Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for March, 2014

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

Bibliography

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

Author

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.

Summary

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).

Notes

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.

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The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT

The Perfect Score Project:  Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT

 Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

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

Author

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.

Summary

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.

Notes

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

Bibliography

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

Author

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.

Summary

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.

Notes

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.

Related Material

NACAC book review – http://www.nacacnet.org/research/PublicationsResources/BookReviews/Reviews/Admission/Pages/Admissions-Confidential.aspx

[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


The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

The Gatekeepers:  Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

 Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

Steinberg, J. (2002). The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College. New York: Viking Penguin.

Author

Adapted from Say Yes to Education

Jacques Steinberg (1966 – ?) spent nearly 25 years at The New York Times as an education reporter, editor and blogger specializing in college admissions before joining Say Yes to Education, a non-profit organization, in early 2013. At Say Yes to Education, Steinberg focuses on managing and growing the national compact of colleges and universities that provide financial aid to students and creating programming to help those students prepare for, apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Steinberg also created The Choice, The Times’ college admissions and financial aid blog, in 2009, as well as the first-ever New York Times College Life Fair, which was held in Chicago in 2012.

Summary

Written by education reporter Jacques Steinberg, The Gatekeepers details the cycle of the college admissions process at Wesleyan, a selective liberal arts college in Connecticut.[1] The Gatekeepers represents one of the few books in recent years that attempts to elucidate the process of selective admission to American colleges and universities. Aimed at a general audience, The Gatekeepers relies largely on profiles of individuals—primarily admission officers and students—in order to guide readers through the process.

Notes

Introduction – This section largely addresses the murkiness of the college admission process in (highly) selective schools. The qualifier of “selective” is important here as the selection process tends to differ based on admission rate but it should be noted that the process addressed here is what is cemented in the popular imagination. The fungibility of “merit” is also introduced in this section (xvii). Also of note are the ways in which the obfuscation of the admission process and resulting stress influences behavior (ix/xv), a nod toward the impact of affirmative action with 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke[2] (xi), and a history of the college admission process in America from the 1950s through the 1990s (xi-xiv).

Brief outline of the history of college admission in America as presented in The Gatekeepers

       Pre-1960
            Legacy/connections (i.e. “inherited privilege”) largely influential
       1960s-1980s
            Reaction to Civil Rights movements and 2nd wave feminism increased cultural attitudes toward diversity.
            Need-blind admission became popular in order to admit students who could not necessarily pay for college.
             Increased use of standardized testing as a more democratizing tool as reliance on privilege declined. Increase in test reliance is related to post-WWII changes to education and number of students applying to college.
            College counseling became an industry.
             “Arms race” begins among students competing for spots in selective college and among colleges competing for the best students.
       1980s
            Larger number of applicants led to increase in admission professionals as opposed to committees solely staffed by faculty.
 
Chapter 1 – Although a significant portion is devoted to the background of Ralph Figueroa, Steinberg’s guide throughout this process, this section offers a reflection on the difference between an official message, perception, and reality. One way in which this intersection manifests is the way that college rankings by publications like U.S. News & World Report funnel students and families toward applying to a specific range of schools and how the metrics for the ranking system affect admission practices.[3] Representing another space in which perception, message, and reality abut is the concept of merit, particularly in institutions that value the nebulous idea of “diversity” (7); Ralph also notes that there are “things that society doesn’t necessarily consider signs of intelligence but that are, in fact, pretty strong indicators of a kid’s ability to be a successful college student” (21).

Chapter 2 – Delving more into how choices are made—by students/families and by institutions—this chapter explores the notion of appeal. For students who are the beginning of the process the value placed on criteria can seem somewhat arbitrary but not unfounded (34); for parents, prestige often plays a large role, particularly among recent immigrants and status-driven families (29/34). “At Harvard-Westlake, parents project their college fantasies onto their kids” (44). The chapter also contains an anecdote that may be potentially misleading, if well intentioned:  in describing the advice that Ralph provides at an essay writing workshop, Steinberg quotes Ralph as saying “be true to who you are” (37), a message that is incomplete. Although this advice is positive in the abstract, one should be careful to note the degree to which an institution is receptive to creative, quirky, or non-traditional responses and furthermore realize that although an institution might be more flexible in what it deems acceptable (or beneficial), every institution allows for “freedom” within a range of possibilities. Inherent in this process is the institutions’ desires for students to stand out but still exist in a framework of competitiveness. The example of the essay writing also underscores the value of understanding what it like to be on the receiving end of applications and what is palatable to readers given time constraints.

