s framework does nothing more than to push her own agenda.

Chapter 2 – To her credit, Hernandez cautions parents against obsessing over pre-schools as a means to ensure college acceptance, instead advocating for the development of an environment that will foster intellectual curiosity. Hernandez provides generally solid advice about taking a challenging curriculum in order to prepare students for college, noting that individuals are judged against the typical academic program for their high school (13). Given this statement, Hernandez’s earlier comments about wealth and jealous on the part of readers is questionable for the advice provided here directly contradicts the reasoning she provided in the example on page 8. Hernandez also continues to invalidate her earlier position about the relative value of young vs. seasoned staff by suggesting that older admission staff have the experience necessary to understand the subtleties of schools’ curriculums—in some ways, one might argue that this type of cultivated perspective makes the lifers better able to admit students even as they run the danger of falling into a rut.

The position that Hernandez’s guide will help readers “know exactly when you need to do what” (14) suggests that her work supports a type of “checklist” mentality in which parents and students are merely seeking information to be used in a results-oriented fashion. What Hernandez is really promoting here is herself as guru, capitalizing on anxiety to pass off general information as revelatory. Interestingly, Hernandez later cautions students against being obsessed with grades after telling them how academic performance in high school is important; again, the key here for Hernandez is for students to avoid seeming like they are something that can be construed as negative.[7] Hernandez also makes a gesture to decouple success from attending an Ivy League but one remains skeptical given that she has decided to build a business around—and is writing a book on!—getting students into the Ivies.

The most beneficial section of this chapter is the sketching of a four-year plan (22-28) that provides solid, if readily available advice, even as it fails to mention how to convince an unwilling student to adhere to it. Based on the type of information provide it seems evident that Hernandez’s target audience is a family who is 1) moderately aware of college-going practices if not exceedingly knowledgeable and 2) already motivated to attend college (most likely an Ivy given the focus of the book). Finally, although Hernandez concludes with helpful advice that test preparation is often about test-taking skills and structured/disciplined approaches as opposed to “learning,” she continues her pattern of withholding/soothing by noting that students who score 650+ in practice tests probably don’t need prep courses but also that many of her students employ an SAT tutor or strategist (31). Hernandez also continues to demonstrate either a lack of knowledge regarding the building of a class or an unwillingness to engage with it as she again broaches the notion of how inequity manifests in the admission process. Despite valid criticisms about the “coachability” of the test, Hernandez’s comparison between the “normal” student with a 730 Critical Reading score and the hockey player with a 500 is so divorced from context that it is rendered meaningless (32). In fact, it is unclear whether Hernandez has really thought through her own advice for although she notes that admission officers’ primary consideration is “What will they add to our college?” (17) she continually makes a point about the ways in which the system can advantage “kids of big donors, minority students, VIPs, and the like” (32). The obvious connection to make here is that the athletes, minority students, and VIPs contain some sort of institutional value and that Hernandez perpetuates the sense of unfairness by refusing to push readers to see the situation from a point of view larger than their own. It remains unclear why Hernandez quotes Peter Schmidt’s Color and Moneyat length (32) given that the very solution to the situation described is one she denounces earlier (8), for if a test like the SAT has demonstrated bias, it is therefore more important that admission officers take context into account—including factors like the applicant’s ethnicity, background, and resources—in order to interpret the data meaningfully.

Chapter 3 – Chapter 3 begins with an overview of Early Decision/Action policies, with Hernandez choosing to focus on Early Decision as it is a widespread practice amongst the Ivies (loosely defined). Hernandez notes that Early Decision applications tend to have a higher admit rate (35) but also that the pool of applicants tends to self-select and represent a particular demographic (36). Instead of becoming overly concerned with the way that Harvard’s decision to end Early Decision impacts applications at other Ivies, it would seem that Hernandez would do better to extrapolate on whether the abolition of Early Decision served students as a whole and, if so, to what it extent it might do so. Moreover, Hernandez does not speculate whether the increased admit rate seen across the Ivies is due in part to the self-selecting nature of the pool (i.e., is the sample of better “quality”?), a desire to simplify enrollment practices (students admitted must enroll), or both. Additionally, the information that Hernandez provides for students who have been deferred seems like the same general advice one would give a student who has been waitlisted or who is appealing a deny:  contact the admission office to gain a general sense of what weaknesses (or omissions) might be present in the file, contact the office in writing to reaffirm your interest, and provide any missing or substantive materials.

Chapter 4 – Hernandez includes information on the recentering of the SAT, which might have been helpful in 1997 when the book was published (and still holds historical interest) but is not exceedingly applicable in the revised version of 2007. Hernandez also continues to indicate that her target audience is comprised of well-off (if not rich) non-minority students/families as she indicates that readers should shoot for 740+ but also notes that the low 600s might be a strong score “for an economically disadvantaged applicant” (54).

It also remains unclear the extent to which Hernandez truly understands admission policies at other schools given her “theory” of why schools do not permit score choice on the SAT. Although Hernandez introduces valid criticism about score choice discrepancies between the ACT and the SAT, her guess that institutions would retroactively apply superscoring to applicants after they had been admitted seems ludicrous (55)—it seems much more likely that admission officers would note the scoring trend and use the superscore to render an admission decision.

That being said, while Hernandez provides a reasonable recommendation that students should not take the SAT more than three times (57) and offers rationale why a student might take the ACT over the SAT, her implication that institutions do not consider ACT subscores does not seem correct.[8] Moreover, Hernandez repeatedly mentions that institutions engage in superscoring out of self-interest which, while possibly partially true, does not engage with a discussion of College Board best practices on how the scores should be used, nor does it address the larger issue of the degree to which external measures like the U.S. News & World Report rankings influence institutional behavior.

Chapter 5 – Hernandez’s rationale for the importance of SAT Subject Tests over a high school transcript is, at best, weak given that it is a territory manager’s job to understand the grading scales and policies of the high schools in his or her region. Hernandez stands on better footing with the argument that SAT Subject Tests provide a standard measure but does not quite reconcile this with her arguments why the SAT Reasoning Test should not be used (56). In creating a framework that pits the transcript against standardized test scores Hernandez creates false distinctions; the much more difficult concept for readers to grasp is the way in which all of the elements of an application inform each other and the “picture” that an admission officer develops of a student is constantly evolving as new information is considered. Here Hernandez’s comments gesture toward the way in which the scores of AP and Subject Tests might more accurately reflect what the tests purport to measure but Hernandez herself does not make such claims or explore the larger implications of the role of testing in education. What does it mean, for example, that admission officers might side with the story told by a test over the recommendation of a teacher (64)?[9]

Chapter 6 – Although Hernandez notes that applications receive separate scores for academic and extra-curricular components, the structure of her book continues to work against her as she overemphasizes the roles that these rankings play in application evaluation as she writes, “The 9/6 would be a certain admit, while the 3/4 would probably fall short of admission” (68).[10] Hernandez emphasizes the importance of the academic ranking but also wrongly suggests that the “most helpful way of reporting grades is really a weighted rank” (69) when the real approach is to endeavor to understand what the transcript tells you and how the class rank may add information.[11] In general, the focus of this chapter also seems to be misplaced as it encourages readers to “estimate [their] chances of being admitted to an Ivy League school” (69) without the proper training or information to do so. While good advice would focus on what might help make an application competitive, the emphasis on a formula and calculations—and thereby nudging readers toward thoughts on how they can game the system[12]—is not productive although it would seem to provide an answer that is initially more satisfying.

The majority of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of the AI or “Academic Index” used in application evaluation at Ivy League schools. According to Hernandez, the AI is calculated by summing (1) the best SAT/ACT score divided by 10, (2) the average of the three best SAT Subject Tests divided by 10, and (3) the converted rank score (70).[13] In understanding the calculation of the AI, it becomes clear why Hernandez puts such an emphasis on test scores and class rank but such attention is not warranted as the AI is not used in the way that Hernandez implies. Although Hernandez correctly identifies the AI’s vital function in the recruitment of athletes, the formula is not directly related to admissibility although it may evidence a correlation due to its components.[14] As Bill Pennington writes in The New York Times:

The primary purpose of the Academic Index,[15] known as the AI, is to compare the academic qualifications of athletes as a group to the academic qualifications of the student body over all at each institution. Ivy League universities have committed to having a cohort of recruited athletes that calculates to no more than one standard deviation below the overall student body.

So what about those applicants with Ivy dreams but no athletic aspirations?

Applicants should know that the index is not intended to be used as a yardstick to determine whether an aspiring high school student is Ivy League material – or more to the point, someone who is going to survive the intricate admissions processes of some of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.

The repercussions of this misrepresentation are huge as Hernandez goes on to discuss an applicant’s competitiveness in terms of his or her AI score and therefore focuses the attention of the reader on an incomplete understanding of how the process actually works. Hernandez even irresponsibly states, “you should have a sense of just how competitive it is at the most selective schools and how a few extra points in the CRS, and therefore the AI, can turn a marginal candidate into an easy admit” (90).[16] Much more helpful is the discussion of the criteria that inform the academic ranking (83-86) with follow-up advice on pages 91-95, but Hernandez does not seem to realize that the concept of academic ranking is parallel to, but separate from, the notion of the academic index.

Chapter 7 – In writing, “Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to override a mediocre AI” (97) Hernandez continues with the theme of ready fixes in the vein of “if not X, then Y.” Again, the conceptualization that pits these elements of the application against each other is counterproductive to readers developing a sophisticated understanding of how the holistic review process works at selective institutions. Moreover, instead of a comprehensive discussion of testing, Hernandez contrasts AP scores with SAT Subject Test in order to underscore the importance of AP tests; here a more responsible discussion would entail an examination of the strategy that admission officers employ in order to attempt to ascertain a student’s academic potential and what roles a transcript and testing play in that process. Hernandez further demonstrates this shortsighted approach by placing an emphasis on the AP Scholar awards as tangible markers/achievements instead of helping readers to understand that the title is valuable only insomuch as it is an indicator to understand the pattern presented by the scores/tests themselves.

Chapter 8 – Ignoring the bad advice that institutions won’t know if you submit materials a little late (105), Hernandez touches upon an interesting point with regard to high school visits by counselors. In suggesting that counselors endeavor to get to know the intricacies of the high schools in their regions, it also seems prudent for students to remember to advocate for themselves and to explain unusual circumstances if applicable. The rest of the chapter (109-114) is largely concerned with a generally solid overview of the file review process.

