Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

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

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

Chris Tokuhama

Bibliography

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

Author

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

Summary

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Material

Review, Scott Anderson – http://www.uvm.edu/~vtconn/v20/anderson.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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?