The chapter also tells the story of Becca Jannol, who ate a pot brownie and decided to use the incident as a topic for her college admission essay. Although the retelling is designed to make the reader sympathetic toward Jannol, it also illustrates one of the advantages of going to a private college prep school:  there are ways in which the institution/community will come together to support students in ways that lend an obvious advantage to said students. Moreover, the profiles of the students—understandable, given Steinberg’s journalistic background—also ignores the way in which most students can be made to seem appealing when considered as individual cases but this perspective is not representative of how selective admission views applications if it is doing its job correctly as it is attempting to build a class.[4]

Chapter 3 – Moving from travel to the office, this chapter presents a view both of the process and of the people involved in it. Of note is the depiction of diversity of experience among the staff (in terms of ethnicity, years worked, backgrounds, etc.) and the implication that an individual admission counselor understands the process as filtered through his or own history. Although the book briefly mentions examples of other selection processes it does not plumb the depths of how other offices work to admit a class (to be fair, it seems unlikely that the book in fact could provide such detail). As such, the process at Wesleyan may become a substitute for all admission processes in the popular imagination although some variation is introduced on pages 94 and 224. One must remember to ask a counselor to describe how the process works at their individual school.[5] And perception continues to be important for as Barbara-Jan Wilson, former Dean of Admission, notes, “guidance counselors and parents pay attention to stereotypes” (71). Similarly, Steinberg asserts that “anyone who’s ever seen a college in a two-hour drive-by visit knows that the smallest of details, however trivial, can take on outsized importance” (86). What is suggested here is that students (and perhaps parents) seek a form of validation through their acceptance/choice and are also susceptible to appeals the reflect back on what the student already thinks of himself or herself.

In an aside about Wesleyan and its relationship to schools (65), Steinberg notes that admission offices make decisions for reasons that have nothing to do with an individual student. Although this paragraph underscores that admission offices, guidance counselors, and individual students look at the process through vastly different perspectives (e.g., individual/cohort/world), it fails to mention that the process of shuffling occurs among students who are all otherwise “qualified” (i.e., could handle the academic rigor and graduate).[6] As stated by senior admission officer Greg Pyke, “The first reason to admit always needs to be that you think the student can succeed here” (155).

One final note comes through the story of Jordan Goldman in the final pages (87-88) of the chapter:  deciding between visiting Yale and Wesleyan, Jordan is swayed by the flexible curriculum of Wesleyan. Although the book does not touch on it here, there is a larger discussion about the ways in which colleges and universities must balance a student/consumer’s desire for choice/freedom—which is not necessarily the same as an emphasis on, or interest in, interdisciplinarity—with a “core” education that prepares those students for life after graduation. It should also be considered that while nods are made to a breadth of applicants in the pool, the profiles so far largely center around students who can be described as standouts (a term that should not imply that they are outstanding in the conventional use of the word), which makes the students easy to root for and identify with. One might question to what extent these students are representative of the “typical” applicant.

Chapter 4 – This chapter opens with an introduction to the more quantitative side of enrollment management as it touches upon the implications of Early Decision policies.[7] Most notably is the way in which Early Decision policies affect yield, which provides a benefit for the admission office in terms of securing a freshman class and secondarily possibly provides a benefit to students in that they have secured admission to an institution.[8] Conversely, however, a common criticism of Early Decision is that it binds a student to a school early in the process before he or she has fully explored his or her options and must commit to a school prior to seeing a financial aid package, which means that only a certain population of students can consider Early Decision in the first place.