Chapter 9 – Although the basis for Hernandez’s opinions remains unclear, Chapter 9 opens with a discussion of the Common Application and its merits before proceeding to walk readers through the application components. Hernandez unsurprisingly continues with her limited perspective on her topics, considering the Common Application detrimental “because it seems to stifle creativity and lends itself to dull responses” (117) while downplaying the role that Common Application plays in accessibility for students who are not as familiar with the college-going process. Hernandez notes that the Common Application does not necessarily represent the epitome of simplicity or efficiency, she does not make a solid argument that the drawbacks of the Common Application outweigh its benefits.

Hernandez continues to provide incomplete and unhelpful advice, this time with respect to ethnicity, as she writes, “Clearly for minority students who are black, Latino, or Native American, it is a distinct advantage” (118) without properly contextualizing why those particular attributes might be desirable for an institution and why they might also not necessarily be. Also seemingly inaccurate is the assertion that admission committees think that a student is “hiding information” if the student declines to indicate an ethnicity (118).

Hernandez seems intent on encouraging students to game the system as she advises that they show interest in less-popular majors. While a student who is legitimately interested in a smaller department might catch the attention of readers, fit for major is much more important as is the number of students that an admission committee is willing to admit for a given program. It becomes increasingly evident that Hernandez lacks a degree of self-awareness as she further advises students against listing a pre-professional emphasis because of a misguided notion that liberal arts colleges will hold this against applicants—the real issue here, it would seem, is the way in which liberal arts colleges are not necessarily interested in students who are only focused on a career, which is exactly the same kind of results-oriented thinking that Hernandez promotes in her book.

Later, Hernandez again insists on an unproductive invocation of privilege as she writes that the primary purpose for including parental information on the Common Application is so that admission officers can determine socio-economic and legacy status (121). Although Hernandez is definitely correct in suggesting that these things are of note, the more responsible way to consider their impact is in conversation with the application as a whole; although the word “narrative” is often overused as metaphor in the admission process, one can think about how each of the elements of the applications provides clues to a student’s “story” and parental information is not important because it serves as a flag for privilege but because it has the potential to guide a reader’s thinking as to the context in which a student grew up and is applying to college from.[17]

It should be noted that Hernandez provides good advice on how to handle the extra-curricular section, however, suggesting that students prepare a list that is both easily read and supplementing this with a description of what the activities are and what one’s role in them is (124). In some ways more important is the notion that students should pursue their passions (127), although the caveat would be that one must also be able to articulate the value of these endeavors to the admission committee. What Hernandez misses here is that admission committees might be more interested in why a student chose to do a particular activity or seek to understand why something was meaningful to the student.

Ironically, given the shortcomings present in her own work, Hernandez chides Boykin Curry and Brian Kasbar’s Essays that Worked:  Fifty Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation’s Top Colleges for failing to contextualize the admission essay in the larger picture of the college application. Although Hernandez notes various clichés in the application essay (131), her narrow framework does not allow her to investigate why these clichés are not particularly helpful for applicants; instead, if we were to return to the theme of readers trying to glean information about a student’s personality, preparedness, and fit for the institution, we might be able to see that clichés do not necessarily benefit students because they do not provide useful information for admission officers. It is precisely because of her own limitations that Hernandez does not seem able to consider how admission officers’ desire to “get to know” students continually reflects itself in the various application components under discussion. Furthermore, Hernandez is not able to situate the emphasis on personality and sense of self in the application essay in a broader historical context.[18] Hernandez’s suggestion that students focus on a small moment is apt, however, as it reminds readers that although it might seem paradoxical, specificity can to a wide audience. The larger question to ask students is what they hope to convey through the essay and if their writing indeed communicates that message.

After a rather solid explanation of the role of the guidance counselor’s letter of recommendation (140-145), Hernandez turns her attention the high school transcript. In direct contradiction to what she wrote on page 64 regarding test scores and grades, Hernandez now writes, “Most highly selective colleges would rather have a student with slightly lower scores but still high enough to be competitive in the larger applicant pool who is top in his class and is a force to be reckoned with in class discussions” (146). In reading her work, it becomes obvious that Hernandez is attempting to appease the client who is concerned with the particular area that she is focusing on at the moment. Following up almost immediately with another statement that needs to be explicated, Hernandez mentions that between 75-90% of applicants are capable of doing the work at an Ivy League (149-50). In and of itself, this statement seems like a good message to give students—here we assume that this is true for Hernandez provides no evidence to support this claim—but this assertion also calls Hernandez’s charges against athletes, legacies, and ethnic minorities into question (32) for we must then ask whether admitting these students is truly “unfair” if they can most likely do the work. Hernandez then concludes the chapter with generally solid advice about the interview process (153-160).

Chapter 10 – Chapter 10 contains a perfectly fine overview of the committee process and the kind of thinking that tends to occur within it. Of note here is, of course, the way in which the information that Hernandez provides in the previous nine chapters does and does not manifest in the committee process.

Chapters 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 – In Chapter 11 we find information on athletic recruitment that is largely irrelevant for most students and even for athletes. The information provided, while perhaps interesting, is not helpful for a recruited athlete and it is in fact doubtful that a recruited athlete would even be reading this book in the first place. Hernandez also continues to evidence faulty reasoning—or perhaps a poor grasp of statistics—by making a point of noting that athletes at Dartmouth “are accepted at a roughly 62 percent rate—much higher than the overall acceptance rate of 20 percent” (177) without mentioning that the applicants from the athletic pool are a self-selecting group that often doesn’t actually “apply” until after their agreements with coaches have been made and admission hinted at. Similarly, it is unclear where Hernandez is getting her numbers from as she makes an assertion that legacies are admitted at twice the rate of other students (183) and Hernandez seems to ignore that students with legacy status might not be representative of the application pool as a whole.

In contrast to her earlier position on VIP/development applicants (32), Hernandez now notes that development cases constitute such a small percentage of the pool that their effect is negligible (190-191). Hernandez’s position on privilege might initially seem complicated for although she often warns against displaying it (121), she also uses phrases like “If you want to read the best book on exactly how much money it takes to get into a competitive school like Harvard” (190). Upon reflection, however, one realizes that no contradiction exists for Hernandez as her constant message to students is about how to effectively beat the system.

Chapters 16, 17, 18, and 19 – The discussion of affirmative action policies deserves a much richer treatment than the one given here by Hernandez:  in addition to a more careful consideration of the ways in which particular ethnic groups have experienced disadvantages, Hernandez’s work would also benefit from investigating the relationship between individual institutions and Higher Education generally. Similarly, Hernandez’s argument falls apart as she continually tries to think through systemic issues at the level of the individual.[19] Much of the theoretical heavy lifting in Hernandez’s work seems to be delegated out to other authors—it should be noted that many of Hernandez’s statements in this section include some variation of “in my opinion” and are “based on my experience, which is hardly forceful argumentation–and here Hernandez references Peter Schimdt’s Color and Money:  How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Actionat length (197-200). Without understanding the full context of Schimdt’s arguments, it is difficult to evaluate his claims but one thing of note is the assertion that “working-class whites are the true minority” (198), to which the one might also add “rural.”

It is also unclear whether Hernandez actually reads her own writing as she says, “Admission officers don’t ordinarily assume ethnicity from one’s surname or geographic area” (200), which is good advice but in direct contrast to her earlier statement that “if you are Michael Chan, for example, it’s going to be fairly obvious that you are Asian” (118). The more pressing issue in this section of the chapter is that Hernandez’s inability to think through admission policies results in her arriving at potentially erroneous conclusions, particularly about the effect that affirmative action might have on Asian Americans (201).[20] For example, Thomas Espenshade, professor of Sociology at Princeton, acknowledged the score gaps referenced by Hernandez in interviews with The New York Times and Inside Higher Ed but also mentioned the following in the latter:

In an interview Thursday, Espenshade, said that “all other things equal, Asian-American students are at a disadvantage relative to white students, and at an even bigger disadvantage relative to black and Latino students.” But he was quick to add that “this doesn’t mean there is discrimination.”

He noted that the modeling he has done is based on quantifiable measures such as grades and test scores. “We don’t have access to all the information an admissions dean does,” he said. “We don’t have extracurriculars. We don’t have personal statements or guidance counselors’ recommendations. We’re missing some stuff.”

Those who assume that average scores indicate bias may not understand the many factors that go into college admissions at elite private colleges, he said. “The fact that these institutions are looking for a multiplicity of talent is more understood in some communities than others,” he said. “There might be a tendency of many Asian-American students to think that academic credentials are going to carry not only the most weight, but all the weight, in who gets admitted, and that isn’t so.”

Further suggesting that the public should not jump to conclusions was a piece in ColorLines:

“Negative action is what was the basis of the cases 20 years ago and that’s what’s being alleged in these current cases,” said Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Negative action, which Aung explained as being based on “a feeling,” should not be confused with affirmative action, “which is a legal way that folks from underrepresented communities, which can be defined in a lot of ways, are given beneficial consideration” in a process that is holistic and by no means automatic.

If it turns out that Asian-American students are being held to a higher standard, that would have nothing to do with affirmative action policies designed to increase the diversity of an incoming class, Aung said.

In sum, the debate over affirmative action policies, their intent, and their efficacy is one worth having but Hernandez seems ill equipped to enter into such a discussion and irresponsibly writes about the issue despite not having a solid theoretical foundation in the subject.

Chapter 20 – This chapter discusses the wait list but does not provide any advice that goes beyond the ordinary.

Related Material

Review, Scott Anderson –

[1] The original version was published in 1997 and Hernandez notes that very little has changed (xiii) although numbers have been updated where appropriate.

[2] See “10 Secrets for Top College Admission,” “I Can Get Your Kid into an Ivy,” and “Dirty Secrets of College Coaches.”

[3] This should not suggest that common general guidelines might not exist among the Ivy League schools but Hernandez’s language is one that eschews nuance in favor of promising a straightforward solution when the process involves much more subtlety, nuance, and apparent contradiction for those not familiar with it.

[4] At one point Hernandez even goes on to write, “Many of the people who will be judging you went to less prestigious colleges and sometimes begrudge those who have had more opportunity than they have had” (3).

[5] Here, it should be noted that according to her own company’s website, Hernandez charges up to $40,000 for a complete package of college counseling.

[6] It is exceedingly unclear why Hernandez continually picks at this thread. See page 128 for another mention.

[7] Although Hernandez’s advice might appear to be healthy on the surface, in context it becomes apparent that avoiding the perception of “grade grubbing” is important because admissions committees look for people who are truly interested in learning—which ultimately means that Hernandez’s entreatment is a means to an end (i.e., admission) and therefore utilitarian.

