Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process
Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process
Toor, R. (2001). Admission Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin
After a career as an editor in academic publishing, Rachel Toor worked for three years in undergraduate admission at Duke University before eventually becoming an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. Despite the positions that Toor makes evident in her book Admissions Confidential, Toor has not made significant contributions to Higher Education or college admission reform despite working for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a platform whose audience would be highly interested in such a discussion. In fact, Toor’s recent work for The Chronicle centers mostly on writing—which makes sense given her background—and does not touch upon the issues that she seemed so passionate about in her book. (Toor did write an article called “Picking the Right College is a Vital, Unimportant Process” soon after her departure from Duke that is essentially a reprinting of material that appears in Admission Confidential.) More damning is Toor’s decision to work as a private college consultant, charging up to $200/hour according to a 2006 article in Business Week, indicating that while she remains associated with the profession, she has no real desire to change it. Toor’s book is also cited in a piece by Daniel Golden in The Wall Street Journal about relaxed admission standards for wealthy applicants; Golden would go on to write The Price of Admission on this same subject.
Although she expresses a desire for her work to compel the public to ask informed questions about the process, Toor does not actually structure her book in a way that is conducive to this. Instead of using examples as an entrée to a topic that should be interrogated, Toor often includes unsubtle jabs and then, at the conclusion, suggests what she would like to see without offering any productive means of how to achieve her idealized vision. Admissions Confidential contains sections of seemingly solid advice, mired in work that can be described as self-indulgent. Ultimately, Toor’s project would have been better served had it endeavored to answer the questions that she raises in the final pages.
Introduction – At first glance, the introduction seems to indicate that the following book adheres to many of the tropes of the volumes in the “insider’s guide” genre: featuring a fresh-faced (i.e., inexperienced) staff member who uses a smattering of jargon to establish competency and authority, Admissions Confidential offers readers the chance to glimpse the inner workings of a process that many Americans are keenly aware of and yet rather unknowledgeable about. Of note is the way in which the author’s tone indicates her position relative to the profession of college admission: confessing that she sought job in admission due to a desire for something “not as intellectually demanding” (5) and writing that, after a meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Admission, “it seemed clear to me that I was going to be offered a job” (7) suggests that Toor holds a modicum of disdain for her former colleagues and their vocation.
What becomes clear, in retrospect, is that Toor holds herself in higher esteem than she should—ironic, given her later comments about her colleagues—as she aspires to ascend to the ranks of prestige conferred by the status of being an academic. On page xii Toor writes, “Ethnology is the discipline of looking closely at a specific culture, trying to get a sense of what you can learn not only about that narrow strip of interest but also what that might ultimately tell us about ourselves” and, in doing so, displays her two major flaws. Throughout her book Toor makes it clear that academics, in general, exhibit a sort of higher-order thinking that Toor regards as superior and the definition of ethnology employed in this way only supports this position. Worse, however, is that while the quote points to the very valuable practice of attempting to understand a culture on its own terms and being self-reflexive about one’s positionality relative to the group in question, Toor herself frequently fails to embody this practice.
Chapter 1 – Toor evidences a position that is contradictory, if not hypocritical, as her opening critiques the hierarchy of the University and the mystique surrounding it (noting on page 16 that “smart people” can be found elsewhere) while simultaneously repeatedly making a point about the credentials of her colleagues. For example, Toor’s observation that “none of the associates had gone to elite schools” (18) could be used as the foundation for a larger point about the ways in which choice of college does not determine success in life, the juxtaposition of that statement with Toor’s prominent story of her own undergraduate education at Yale yet again points to a measure of elitism on the part of Toor. 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, a former PhD student, who seems to embrace the idea of a good admission counselor as one who is also an educator. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
 Later, Toor also writes, “Will the Ivy League and other highly selective schools ever be so enlightened? Probably not.” (26)
 See page 28 but also the description of the associate counselor who had been on the high school side on page 19.
 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.
 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.
 The theme of institutional value is discussed in greater detail on page 211, with no additional insight by Toor.
 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.
 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.
 See page 180 for writing that raises the issue but does not explore it.
 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.
 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.
 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