By Sybil Maimin
college admissions frenzy is in full swing and hardly a seat was
empty when The New York Times and Hofstra University co-sponsored
a talk based on the book The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions
Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg.
Anxious prospective students, parents, and guidance counselors
were taken behind the scenes by Steinberg, who had been given
unprecedented observer access to the admissions committee at Wesleyan
University, a select, small, private college in Middletown, Connecticut.
What he learned would probably apply to about four dozen similar
select colleges and in a general way to many more. An additional
perspective was offered by Gigi Lamens, who is responsible for
undergraduate recruitment, retention, admissions, and financial
aid at Hofstra.
Steinberg’s message: “This process is far more human than we have
been led to believe. It is messy and very personal to those doing
the job.” He could not find a formula or a strategy for admission.
Generally, an applicant’s file is read by two admissions committee
members who decide whether to admit, reject, or put on a waiting
list. If they cannot concur, the file is passed on to the entire
committee for a decision. Some schools, Harvard, for example,
make all decisions in whole committee. Much of the reading of
application materials takes place in solitude at committee member’s
homes during a period of long hours and intense stress.
In assessing an application, a reader looks for rigor of courses
taken. A grade of “B” in a difficult course is better than an
“A” in an easy one. SATs are important and a score of at least
1400 is expected at top colleges, but much leeway is given in
numerous special situations. An applicant whose parents did not
go to college is not expected to score as well as one whose parents
did. Special talents, especially ones needed by the school, weigh
in. The committees, which typically are staffed by individuals
whose backgrounds reflect the diversity the college seeks, do
not want to fill a class with only high scorers. They see themselves
as social engineers and look for qualities that will make for
an interesting and productive mix. The essay is taken seriously,
and readers claim that, with experience, they can usually spot
one written by someone else. An excellent essay is suspect, for
example, if the applicant did poorly in English classes or the
verbal SAT. Most colleges require three SAT IIs (tests of subject
content) and they become particularly important for applicants
from unknown schools as does the high school profile. Being a
leader in one or two activities is impressive; having a long list
of extra-curricular affiliations is not. The interview almost
never effects the decision but is recommended as an opportunity
to learn more about an institution.
Though often criticized, the US News and World Report rankings
play a big part in admissions. Besides influencing student’s choices,
they matter a great deal to colleges in this “fiercely competitive”
business, explained Steinberg. Colleges contribute to the admissions
frenzy by trying to tempt record numbers of applicants and are
deeply concerned about “market share.” They try to woo the same
students. Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz cautioned prospective
collegians that the “goal of the college search should not be
for the institution that is best for someone else. One size in
colleges does not fit all.” Gigi Lamens noted that there are over
2,000 four-year colleges in the US, each right for a different
kind of person. Steinberg, who visits many institutions for his
job, has seen some that admit practically everyone and also offer
an excellent education.#
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