[8] Although institutions might convert composite ACT scores into equivalent SAT scores, they do not necessarily assume equal section subscores and it seems highly unlikely that institutions superscore the ACT.

[9] If this is even true. Hernandez notes her personal preference and makes a claim that this is a widespread practice but offers no evidence to support this. Hernandez also claims that “most [admission officers] value high scores and decent grades much more than decent scores and high grades” (64) but again provides no evidence for this. It would seem that the interpretation of the scores and grades would depend on contextual clues from the student’s application, including background and the nature of the high school attended. While decent scores and high grades might be explained by grade inflation, high scores and decent grades might indicate a student who does not produce sustained effort.

[10] Here Hernandez assumes that all other components of the application are competitive but a more accurate discussion would look at how the rankings inform a decision rather than determining it.

[11] It would seem from Hernandez’s description that the AI is directly related to the academic ranking although an explicit connection between the two is not made clear.

[12] Indeed, Hernandez even devotes a section on “how to override the AI to make it more equitable” (69)!

[13] It should be noted that Hernandez does a poor job of explaining the statistics behind the converted rank score and readers will probably have to rely on tables provided by Hernandez—which must be assumed to be accurate—in order to calculate this figure. Incidentally, a search for “converted rank score” + “Ivy League” returned results that were somehow associated with Hernandez, suggesting that this might not be a widespread term.

[14] Hernandez address the correlation on page 87 but wrongly suggests causality (66) when the truth is that the factors that go into determining a high AI also represent the same factors that influence admissibility. AI seems like a poor proxy for competitiveness (generally) and feeds into the desire to quantify one’s chances for admission.

[15] See also, “Before Recruiting in Ivy League, Applying Some Math

[16] But, Hernandez insists, “the AI is not the all-important number that people try to make it out to be—it is simply one way to measure academic strength” (258).

[17] Hernandez later muddies the waters as she writes that the percentage of the senior class attending a four-year institution “is used along with other factors, such as parental occupation, level of education, money spent per student in the school district (usually form the high school’s profile), to determine what obstacles the student may have face growing up in a particular area” (140).

[18] Also of note is the unquestioning way in which Hernandez’s preference for the “slice-of-life” essay itself conforms to a clichéd practice that includes opening in medias res and with a line of dialogue. This should not suggest that this technique is not effective but it does point to the way in which Hernandez continually seems unable or unwilling to reflect on her own advice.

[19] Worse, perhaps, is the way in which Hernandez continually relies on individual cases to make a point despite the fact the reader likely does not have the ability to contextualize these cases against the entire pool as admission officers tend to do. At their worst, many of these examples can be seen as akin to evidence created by a researcher in order to support a pre-determined conclusion.

[20] For a much more considered approach, see a post on Priceonomics. Hernandez also notes that “Several lawsuits have been brought by Asian students against top colleges” (201) but fails to mention that the charges in the Jian Li case were later dropped.

Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

Crazy U:  One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College

 Chris Tokuhama


Ferguson, A. (2011). Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Andrew Ferguson, currently a senior editor at Weekly Standard, is a political journalist who has written for publications such as Time, The LA Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Ferguson was also a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.


Written by a reporter from the perspective of a parent, Crazy U manages to combine some of the elements of both approaches into a readable book that follows a year in the college admission process. Although Andrew Ferguson’s book manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of the parent memoir, the work does not seem as thorough as other journalistic enterprises, although it benefits from a mind that is trained to ask contextual questions. Although nods to the larger landscape of Higher Education are mentioned in sections, Ferguson’s retains a focus on selective college admission. Strongest in areas where external information is readily available (e.g., the SAT), Ferguson’s book is also weakest in explaining the workings of the admission process (e.g., application review and discussing meaningful differences in evaluation between private and public institutions).


Introduction – Ferguson takes pains to note that the situation described in his book is, in some ways, atypical as the vast majority of students are able to be accepted to college and attend for a cost that is not exorbitant. American students, Ferguson notes, already have advantages with regard to education when compared to their peers around the world and that the popular imagination is concerned with “high-class problems” (3). This contextualization of the process for an individual student is helpful to maintain perspective. Ferguson evidences a humor twined with an understanding of a broader picture (e.g., with respect to history or to global higher education) that seems both palatable and educational. Additionally, Ferguson describes his own college experience not only in terms of academic experience but also social and life experiences, which suggests that his approach to the subject of college admission and college attendance might differ from the typical “fear-based” tactics designed to capitalize on anxiety

Perhaps the most significant contribution here is Ferguson’s provocation that, despite the attention and money lavished on it, we don’t really know what we expect out of Higher Education.[1] Ferguson notes that Americans tend to focus on things (9), which seems astute although “tangible outcomes” (i.e., job, graduate school, etc.) might seem like a better term.

Chapter 1In discussing Katherine Cohen, Ferguson touches upon an important point with regard to the industry that has developed around college-going:  to what extent do entities incite anxiety in order to profit from offering a solution?“That’s what Kat[erine] was selling:  the kind of expertise that could only come from a professional who had helped make the process mysterious in the first place” (16). Discussion of this is of course related to a larger set of cultural practices (e.g., television news and advertising in general) that manufacture anxiety in order to peddle “solutions” but we must also consider how college-going can represent a high-stakes one-time transaction and, as such, present a temptation to maximize profit at the expense of relationships.[2]

Although he does not go into depth, Ferguson does take readers through a miniature case study (18-22), which, via Kat, gives readers some insight into the criteria used to evaluate an application in a holistic review process. In response to this, Ferguson notes, “It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending thy weren’t” (23) and his statement is important to keep in mind as we consider the ways in which “authenticity” is perceived, manifested, and valued in the college admission process. The intertwining of a malleable teenage identity, expectations set by college admission, and branding—“So the first great task consuming our children as they step into the wider world is an act of marketing, with themselves as a product” (23)—is an important issue to wrestle with as we think return to the question of what we want Higher Education to do.[3]

Continuing to show that he has some sort of perspective on the process, Ferguson also observes that college admission can become less about students and more about parents’ egos, writing “children quite often served as proxies for status and parental self-worth” (26-27).

Chapter 2 – Ferguson includes a brief history of the development of American Higher Education (33-35), which is important as it allows readers to understand how the democratic promise of education in America became ingrained in our collective psyche:  citing milestones such as 1862’s Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges, and 1944’s G.I. Bill, which caused a resurgence in college attendance after World War II, Ferguson underscores how social mobility became linked to higher education in the popular imagination. Ferguson goes on to suggest that one consequence of the democratization of higher education was an effort to reestablish social stratification via a hierarchy based on brand name, which in turn created a sense of anxiety about which college a student would attend as opposed to if a student would attend.[4]

Harkening back to the American focus on tangible results, Ferguson notes that the development of the U.S. News & World Report rankings in 1983 reflected a cultural shift in an emphasis on credentials over learning (38). Linking the development of the rankings to an earlier “Most Influential Americans,” Ferguson highlights the role of perception and reputation in a metric that would otherwise purport to be objective (41).[5] The existence of the rankings facilitated—but did not create!—the transformation of education into a commodity serving as a de facto Consumer Reports for higher education. Ferguson suggests, however, that U.S. News & World Report isn’t solely to blame for focusing the public’s attention on particular metrics as institutions could do more to share information about student outcomes as collected through things like the National Survey of Student Engagement. More important, however, is the parallel between the ranking system’s effect on colleges/universities and the college application’s effect on students with regard to the way in which the affected parties pattern their behavior after what is perceived to be of value (49-53).[6] Finally, although one can conceptualize the rankings as an agent of commercialization, one cannot ignore that the rankings also hold value as they represent one of the ways that outsiders can begin to make sense of the college admission process.

Ultimately, the larger issue that the mention of U.S. News & World Report raises is the role of commerce and commercialism in education, which is traditionally seen as a space that is removed from outside influence.[7] American institutions of higher education are of course influenced by corporations and donors in ways that range from athletic teams, named buildings, and endowed chairs but the perception is that higher education continues to exist in some kind of bubble.

Chapter 3 – Throughout this chapter, Ferguson continually touches upon the theme of information management. In discussing the titles of various books related to college admission, Ferguson introduces the important notion of the rhetoric used to promote or sell college admission; parsing out self-help elements and inevitably invoking insider/outsider dichotomies, Ferguson also notes that the guides are directives that aim to remove uncertainty or contradiction (59-60). College guides in particular seem subject to use of the term “insider” (61) and  Ferguson also notes that the popular college books like Fiske Guide rely on faulty methodology[8] based on potentially small sample sizes and prone to investigator influence (60, 63). Of particular importance here is the way that guides package and present information to an audience who might not be equipped to make sense out of the data themselves. Noting that “discrepancies usually arose only on matters of objective importance” (62), Ferguson suggests that the books’ almost universally similar tone resulted from their desire to function as reassurance or validation (63). What these books recognize, and cater to, is the perspective that an individual parent/student has on this process as little effort is made to encourage critical reflection on how an individual institution can be compared against others and if any one particular way of doing so is the “best” way. Reassurance, then, seems like the antithesis to individuals being challenged in a way that may ultimately be beneficial for them, if stressful.[9]

In a similar vein, a discussion of College Confidentialshowcases the way in which a desire for “on-demand” information undercut by a lack of critical thinking skills[10] can produce less-than-helpful results for users. Perhaps unkindly, if not untruthfully, Ferguson describes College Confidential as follows:

What it is, is a Web site where people from all walks of life, from every income level and background, create a communal space without fear of reprisal and in a spirit of perfect openness, so they can spread misinformation, gossip, and lunatic conjecture to people who are as desperate as themselves. (66)

Ferguson cuts to the heart of the matter, suggesting that many of the threads on College Confidential are really inquiring about how a student can get into college and the tragedy is that the vast majority of the responses are informed by nothing more than anecdotal experience (66).

Chapter 4– Although not explicitly stated, Ferguson connects the simplistic/direct thinking of College Confidential with a larger practice in the space of college admission:  the kind of thinking that students must demonstrate in order to succeed on the SAT is not about embracing subtlety or complexity—counter to how things often are in the “real” world—but rather one of conviction and single answers. But perhaps Ferguson’s real contribution is his identification of the SAT as “a flash point where questions of class and culture, wealth and politics, race and gender, the purpose of higher education and even our varying definitions of merit rub against one another” (77). As example, Ferguson includes statements by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, that point to the SAT’s early history and the ways in which the test was used in order to maintain structural inequality (79-80).[11] Ferguson helpfully goes beyond this and broadens the scope via mention of Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s The Academic Revolution (1968) in order to suggest that the test may also reflect structural inequality in American life (81-82). One must then question whether the test is revealing inequality, creating inequality, or both. In recounting a brief history of the SAT(82-88), Ferguson notes that the “holistic” method employed by many selective schools today has roots in discriminatory practices that arose in response to unintended consequences of standardized achievement testing in the 1930s (83). Later, this position would be challenged by James B. Conant as he assumed the presidency of Harvard and championed the ideal of meritocracy. In effect Conant shifted the focus from achievement—which reflected existing inequality based on opportunity—to aptitude in the form of the SAT; here Conant wanted to focus on the ability to learn rather than mastery of material itself.

