Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

The Gatekeepers:  Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

 Chris Tokuhama


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


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.


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.


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

            Legacy/connections (i.e. “inherited privilege”) largely influential
            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.
            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 –

Publishers Weekly Review –

[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?


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