Perhaps the most valuable piece here, however, is the brief glimpse that an outsider gets at how the admission committee functions, both in terms of logic and with respect to the various pressures (e.g., time, institutional need, etc.) placed upon it. Here, not on the range of qualities considered is important but the way in which such factors are interpreted and evaluated:  the concept of “intellectual curiosity” (96), for example, calls the question of just how an applicant demonstrates such an attribute. Concurrent with this is the noted pushback about “fairness” (100) and the consideration of how insiders must explain the process to a public that aligns college admission with the concept of pure meritocracy. Steinberg writes that what admission committees are ultimately looking for is a student who will “add”(103) to the class in some way—academically, leadership, diverse viewpoint—and the difficult concept for outsiders is that while all applicants typically have plus factors, the needs of the institution as a whole make some qualities more advantageous at a particular moment in time than others.[9]

Another key point is an understanding of how the college admission process affects the family (109); during the application process students are tasked with responsibility in ways that they may not have had before and the family must negotiate the changed relationship between parents and children.

Chapter 5 – Following Ralph’s evaluation process, one gains a sense of how criteria in an application are weighed against each other in a variety of contexts. Readers attempt to consolidate the disparate elements of an application into a unified picture of who the applicant is and then this is weighed against various groupings (e.g., school, others with similar background/opportunity, previous admits, etc.). Steinberg also makes a point of highlighting the potential impact of displaying one’s passion through the example of Tiffany Wang (135-136) and although one must be careful to consider how to convey such passion, the core idea is worth noting.

Chapter 6 – Counselor calls underscore the need to maintain truthful relationships between college counselors and admission staff.

Chapter 7 – The main theme in this chapter is an exploration of the ways in which an admission counselor’s perspective shapes the admission process. Steinberg showcases the way in which unexamined biases can affect the decision-making process (183), an example that illustrates the need to understand how admission officers espouse not only institutional values but also a set of collective cultural values. The other point made near the end of the chapter (197-198) concerns how admission staff (and guidance counselors) can make the mistake of focusing on individuals to the detriment of the group; echoed in the Chapter 5’s title of “Read Faster, Say No” and the prioritized consideration of the executive committee (184), the take home message here is that one must be continually conscious of the file that is in front of you while simultaneously picturing how one’s actions affect the entire process.

Chapters 8, 9 and 10 – These chapters focus on the way that students can go about making a decision to attend a school once they have been admitted.

Epilogue – Although it functions mainly to provide closure in a manner similar to documentaries, the epilogue hammers home that finding the right school for a student is not just about admission or matriculation but ultimately how the student felt about the experience after graduating.

Related Material

Harvard Educational Review – http://hepg.org/her/booknote/68

Publishers Weekly Review – http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-670-03135-1

[1] Interestingly, the official name of the school is “Wesleyan University” as there is a “Wesleyan College” in Georgia but Wesleyan University labels itself as a liberal arts college.

[2] This case set precedent for allowing race to be considered as a plus factor in college admission, a concept that would be updated with Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) along with various cases at the state level (130, 150) like Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and California’s Proposition 209.The issue of affirmative action is also discussed in more detail on pages 268 and 269.

[3] Recent discussion regarding a “ranking” system has also arisen in response to President Obama’s College Scorecard, an effort that represents a move to enable better decision making in the college selection process. While many critics agree with the goals of the proposed plan, many argue that a ranking system is not the appropriate format for this information.

[4] See also page 152.

[5] It seems that a good counselor should be able to describe the pathway akin to “I’m a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock

[6] See also pages 121 and 155.

[7] For more on the distinction between different types of admission policies, see “Seven Thing You Need to Know About Early Action.” A round of reevaluation occurred in 2006 when Harvard announced its decision to abolish Early Decision and the issue remains under discussion for various institutions. See also page 270.

[8] In a callback to Chapter 1, we see that part of the importance for this is that yield impacts a school’s rankings in U.S. News & World Report.

[9] One thing to ponder is the prominent display of self-effacing humor in Becca Jannol’s essay to Georgetown (111). To what extent does self-effacing humor fit within a larger context of what endears people to readers? Does an ability to gently mock oneself demonstrate self-awareness? Put bluntly, to what extent is self-effacing humor a tactic, whether used intentionally or unintentionally?