Ferguson also raises the question of how accurately the SAT measures anything meaningful, while also hinting that a more careful consideration of the interplay between testing and curriculum must occur (92). Reports from the College Board have indicated that SAT scores are correlated with freshman year grades but also that high school GPA alone is a better predictor than pure SAT scores. Ferguson also suggests that the SAT, like all contemporary measures of merit, reflect income inequalities (94, 99-100). In response to criticism, the focus of testing has again shifted in an attempt to capture “noncognitive skills” (95) and non-traditional intelligences.[12]

Finally, the mention of standardized testing’s role in the college admission process underscores that making sense out of large amounts of data is not a problem unique to applicants and their families—the origins of the standardized test were in a system designed to sort and classify a large number of applicants and the question then becomes how those criteria reflect the values of entities that make the test and use the test. In a parting anecdote Ferguson also demonstrates the power of the test for, despite his criticisms, Ferguson refuses to disclose his score on the Math subsection!

Chapter 5 – A major theme of this chapter is the rhetoric that surrounds college admission, from the way in which parental anxiety manifests in the college admission process to college slogans—currently more concerned, it seems, with a student’s journey and the abstract notion of success than any particular ideals—and viewbooks that tap into a structure of affect as opposed to facts. The invocation of feeling harkens back to Chapter 1’s themes of presentation/reputation and marketing.

Although the public might be resistant to conceptualize Education as a consumer good (at least initially), we can use the discussion of branding to consider how institutions must endeavor to distinguish themselves when their “products” are ostensibly of similar quality. On some level, each school has an identity comprised of things like color, slogans, and mascots but the messaging for selective colleges seems quite similar (117). Furthermore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, one might argue that despite institutions’ expressed desire for diversity the challenges of the application process at selective schools tends to ensure that students share a core set of traits (124).

Chapter 6 – Largely concerned with the difficulties of conveying oneself to admission committees via an intermediary (i.e., the college application), this chapter tries to get at the question of what schools are really looking for and how they go about collecting this information on the application itself. Ferguson notes two things of interest here:  the first is question whether the nature of the application favors extroverts[13] and the second, more important observation, is that the identification and presentation of an “authentic” (as deemed by readers!) self is challenging for young writers.[14] Ferguson argues that this entreatment to “know thyself” gained popularity as Baby Boomers began to occupy positions of influence.[15] Later, Ferguson also suggests that the type of introspection required by college admission essays stands in direct contrast to the way in which white, middle-class culture in America structures the lives of teenagers (139).

Although Ferguson does not consider what admission offices want out of the personal essay, I suggest that the form’s popularity has something to do with the dominant ideology of “fit” and that while readers may not be actively reading an essay in order to determine fit, they are interested in feeling like they got to know the student a little bit better. Rightly or wrongly, this particular stance by readers might result from the way in which admission officers are often tasked with advocating for students in the admission process and memorable applicants can provide the foundation for a case to admit. Ferguson’s inclusion of the Georgetown University prompt (“write about a current world crisis and propose a solution”) begs the question of whether essay prompts can be focused on demonstrating critical thinking and subsequently gaining a sense of passion.

Chapter 7 – Ferguson mentions that college tuition began to rise faster than inflation beginning in the 1970s but does not provide a reason for this other than an observation that health care and education are the two perennial growth sectors in America. Although Ferguson makes a comparison between car salesmen and the tuition discounting practices of institutions, the analogy seems slightly off as it seems more likely that colleges and universities are looking at budgets across the class as opposed to a series of individual transactions. Nevertheless, the more pertinent issue that Ferguson raises is that colleges are not necessarily obligated to, or interested in, reducing student debt. Via a conversation with Richard Vedder, a professor of Economics, Ferguson also suggests that much of the additional money has come to be spent on institutional bloat (177). Finally, in discussing the value of a college degree, Ferguson suggests that a diploma has become used as an unofficial signifier in the hiring process with the abolishment of employment tests (179).

Chapter 8 – Although the justification Ferguson provides for the high turnover rate in college admission is a bit misleading, his mention of the age gap (i.e., “missing middle”) in the profession deserves further examination (182). If Ferguson is in fact correct about the age demographics of the profession—no data is provided—we might speculate that such a structure would have implications for the enactment of admission policy:  what does it mean, for example, to have a process that is overseen by committed individuals but who delegate the day-to-day to recent graduates who might not have a real interest in admission?

Also frustrating is Ferguson’s assertion that a form of reverse affirmative action is taking place (184-185) without providing data to support this claim. Although anyone following Higher Education can likely affirm the concerns over the shortage of males (generally, although there are exceptions in fields like Engineering) the charge that the white men receive an advantage remains unsubstantiated. Ferguson also relies on anecdotal data from an unnamed “ex-counselor” to describe enrollment targets (185) and this same ex-counselor mentions the importance of a hook, which should be related back to the purpose of the admission essay in Chapter 6.[16] It seems, for example, that one might produce a productive discussion by reading the concept of “fit” against the perception of having a “hook” and the crafting of a class.

Toward the end of the chapter, Ferguson seems to engage in a bit of the speculation that he decried in Chapter 3’s discussion of College Confidential as he retells the fate of a friend’s daughter (194). Also problematic is the way in which Ferguson equates a “safety school” with “undesirable” in a way that reinforces the prestige hierarchy (195). Ultimately, although Ferguson raises some interesting questions, it seems evident that his knowledge of the actual college admission process is the weakest element of the book.

Finally, Ferguson also includes a brief section on the ambiguity of “likely letters” and the additional stress that they can cause. For those in the industry, the language of the letter makes it exceedingly clear what it is (and what it implies) but Ferguson’s anecdote should be taken seriously as a warning about how official materials can be interpreted by their intended audience.

Chapter 9 – Recalling the discussion of the value of a college degree in Chapter 7, Ferguson asks readers to wrestle with the tension created by increasingly customizable majors—driven by student/customer demand!—and the ability to track what that major actually represents (210).

[1] This is actually a very pertinent question that has been discussed in publications like Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in multiple articles in The New York Times, including a series titled “What Is College For?

[2] Ferguson later expands upon this duality, noting in Chapter 2 how university/college administrators will often engage in practices that they claim to be harmful (e.g., rankings, reliance on standardized testing, pricing out the competition, etc.) as a result of being locked in a sort of arms race for students and the tuition that they represent (38).

[3] The potential far-reaching effects of this are suggested later in Chapter 2 as Ferguson writes “And childhood now was a matter of setting life goals and arranging your activities in pursuit of them” (30).

[4] I think we must complicate this picture a bit by thinking about how the established American universities also served as the basis for the development of social networks that would intersect with social mobility and class. The aspiration, then, to attend a top tier school might have existed prior but the motivation for such an endeavor may have changed as a result of the democratization that Ferguson describes.

[5] The rankings have been criticized as a sort of “popularity contest” as 22.5% of the ranking comes from a school’s reputation among its peers. See also the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s “College and University Ranking Systems” for additional information. For its part, U.S. News & World Report argues that reputation has value (46).

[6] See also page 44.

[7] The exception to this, as Ferguson notes in Chapter 7, is in matters of financial aid.

[8] Thinking about this in conjunction with the controversy surrounding U.S. News & World Report, one might ask a deeper question about the “correct” way to go about quantifying the college experience. Given the current discussions in Higher Education, it seems as though the American public has yet to come to a consensus.

[9] The question then becomes how one goes about working to infuse “good information” into the public’s consciousness and, more importantly, how to encourage a culture in which college admission becomes talked about in a rational manner.

[10] For example, in message boards like College Confidential readers must invest an extra amount of work to try to think critically about who these posters are in a process that can include researching a poster’s history, looking at the frequency distribution of posts in order to detect possible paid posters, and the sometimes next-to-impossible step of determining a poster’s credibility on a particular topic. For similar discussion with respect to Amazon reviews, see an episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

[11] For example, we can consider how the Educational Testing Service (under contract from the College Board) validates its test questions:  it assumes that high-scoring students should get a particular item correct, which means that the values and perspectives of these particular students become ingrained in the test in a tautological process. See also recent evidence that racial bias in SAT questions persists. See also page 89 for more information on developing questions.

[12] See Robert Sternberg’s “Rainbow Project” and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

[13] Later Ferguson also mentions “narcissism” and “exhibitionism” (142).

[14] See also, “Some kinds of passion wouldn’t appeal to the admissions committees” (141).

[15] Although this claim is unsubstantiated in the text, one might be able to make a case that an increased focus on the inner life has certainly manifested in culture with the introspection of the hippies to New Age thinking in the 80s to a focus on feelings in the present.

[16] Although it is entirely possible that the percentages quoted by the anonymous source on page 185 are correct, there is no way to know whether this numbers are generalizable across institutions.

The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT

The Perfect Score Project:  Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT

 Chris Tokuhama


Stier, D. (2014). The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT. New York: Harmony Books.


Adapted from Debbie Stier’s Perfect Score Project biography (which seems very similar to the one provided in her book and on other websites):  Debbie Stier’s book publishing career has spanned two decades, most of it spent in public relations. Debbie regularly speaks on topic pertaining to social media and technology as well as, most recently, standardized testing.  Stier has written a piece in Time that largely supports testing and published drafts of her book chapters in Psychology Today.


The Perfect Score Project presents a peculiar amalgamation of memoir and test preparation guide. Although the book is largely focused on detailing Debbie Stier’s “project,” it also contains inserts of advice about various aspects of the SAT. The advice presented is reasonable but nothing new and this suggests that this book represents nothing more than a repackaging of old information with a veneer of self-improvement memoir in order to make it friendlier to readers. Furthermore, the stark contrast between the “experience” and the advice—it should be noted that Stier’s only claim to credibility is having taken the SAT seven times and having endured multiple preparation courses—demonstrates a lack of engagement with the fields of testing, college admission, and higher education by Stier. Indeed, Stier’s use of outside references is somewhat questionable throughout the work, seemingly relying on a relatively small body of work and failing to provide citations for claims in multiple instances. What Stier seems continually unable to do is to understand that scoring well on the SAT is not a grand “project” but rather a straightforward (if not easy) process of internalizing a strategy based on the logic of the SAT. To save time, one should just seek out the inserts if one is looking for information about test-taking strategies for the SAT. In reading her book, it becomes increasingly clear that Stier is not interested in dismantling the anxiety that surrounds testing, nor is she invested in dislodging testing’s place in college admission. Ultimately, this book evidences a missed opportunity to meaningfully reflect on the way that high-stakes testing can impact the parent-child relationship.


Prologue – Stier establishes a college-going environment that is suffused with anxiety that results from economic concerns and lack of information about how to prepare for the application process. Stier notes that the impetus of the book was a belief that high SAT scores could lead to scholarship money for a student, her son Ethan, who was otherwise mediocre—here the reader must pause to question the validity of this assertion—and that what follows is a result of that position. Although one might sympathize with Stier’s desire to aid her son’s ability to go to college (it is yet unclear whether and to what extent her son is actually interested in college), one also questions whether Stier’s efforts are really about effecting change or if they are instead primarily focused on creating advantage for her son at the expense of others. The larger question here is to what extent The Perfect Score Project legitimizes the SAT—and standardized testing as an extension—as part of the evaluation matrix for college admission; by focusing solely on standardized tests it seems that Stier is prone to overemphasizing their impact.[1] It seems evident that Stier is not initially interested in challenging testing culture although she might have an interesting angle as she would be able to contrast the ways that testing impacts her son as a student who is diagnosed with ADHD with testing in the form of the SAT/ACT.

Chapter 1 – Stier writes “I was ‘modeling’ the behavior that I was hoping to cultivate in my son” (11) but one wonders if this behavior is really results-oriented thinking. Stier would argue against this, as, for her, “project” indicates that “it’s about the journey” (13). And while the moral of this story might be that perspective has allowed her to understand the benefits conferred by this experience, we must question Stier’s truthfulness as her stated goal was to obtain scholarship money through higher testing (9). Here, it seems as though Stier wants to benefit from the “fix it” rhetoric that pervades America in an era of popular makeover and renovation shows while avoiding the negative connotations of over-attentive parents.[2] We can see how Stier’s book indicates that it will conform to some of the tropes of the genre near the end of the chapter as she writes on page 15:

Looking back, maybe I should have called it “The Perfect Do-Over.” But that insight didn’t come until much later. At the time, this was about how I could salvage Ethan’s thirteen years of education, at the very last minute, with the SAT.

Here, Stier makes clear that what comes next—what the book is about—is about a journey for her and not necessarily a story about how her son developed in his relationship to testing or to college admission. In spite of this, perhaps the most valuable piece of this short chapter is the way in which Stier reminds us the degree to which parents can feel powerless in the process and how this impulse can lead to reliance on things like checklists that function to give parents a sense of control (13). Remaining unexamined are the possible reasons for this anxiety and whether the actions taken by parents on behalf of their students are truly beneficial. As the above quote indicates, this “project” seems much more about the Stier than it does about truly helping her son.

At this point it should also be noted that despite being a single mother, Stier is the beneficiary of some luxuries that other parents might not benefit from:  being able to afford the cost—both in time and in money—of taking the SAT seven times along with the discretionary income to purchase domain names indicates that Stier is approaching this problem from a very particular vantage point. While keeping in mind that this situation may present very real stress for students and parents, how sympathetic should we be that she has not saved for her student’s college education?

Chapters 2 and 3 – Although Stier continually indicates that the woman she was at the start of this process is not the woman who she is now, it becomes evident that Stier privileged her perspective over that of her son. In writing, “Thinking about my son, I didn’t remember any ‘trauma’ or ‘unresolved issues’ or ‘test anxiety’ from my own SAT experience. Why would I? Low scores or not, I had gotten into college,” (17) Stier seems willfully ignorant of her own experience as a teenager, having mentioned earlier that she developed a story about her past to in order to diffuse the impact that standardized tests had on her. Stier goes on to mention how unearthing old letters challenged this view but does not indicate how her attitude toward testing, her project, or her son may have changed as a result of this. Later, in Chapter 3, Stier begins to hint at the importance of empathizing with students going through the process[3] but does not, at this point, address the point explicitly.

Chapter 5 – A prominent theme in this section is realigning the efforts and perceptions of students and parents, understanding motivations for each group and how these particular drives manifest in terms of behavior. Complicating matters is Stier’s conflation of projects that involve making something (e.g., building a car) with her own efforts at improving standardized test scores[4]—although this is part of a much larger discussion, the way in which critical thinking and analysis manifests in “projects” that gesture toward a DIY or maker movement differ from the thought processes involved in studying, generally, or test taking, in particular.

Stier also unfortunately cites work by Neufeld and Maté[5] to suggest that parents are pitted against peers in a battle to influence young people (46). In addition to creating a simplistic—shouldn’t “media” also be included at the very least?—and antagonistic dichotomy, Stier’s misunderstanding of attachment theory leads to the development of a perspective that largely ignores how youth culture functions[6] and how the values of the peer group impact an individual student’s understanding of himself or herself. Although Stier advocates for parents to be involved in the life of their child (47), what she proposes is an ignorance of the way in which parental influence and peer culture can work together to spur a student on. Exemplifying the unhelpful nature of Stier’s contribution, she writes, “Honestly, I’m not sure what level of parental engagement is necessary to be an effective motivator. […] I’m pretty sure any level of warm and connected parental participation is a good thing and has the potential to be a powerful source of teenage motivation” (48).

Chapter 6 – Earlier in the Prologue it was noted that Stier does not seem invested in challenging either the primacy of standardized tests or the anxiety that surrounds them and Stier does nothing to subvert this assertion in her discussion of College Confidential, an online forum that often serves as a breeding ground for speculation. In fact, Stier’s account exemplifies how the kind of discussion that can occur on College Confidential is actually not productive or helpful, nor does it encourage students to engage in the critical reflection that is often involved in the “projects” that Stier cites earlier in Chapter 5.[7]

Stier does note that the standardized test can advantage particular groups of people—although this topic deserves a much richer treatment than given here—but also makes assertions that while possibly true, without additional support, seem racist (e.g., Asians are better prepared in Math). More problematic is the way in which Stier fails to address the larger issue of bias in testing, which calls for an interrogation of what the standardized test purports to measure, how it claims to do so, and whether its method reflects particular biases toward what is measurable.[8]

Chapter 7 – Stier’s failure to engage in the larger conversation about testing further hurts her as she talks about the recentering of SAT scores in 1995:  although Stier notes that there is a correlation between SAT Verbal scores and school curriculum (although she seems to lump all curriculum and all SAT-taking students into one category) she does not question whether SAT scores are actually an accurate measure of verbal ability.[9]

Also frustrating is Stier’s inability to link her embarrassment over her test score to an earlier quote about self-confidence in American students (52). Had Stier engaged in thoughtful reflection about cultural factors that informed this emotion—which is unfounded as she writes that SAT scores do not matter as an adult—she might have rethought the adult/peer dichotomy that she embraced in Chapter 5.

Additionally, Stier’s writing on the SAT suggests that she does not understand how the scores are actually used or interpreted (i.e., in a national context) and continues to think about scores from an individual perspective. Further in writing “Superscoring is what the colleges do with your Score Choice—to position themselves in the college rankings” (68) Stier showcases her surface-level understanding of the use of standardized test scores in college admission:  had she dug a little deeper, the reasoning for superscoring—again related to an understanding of the test as a measure and how its components operate—would have become apparent as would the reason that superscoring occurs on the SAT but not the ACT. Finally, Stier misunderstands the debate over optional test scores entirely (70):  her logic regarding the impact that optional test reporting has on U.S. News & World Report rankings is deeply flawed and insufficiently considers how the test optional nature of an admission process can alter the demographic of the students who apply to that institution.

Chapter 8 – The extent to which Stier buys into the system is shown on page 72 as she writes about seeking advice for test preparation:  “Plus, [Mark] graduated from MIT, so I figured he was a reliable source. Obviously he’d done well on the SAT.” Not only does this quote exemplify the degree to which Stier upholds the traditional hierarchy of education in America, it also runs counter to Stier’s own observations about the changing nature of the SAT. Even if Mark did in fact score well on an older version of the SAT, there are no guarantees that his prowess is in any way translatable to advice on the test’s current iteration. Mark may provide good advice but that is because he is the founder of a test preparation company and not because of the institution that he attended or because of his SAT scores.

Although Stier raises valid questions about the relationship between the SAT and test preparation (74) and includes a brief history of the test itself (75-76), she continues to fail to consider whether the SAT actually measures what it purports to (i.e., innate ability) or how these measures are reconciled against a test prep industry that largely teaches students how to take the test rather than content that will be on the test.

Throughout the course of the chapter it becomes increasingly obvious that Stier’s intended reader is a parent like herself:  the person who simply wants to be told what to do in order to get through a problem.[10] For this reader, Stier’s book functions as nothing more than an extended review of various test prep products, with common advice sprinkled in.[11] For Stier, the “project” continues to focus on product/outcome instead of focusing on how to actually work with her son through the process. Further supporting the perception that The Perfect Score Project is really nothing more than a prep book in different packaging is Stier’s inclusion of a “recipe for success on the essay” (80).[12] Stier’s information isn’t necessarily bad here as the score of the SAT’s essay is entirely determined by a scoring rubric but, at the same time, this information is hardly a “secret.” A carefully considered work would, for example, take advantage of an observation that homemade vocabulary flashcards work better (88) in order to comment on engagement, practice, and learning—ideally, the themes that should be highlighted in the conceptualization of a “project.” It is additionally ironic that Stier writes about a revelatory moment where gained perspective on what she was doing in a moment where she is still focused on the mechanics of answering questions (92).

Chapter 9 – Stier’s lack of critical thinking continues to be an issue, deciding to employ Dr. John Chung’s SAT Math prep book despite the fact that she knows that she holds an irrational belief regarding the book’s effectiveness. Perhaps the most generous comment can make at this point is an observation about the power of the anxiety surrounding testing and how it can encourage undesirable behavior. The larger, and more interesting, theme would seem to be a discussion of “learning” in studying for the SAT and to what extent this process mirrors the process of learning that takes place in schools.

Chapter 11 – It seems evident that Stier has completely lost sight of her goal in this process as she fixates on her scores and the corresponding percentiles.[13] What becomes increasingly obvious is that Stier is engaged in “project” designed to provide validation and redemption for her anxiety over her perceived lack of preparedness with regard to college admission. Not only focusing on scores but how they make her feel—as opposed to using this as an opportunity to better understand her son’s frame of mind—seems indicative of the way in which Stier approaches this endeavor.

It is further telling that Stier is a devotee of Stanley Kaplan’s approach to test preparation, including the quote “To say you can’t improve scores is to say you can’t improve students” (115) without comment. Kaplan’s words create a false equivalency here, assuming that improving standardized test scores indicates something about improving students, when the two are not necessarily linked in a causal relationship. Here we can again see how Stier’s inability to contextualize standardized tests—or testing culture for that matter—in a larger environment of education leads to misguided thinking.

Chapters 13, 14 and 15One must seriously question the extent to which “learning” is equated with “higher scores” throughout this book; it would seem that any amount of perspective would teach one that scores on the SAT do not readily translate to anything beyond success on the SAT. Additionally, Stier’s fixation on score is also highly at odds with a desire to actually learn anything meaningful. In Chapter 14 Stier further evidences inappropriate conflation between the two, noting that “Learning was the easy part…it was remembering that was hard” and that “understanding is remembering in disguise” (158-159).[14] At the conclusion of the chapter Stier records her latest round of scores, noting a 30 point gain in Critical Reading, a 40 point gain in Math, and a 90 point drop in Writing—Stier’s failure to really understand the scoring system, however, leads her to focus on her victories (i.e., “motivational rocket fuel”) despite the fact that these scores are within the variable range for her based on her testing history.

Stier’s paternalistic attitude remerges in this chapter as she takes her children to Kumon, writing, “nor did I know that it was critical for their well-being for me to reclaim my place as their respected mother” (163). Although Stier’s parenting style is not necessarily called into question here, it seems evident that Stier’s book would benefit from an examination of how her attitude as a parent intersects with her motivations for her “project” and who all of this is really for. Although this attitude eventually results in her children moving out of the hose, Stier remains staunchly unable to think critically about what this rupture means for her and her family; the lesson here seems to be about how to navigate the parent-child relationship (Stier solves this by deciding that her family can bond over television) and to endeavor to understand children on their own terms. Instead of understanding this, Stier notes that her son “matured” when he became to exhibit behavior more in line with Stier’s idealized version of who he should be.[15]

Chapter 15 also further evidences shoddy thinking as it conflates “intelligence” with the SAT (170); as previously noted on pages 75-76, although the SAT was originally conceived as a measure of aptitude and based on models of intelligence tests, the current iteration claims to evaluate “developed reasoning.” Stier’s reasoning for equating IQ tests and SAT tests (176) is based on an incomplete analysis of the test’s history and, again, a failure to fully consider the test in its modern context.[16] Stier correctly notes that Kumon reinforces skills but skills are not the same as cultivating intelligence or actually learning material (although one might make the case that there is a residual effect as one learns how to learn). Later, Stier also describes undergoing neurological testing and incorrectly labels this as related to “intelligence”—one might possibly be able to link this to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, but an explicit connection was not made and one gets the sense that the way in which Stier’s evocation of “IQ” is in alignment with the most colloquial use of the term.

Chapter 17 – Steir’s treatment of K. Anders Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice is tricky for while the tenets of Ericsson’s work may apply generally to SAT prep, it seems likely that Stier was exposed to the concept as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. The evolution of the idea is important here as Gladwell employed the “10,000 hours” mantra in a specific way in his book The Outliers and this interpretation is not necessarily congruent with what Ericsson put forth in his original paper. Furthermore, the concept of deliberate practice has been contested in stories by the BBC and Time, among others[17]

Chapter 18 – This chapter prominently features a section on testing accommodations, making an unsupported assertion that the number of students testing with accommodations has increased since 2003 (222). More curious—and further demonstrating a lack of thoroughness—is Stier’s failure to mention the controversy over over-diagnosing of ADHD and its relationship to standardized testing given that her son has ADHD!

Characteristically, Stier also includes some less-than-flattering information but does not pause to reflect on what this might mean for her or her family:  on page 232 Stier writes that she would only learn later that feeling like you know something and actually knowing it are two different things and that it’s best for students to choose their own goals in order to increase motivation. Of these two, the second is more problematic as it upholds the way in which Stier continually privileges her perspective, wants, and desires over that of her son. Stier goes onto write:

The real magic of the project, though I didn’t know it at the time, was that what I thought about the SAT became more important to Ethan than what his friends though. I embedded myself in my teenage son’s life at the very moment when those forces of nature—the peers—are most powerful, and most dangerous.

In many ways, the parenting style that Stier continually exhibits—as told in her own words!—continues to run counter to her ideal of an “authoritative” style and seems generally much more aligned with “authoritarian” parenting.

Chapter 19 – The repeated invocation of Ben Bernstein in reference to test anxiety (Stier also mentioned him early in Chapter 3) might suggest that particular works have been highly influential for Stier and that she does not necessarily consider multiple views on a particular subject.[18]

The more important theme here, however, is one unaddressed by Stier herself:  the lack of knowledge regarding testing conditions/locations, SAT II versus SAT testing, and differences between College Board policy and enforcement by schools all point to the way in which cultural capital can have an indirect impact on scoring.[19] What Stier should point to here—but does not—is that individuals can have advantages that have nothing to do with testing ability.[20]

Finally, Stier’s perspective on her own parenting is again called into questions as she relates an anecdote about her son’s absorption in World of Warcraft in order to assert that “The best part of the project was the fun I was having with Ethan” (253)—a claim that while possibly true, receives little support in the stories that Stier has chosen to tell thus far.

Chapter 20 – Stier’s research skills are again called into question as she notes that The New York Times called Advantage Testing’s score gains “stunning” (257) as an Internet search returned no results to this effect.[21]

What becomes most obvious in this section is that any improvement in Steir’s family life was incidental to her project and not a result of it. One must again question Stier’s interpretation of this situation as her understanding of familial intimacy seems directly correlated with her son’s positive attitude toward her; noting that her son was “loyal,” “stricken at seeing his mother sad,” and “he’d become more me than me” (273), Stier makes clear that bonding is significant only to the degree in which it is related to her.

Furthermore, Stier does not reexamine her assertion that high SAT scores equal scholarships—one deeply suspects that she simply had not done her research at the outset—for although she notes that the University of Vermont offered her son merit (and not need-based as she points out) aid, the highest scholarship for that school only requires an 1800 combined SAT score for out-of-state applicants.

Stier concludes with recommendations that seem to stem largely from her own experience and are not necessarily grounded in any actual data. Her call for a “coherent curriculum in mathematics” (279, for example, seems directly related to Stier’s own deficiency in the subject. Moreover, Stier notes that “a good SAT course can offer a coherent curriculum in the SAT”(279), a statement that should cause her to rethink the entire book and the value of the SAT and its scores. Stier’s call to consider the foundations developed in American schools is a valid one but her insistence on tying this advocacy to measures like the SAT without acknowledging the greater ongoing discussion surrounding testing (at the very least, No Child Left Behind and the Common Core should enter into the fray at this point) evidences a narrow focus that is ultimately unproductive. Stier’s understanding of college-going is also suspect and the larger picture that emerges is that she and her son would have benefitted from having better discussions with their college counselor earlier in the process.

Perhaps most unfortunate is Stier’s complete lack of perspective about how this “project” worked:  Stier notes that she got to know her son better by reading his essays (281) and one can readily see that this bonding has nothing to do with getting a perfect score on the SAT (which ultimately really seems much more like a gimmick than anything else). Throughout her book Stier continually indicates a disinterest in getting to know “youth culture” and understanding where her son is coming from—had she felt differently, she might have realized that “The Perfect Score Project” was entirely unnecessary.

[1] It should also be noted that, at this point, the types of colleges that Stier and Ethan are interested in applying to. It seems likely from the connection between standardized test scores that Stier is talking about some level of selective college but this important detail is missing for the importance of test scores varies across institutions.

[2] Here we must also consider the extent to which this works fits into the larger genre of self-help/discovery memoirs that tend to be written by 1) women 2) of a certain age.

[3] It seems like a much taller order to ask teenagers to assume the perspective of their parents although this does not mean that they should be kept in the dark.

[4] See also earlier notes in Chapter 1 about the implications of conceptualizing this effort as a “project.”

[5] Hold On to Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers (2006).

[6] Stier actually seems to have a disdain for youth culture as she writes that her son was “not even fazed enough to look up from whatever inane thingymabobber he happed to have been wasting his time on at that moment” (82). At best, she seems unwilling to engage in the nuances of the teenage experience (107). See also the way in which gamication goes uncommented upon and Stier’s comment about Grockit, “state-of-the-art technology, gaming, adaptive learning (none of which appealed to me, of course)” (134). See also, pages 202 and 233.

[7] See also the equation “SAT = college” on page 275.

[8] For example, we must consider how the Educational Testing Service (under contract from the College Board) validates its test questions:  it assumes that high-scoring students should get a particular item correct, which means that the values and perspectives of these particular students become ingrained in the test in a tautological process. Stier touches briefly on the vetting process for questions on pages 142-143 but does not interrogate what the “ability” criteria, which, according to Stier, states, “All questions must allow the testers to distinguish between a high and low scorer” (142). What Stier fails to mention is that the College Board designates a “high scorer” based on how a student did on other sections of the SAT—thus the logic here is that students who answered previous questions correctly should be able to answer future questions correctly, and not that these questions are necessarily accurate measures of anything else. Furthermore, Stier evidently has not done thorough research on the topic for she does not account for recent evidence that racial bias in SAT questions persists. See also the equating of “nonobjective” with “nonbiased” on page 78.

[9] Stier’s observation on page 190 that “The focus [of Critical Reading passages] is on the author’s meaning or intent, which is not necessarily what is taught in most high school English classes” seems like the perfect opportunity to launch into an investigation about the validity of the SAT but Stier makes no such effort.

[10] This mentality results in Stier’s confusion over the conflicting advice offered by different test preparation companies; although Stier briefly acknowledges that test prep companies are training you in a systematic approach to the test, not necessarily actually teaching content, the implications of this are not discussed. Stier philosophy toward the test can further be seen through her desire for “standardized advice” (137) and assertion that she was “dying for someone [she] could trust to just tell [her] what to do” (139).

[11] Further cementing Stier’s purpose is her conceptualization of her reader as part of a “market” (103).

[12] As further example, we can see that although Stier cites a study by Les Perelman that correlates an essay’s score with its length (110), she does not use this moment to challenge the legitimacy of the essay’s score as a measure of writing ability but instead proceeds to provide tips on how to game the scoring system.

[13] Stier also fails to mention the range in section scores (which are reported on the results!), which the College Board cites as ±30-40 points for each section. See also page 135.

[14] Specifically, Stier seems to confuse “automaticity” with learning/mastery.

[15] See also, 197.

[16] To add frustration, Stier even includes a quote from a verbal tutor that says, on page 181, “The SAT is not a literature test. It’s a vocabulary-based reasoning test.” In short, Stier needs to be much more specific and explicit in her definition of “intelligence.” Stier also goes on to reference Advantage Testing in Chapter 19 (256), a company whose representative would later write an opinion piece for The New York Times on the SAT titled “Not an I.Q. Test.”

[17] To be fair, the Time and Huffington Post pieces may have been published once The Perfect Score Project’s manuscript had been locked but the BBC piece is from 2012 and its position should be accounted for in a responsible treatment of the subject.

[18] See earlier point with Ericsson/Gladwell in Chapter 17 and Stier’s reference to Gladwell on page 247.

[19] Stier also includes a list of preferences for test center amenities but, unhelpfully, only mentions how one is supposed to determine what facilities will be available at a given test center 13 pages later.

[20] This is perhaps not surprising given the way in which Stier discusses Advantage Testing, a private test prep company, in Chapter 20. Stier mentions that Advantage has not turned anyone away because of ability to pay (according to the founder) but does not discuss the very real class implications of this kind of testing.

[21] The one result that did come back was not complimentary toward private SAT tutors like Advantage Testing. Advantage Testing also seems to misrepresent its coverage in the press, selectively picking quotes from a Wall Street Journal piece, for example, that is not exactly complimentary.

Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process

Admissions Confidential:  An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process

 Chris Tokuhama


Toor, R. (2001). Admission Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin


After a career as an editor in academic publishing, Rachel Toor worked for three years in undergraduate admission at Duke University before eventually becoming an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. Despite the positions that Toor makes evident in her book Admissions Confidential, Toor has not made significant contributions to Higher Education or college admission reform despite working for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a platform whose audience would be highly interested in such a discussion. In fact, Toor’s recent work for The Chronicle centers mostly on writing—which makes sense given her background—and does not touch upon the issues that she seemed so passionate about in her book. (Toor did write an article called “Picking the Right College is a Vital, Unimportant Process” soon after her departure from Duke that is essentially a reprinting of material that appears in Admission Confidential.) More damning is Toor’s decision to work as a private college consultant, charging up to $200/hour according to a 2006 article in Business Week, indicating that while she remains associated with the profession, she has no real desire to change it. Toor’s book is also cited in a piece by Daniel Golden in The Wall Street Journal about relaxed admission standards for wealthy applicants; Golden would go on to write The Price of Admission on this same subject.


Although she expresses a desire for her work to compel the public to ask informed questions about the process, Toor does not actually structure her book in a way that is conducive to this. Instead of using examples as an entrée to a topic that should be interrogated, Toor often includes unsubtle jabs and then, at the conclusion, suggests what she would like to see without offering any productive means of how to achieve her idealized vision. Admissions Confidential contains sections of seemingly solid advice, mired in work that can be described as self-indulgent. Ultimately, Toor’s project would have been better served had it endeavored to answer the questions that she raises in the final pages.


Introduction – At first glance, the introduction seems to indicate that the following book adheres to many of the tropes of the volumes in the “insider’s guide” genre:  featuring a fresh-faced (i.e., inexperienced) staff member who uses a smattering of jargon to establish competency and authority, Admissions Confidential offers readers the chance to glimpse the inner workings of a process that many Americans are keenly aware of and yet rather unknowledgeable about. Of note is the way in which the author’s tone indicates her position relative to the profession of college admission:  confessing that she sought job in admission due to a desire for something “not as intellectually demanding” (5) and writing that, after a meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Admission, “it seemed clear to me that I was going to be offered a job” (7) suggests that Toor holds a modicum of disdain for her former colleagues and their vocation.

What becomes clear, in retrospect, is that Toor holds herself in higher esteem than she should—ironic, given her later comments about her colleagues—as she aspires to ascend to the ranks of prestige conferred by the status of being an academic. On page xii Toor writes, “Ethnology is the discipline of looking closely at a specific culture, trying to get a sense of what you can learn not only about that narrow strip of interest but also what that might ultimately tell us about ourselves” and, in doing so, displays her two major flaws. Throughout her book Toor makes it clear that academics, in general, exhibit a sort of higher-order thinking that Toor regards as superior and the definition of ethnology employed in this way only supports this position. Worse, however, is that while the quote points to the very valuable practice of attempting to understand a culture on its own terms and being self-reflexive about one’s positionality relative to the group in question, Toor herself frequently fails to embody this practice.

Chapter 1 – Toor evidences a position that is contradictory, if not hypocritical, as her opening critiques the hierarchy of the University and the mystique surrounding it (noting on page 16 that “smart people” can be found elsewhere) while simultaneously repeatedly making a point about the credentials of her colleagues. For example, Toor’s observation that “none of the associates had gone to elite schools” (18) could be used as the foundation for a larger point about the ways in which choice of college does not determine success in life, the juxtaposition of that statement with Toor’s prominent story of her own undergraduate education at Yale yet again points to a measure of elitism on the part of Toor.[1] Toor also seems to be quite ambivalent toward privilege, describing her own in an uncritical fashion (31) while taking pains to point out that of others (24, 29-30). Toor also fails to mention the ways in which she was complicit in a process that she feels is inadequate (23) and one also begins to suspect how good Toor was at her job (24, 28). In contrast to Toor’s approach, however, is Victoria,[2] a former PhD student, who seems to embrace the idea of a good admission counselor as one who is also an educator.[3] Although one can see how an instinct to be a teacher may cause friction with elements like file review or time constraints, the instinct seems to be aligned with the most helpful and professional service. In and of itself, Toor’s attitude is not necessarily an issue but the lack of self-relexivity weakens Toor’s ability to make a substantive argument about the state of college admission. An observation about class and age on page 31, for example, could have been parlayed into an interesting critique on how a lack of diversity in the admission committee might affect the committee’s values but it is unsurprising that Toor does not expand upon this given her shortcomings in being critical about her own perspective. Ultimately, Toor’s unwillingness to grapple with the implications of her unexamined biases are only problematic as her work aspires to be more than a memoir about her experiences as a college admission officer.

Toor also makes bold claims like, “If you gave the actual statistics about who, when all is said and done, gets into highly selective schools, people would walk away not only discouraged, but disgusted” (18) As exemplified by the quote, the largest issue here is that much of Toor’s writing remains at the level of opinion or observation and fails to transcend to the level of well-argued critique. Condemning everything from the information sessions to the quality of the tour guides, Toor seems to be writing toward an audience who already views the college admission process as she does:  with suspicion and contempt.[4] Worse, however, is Toor’s failure to provide adequate support for her assertions, phrases like “From what I understand” (22) indicate a lack of due diligence and a mind that is not highly interested in fully understanding the topic that is being written about. Ultimately, what becomes apparent is that while she writes about college admission based purely on personal experience—a limitation acknowledged in the introduction—Toor does not have perspective on the field as a whole or, more importantly, how college admission functions in the larger landscape of higher education.

Chapter 2 – In describing her school visits, Toor demonstrates a marked unwillingness to engage in relationship building (39) or to use her time in order to get to know the nuances of the schools that she will be responsible for (42). Toor’s recounting also evidences a lack of self-awareness regarding the role that she plays in the context of the admission profession—indeed, everything seems to be about her. In some ways, this tendency might be excusable if Toor was, like many of her colleagues, in her twenties but it does not seem unfair to expect more from a woman who, at the time, was in her mid-thirties. It is no surprise, then, that Ezra Stiles Prep’s purport to focus on character—here Toor does not deign to comment on the extent to which this is actually true in the school’s culture or how similar qualities may manifest at other institutions—resonates strongly with Toor in manner that goes uncomplicated.

It should be noted however that Toor’s description of the holistic review (45-53) is quite good but is also prefaced by a comment that her packaged message to students regarding the process is not quite true (44). In this, we again see Toor’s proclivity to make statements in the form of asides that remain unsupported, although they may represent interesting lines of inquiry or critique.

Chapter 3 – Toor seems intent on indicating that she is better than her fellow admission officers, beginning the chapter with an anecdote about how her Sunday runs provide an opportunity for her to engage in stimulating conversation with academics (the implication being that her colleagues do not provide this type of interaction). The remarkable privileging of how Toor views the world is reaffirmed through the recounting of an admission presentation for students on page 63:  Toor not only manages to convey a sense that her truth is more salient than what she says on behalf of Duke but also demeans the intelligence of her audience by suggesting that they are either too apathetic or ignorant to pursue the real situation.

Given Toor’s frequent ambivalence about the information conveyed in her speech, one begins to question why she is even working there in the first place. While one cannot fault Toor for failing to internalize the message used to sell Duke, one must also wonder why, if the practice was dishonest and/or abhorrent, Toor remained in the job for three years. Harkening back to chapter 1, there is a way in which Toor refrains from commenting on her complicity in a process that she seems displeased with and, more importantly, fails to extrapolate from this experience into a larger argument about the state of college admission at the time.

Toor’s limited understanding of her job and its potential also manifests in her conceptualization of herself as a “good recruiter” (71) and nothing more. Misunderstanding the opportunity for providing a service as a counselor or a teacher when faced by applicants who might initially appear less competitive, Toor further entrenches the notion that her perception of what she does limits what she might otherwise do.

Chapter 4 – It remains unclear why Toor chose the job of college admission given that she does not seem to have any particular interest in students who are not relatable. In reference to deferring Early Decision students, Toor writes, “Some—the ones who are most persistent and annoying through early December—I argue to have denied, rather than deferred, so that I will not have to endure more months of pestering” (82).

Regardless, Toor makes two important observations:  that Early Decision tends to favor students who are knowledgeable about the college admission process (84)—here, again, Toor makes a point about privilege but does not expand upon the implications of this and/or wrestle with the various ways that privilege functions in college admission— and that files might present differently when viewed individually and when read against the pool as a whole. Toor goes on to provide a solid general overview of the admission evaluation criteria at Duke (88-107) but seems unable to refrain from inserting her own asides, in a way that indicates that she is not really truly interested in trying to understand the trends that she sees before her.[5] Toor’s information, though generally accurate, is not necessarily helpful as its presentation creates a kind of checklist for highly anxious parents and students; although the mechanics of evaluation are similar at many selective schools, Toor’s description supports a mentality that is geared toward gaming the system instead of trying to think about what the rating systems are designed as incomplete measures of. Toor feeds into the fixation over quantitative measurements—things like standardized test scores, class rank, and GPA, from the outside perspective—instead of working to explain that admission committees seek certain values and have come to use particular markers as support of the existence of those values.

Chapter 5 – Toor’s insistence on inserting herself into the writing as some sort of character continues with the introductions to chapters. Often providing little purpose other than talking about the state of her romantic life or, more often, discussing some aspect of running, these asides are, at best, self-indulgent. In some ways, however, this focus on self is instructive for it reminds the reader that admission files are read by individual officers and that each of these readers is also a person, replete with quirks. Without knowing the readers personally, it is rather impossible to predict what will resonate with a particular individual.

The evaluation is not completely subjective, though, as Toor nods to auto-admit and auto-deny criteria. Although Toor refrains from noting that these criteria are generally used more as guidelines to help readers focus on files that need deliberation, she also demonstrates here that she is not, in fact, an advocate for her students as she does not take the time to understand an unusual grading system (120). Unsurprisingly, Toor includes a sample of essays (125-139) that resonated with her but does not delve into why these particular essays were memorable. Worse, Toor fails to use her skills as an editor to deconstruct and analyze the patterns present in these essays in order to provide lessons for readers about how teenagers tend to write college admission essays. There are, for example particular types of appeals that applicants tend to make and particular styles that are seen or understood as more successful (by both applicants and readers).

Chapter 6 – Focusing on the preliminary stages of the review process, Toor emphasizes that readers consider applications in the context of school group. Although it seems unlikely that school group represents the only context in which applications are considered, it seems fair to suggest that school group is the primary context in which applications are considered when they are up for deliberation. Toor presents the inclusion of athletes’ file—noting that they are often near the bottom of the school group in terms of GPA—with a rather even tone considering her stance on development and legacy but conveniently forgets to point out that while athletes may not always seem to be the smartest students, they possess an irreplaceable institutional value for particular colleges and universities.[6] Characteristically, Toor does not connect her own love with Duke basketball—evidenced through the anecdote that opens the chapter—with the value of athletes on campus. Moreover, that Toor views an athlete as being admitted “behind her back” (155) suggests that she sees herself at the center of a process that is fundamentally not about her; as an admission officer Toor serves on a committee that is tasked with bringing in a class and Toor has been delegated responsibility on behalf of that committee but does not mean that she is privy to the entirety of that committee’s operations.

Interestingly, Toor does not seem to be completely unaware of herself as she mentions that, “I am notoriously bad at certain kinds of details” (153) and it is to her credit that she attempts to structure her work in such a way that mitigates this.[7] What would be more valuable, however, would be Toor’s expounding on the implications of understanding one’s limitations as a reader, both for her and for the profession as a whole.[8]

Again missing an opportunity to demystify the process, Toor mentions that “with so many qualified applicants, all they need do is give us one small reason to doubt them and we’ll just pick someone else” (158), which goes against the philosophy of reading to admit and being the student’s advocate (45). There is of course a way in which a reader is looking at the application with a critical eye and must ultimately render decisions about who will be admitted and who will not but Toor’s tone here suggests the attitude of a jaded admission officer.

Toor ends the chapter with a brief discussion of independent counselors and raises the point that some families might be obtaining the services of these individuals out of a fear of being disadvantaged. Toor does not, however, expand upon this point to consider the implications of fear in the college admission process and how this might drive a host of actions that she has observed; ultimately, it is this failure to develop a “big picture” view of the process that prevents Toor’s work from adding anything significant to the conversation around college admission.

Chapter 7 – Although Toor does not address this directly, this chapter asks readers to wrestle with the notion of what it means for files to be presented by a territory manager in committee—hence the notion of advocacy introduced earlier in the book—and how quickly this process takes place.[9] Toor fails to touch upon the important message for students that time constraints both in the file review and committee process mean that students must think carefully about what parts of their application are going to be salient to a reader; a useful exercise might be to think about what information can be gleaned from the application in a review that takes less than fifteen minutes and how the student’s application can be summarized to a committee in a very brief amount of time.

Toor also mentions Duke’s positive stance on affirmative action, but subsequently notes that most of her colleagues in the office may have struggled upholding this. Here Toor fails to address why her colleagues may have had difficulty internalizing Duke’s position on race in college admission—the age and relative lack of sophistication among new staff along with a possible discussion of latent racism in the South seems pertinent—and also misses an opportunity to juxtapose the attitudes of her colleagues with her own opinions regarding athletes and legacies.[10] Ultimately, Toor comes across as elitist as she sees herself as the sole enlightened member but this belief is perhaps without merit for although Toor notes that there are philosophical underpinnings for affirmative action, she does not discuss what they are. Furthermore, Toor continues to demonstrate her scholarly inadequacy through her inability to convince her colleagues to reconsider their positions on the subject; one suspects that although Toor feels otherwise, this situation speaks largely to her deficiencies as well as possibly those of her colleagues. Toor’s points about the nature of the college experience for minorities (184) remains valid but should be placed in a larger context about education as it is not merely relevant to college admission. Toor further evidences her shortcomings at the end of the chapter as she writes, “In some idealized imagined future, there would be no need for a weekend like BSAI. Nor would there be a need for specific recruiters” (185). Without support, this statement is nothing more than an unoriginal assertion and worse, Toor provides no tangible solutions that suggest how to get from the present to her future.

Chapter 8 – It remains unclear if Toor, in retrospect, has perspective on herself during her first year in college admission. That she writes of her fellow committee members, “They don’t get my pretentious little joke,” (191) suggests a modicum of self-awareness while also delivering a jab at her former colleagues.[11]

One also begins to wonder about the Toor job performance (although she must not have been horrible at her job if she lasted three years) for she makes a fairly large error in overlooking a development case (192) and also does not seem to be willing to take the time to understand how the process actually functions. In some ways, Toor’s desire to spend time talking about her “clear admit” student (197) is understandable but also unnecessary for the student does not need to be discussed in detail if he or she is truly a strong candidate. It is also unclear what Toor means by being a “mere advocate” (198) and why this is necessarily divorced from being able to think critically about what she is doing.[12] Through her writing, it seems as though Toor has convinced herself that she is some sort of maverick in the midst of a system that is flawed, if well-meaning. What Toor continues to miss here in her admission of a fault is that this is precisely how the admission committee is designed to function:  the process is comprised of humans and the hope is that, collectively, the officers will keep each other in check. Toor will later acknowledge the human element in the last chapter (243) but in a way that suggests the admission process is arbitrary in nature. In and of itself, the critique of college admission being personal and fickle is a fine one to take but Toor does not develop a cogent argument to this effect.

Chapter 9 – Here Toor again mentions an error on her part (230) and it is unclear why she chooses to include these mentions. Toor does not seem to be asking the reader for sympathy but neither is she using the opportunity to explain how the admission process is human. In this moment one sees an opportunity for Toor to contextualize the errors made by her and her colleagues in a way that puts all of them on a similar playing field.

Chapter 10 – Toor notes that one of the primary advantages of attending a selective college or university is the diversity of students one is exposed to and yet also suggests that the environment can have a homogenizing effect. It seems evident that Toor has a romanticized notion of who these students are prior to attending college and one also wonders if this fixation on independence is connected to the way in which Toor sees herself. Based on anecdotal evidence, Toor makes the claim that students become less interesting as seniors but it would seem that it would behoove Toor to think carefully about whether this is true and, if so, to what extent. Additionally, in this, Toor continues her proclivity for wading into arguments that, while important, remain out of her demonstrated depth:  issues of retention, graduation, undergraduate experience are significant topics in Higher Education but Toor’s treatment is neither thorough nor substantive. Toor raises solid questions about the function of Higher Education on page 240, but is ultimately unwilling or unable to provide answers to her provocations.

Despite some flaws, Toor’s last chapter is clearly her strongest as she begins to muse on relevant themes in Higher Education, although she does so without thinking through how these issues are related to college admission in a meaningful way. Toor’s position that the college admission process perpetuates inequality is not an original argument and is better argued elsewhere. Toor excels at observing areas that warrant attention but falters when making recommendations about things that she would like to see—not because her dreams are unrealistic but because she does not make a sufficient case of why her alternative would be any better. Toor continually complains about race and class inequality but does not actually provide tangible solutions to remedy the situation.

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[1] Later, Toor also writes, “Will the Ivy League and other highly selective schools ever be so enlightened? Probably not.” (26)

[2] See page 28 but also the description of the associate counselor who had been on the high school side on page 19.

[3] See comments from Dan Lundquist, former Director of Admission of the University of Pennsylvania.

[4] It is also perhaps telling that the book chooses to include a blurb from Publishers Weekly that reads “The book’s real audience is parents who will read anything that might give their kids an edge.” This does not seem complimentary.

[5] Toor, for example, notes that Holden Caulfied from The Catcher in the Rye and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby are both frequent subjects of college essays and are both frequently misread. Although anecdotal evidence would suggest that Toor is not wrong in this conclusion, one should question why so many students—from so many different backgrounds—continue to “miss” the message of the book. In other words, one must ask what is it that students are pulling from the book and why does such a message resonate with them (and what might this tell us about who these students are)? See, “Gatsby’s Green Light” in The New York Times.

[6] The theme of institutional value is discussed in greater detail on page 211, with no additional insight by Toor.

[7] Toor later writes that “I knew that since I am bad at details, generally sloppy, and don’t care as much as I know I should” (179), which begs the question why she is in this profession and to what extent she is a representative voice.

[8] This is unrelated to a discussion of college admission per se but this same sort of instinct may have served Toor well in interrogating why she seems to lean on jargon in this section. One suspects that using abbreviations and code is deployed to help the reader feel as though they are “on the inside,” and represents a ploy that is separate from helping outsiders to understand the process through solid information.

[9] See page 180 for writing that raises the issue but does not explore it.

[10] Complicating matters is Toor’s claim that she has thought extensively about issues of race, class and privilege in the opening of Chapter 8. What is striking about this story, like so many of Toor’s others, however, is the way in which she manages to make even this revelation important in so far as it relative to her.

[11] Later, on page 250, Toor admits that she held disdain for her colleagues but never interrogates why she might have felt this way or what it really says about her.

[12] This is complicated by a story near the end of the chapter where Toor seems to embrace exactly what an advocate of students is supposed to do (213-214).

 [CRT1]Append later with summaries and bibliographic entries