New Part Three - October 16:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part Two - October 4:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part One - September 25:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Jacques Steinberg has been a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years and is currently a national education correspondent. In 1998, he was awarded the grand prize of the Education Writers Association for his nine-part series on a third-grade classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on politics and society

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

From the archives:

"The Early-decision Racket" (September 2001)
Early-decision programs have added an insane intensity to middle-class obsessions about college. They also distort the admissions process, rewarding the richest students from the most exclusive high schools and penalizing nearly everyone else. But the incentives for many colleges and students are as irresistable as they are perverse. By James Fallows

Atlantic Unbound | September 25, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
Inside Admissions

An e-mail exchange with Jacques Steinberg, the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

From: James Fallows
To: Jacques Steinberg
Subject: Is it all a numbers' game?

Dear Jacques:

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg
292 pages, $25.95

Thanks for joining this discussion, and thanks for producing quite an illuminating book. Indeed, I'll begin by stressing to readers who have not seen The Gatekeepers that it offers a more up-close view of the college-admissions process than they are likely to have had. Before reading your book, I thought I knew a fair amount about this process. I have reported on it for The Atlantic; I have recently watched my own children and their friends go through it ; I have heard discreet tales from my wife, who worked for several years on the admissions team at Georgetown University. And at another magazine, I was once involved in a project purporting to tell the "inside" story of one year in a university's admissions cycle. That other magazine, by the way, figures prominently in your book, because of its annual "Best Colleges" rankings. The rankings, and their effects, are a subject to which we'll return in a later round.

Because I'd already been introduced to the topic, I was all the more surprised by the degree of detail and revelation in your book—starting with the significant achievement of getting so many real people to let you use the real details of their lives, under their real names. Your authorial tone is sympathetic to nearly everyone you present: the students frantically hoping to get into the "right" colleges, often going overboard in the attempt to sell themselves; the parents who sometimes try to keep their children sane in this period, and sometimes only worsen the insanity; the college admissions officers who battle fatigue, personal bias, and an impossible volume of applications in trying to make reasonable decisions about students' futures; and the high school guidance counselors, who play a delicate game of negotiation among the students, the parents, and their long-standing contacts in the college-admissions offices. I got the feeling that you liked all of these people—or, more precisely, that you were not trying to put the shiv into any of them. But despite your own sympathies, a lot of what's in this book is objectively embarrassing or unflattering to many of the subjects. They lose perspective. Some of them lie. I'm not congratulating you for setting people up, because you haven't done that. But this is much more powerful for being real, and congratulations on that. You have a right to tsk-tsk any journalist who relies on the "unnamed sources" crutch.

Let me give readers a quick guide to your overall approach, and then say something about our approach here. To oversimplify, The Gatekeepers tells the story of how Wesleyan College admitted its class of 2004—the students who showed up as college freshmen two years ago. Actually, the book is both broader and narrower than that. It's broader, because you go back in time to talk about some previous students and classes—and forward to tell what happened to the students after they got in. Because the students you're examining were considering other colleges too, you also take us to places other than Wesleyan—Cornell, Stanford, Yale, et cetera. And it's narrower, because you're mainly talking about a dozen or so students, and one main admissions officer—a former lawyer named Ralph Figueroa, who is effectively the protagonist of the book.

From the archives:

"Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor" (September 2001)
Our author looks at books about college admissions—and at the unexamined prejudices fueling the "elite" college admissions frenzy. By Caitlin Flanagan
Apart from Wesleyan, the book's main venue is the pompously named Harvard-Westlake school in Los Angeles. This is a co-ed, private school whose students mainly come from wealthy Westside-LA families and mainly go to exclusive colleges. (I've interviewed people there, too, and know many people associated with the school.) Choosing a college in the east and a high school in the west was, I think, a wise way to show the national scale of the professional-class focus on college admissions. Neither Wesleyan nor Harvard-Westlake is "representative" of American education in any broad sense. As you well know, and as I'd like to discuss further in the next round, the most striking fact about American higher education is how open and un-selective the entire system is. Only 100 or so, of the 3,000-plus colleges and universities in the country, have even twice as many applicants as they admit. But those 100 or so colleges are tremendously important to the 1,000 to 2,000 high schools aiming students at them, and Wesleyan and Harvard-Westlake well illustrate how admissions-pressure operates in the narrow environment in which it really matters. (Wesleyan gets 7,000-plus applicants for a freshman class of 700-plus, which sounds like a daunting ten-to-one winnowing out. But since most of the people it admits decide to enroll someplace else, Wesleyan has to offer places in its class to more than 1,800 students, or about one in four of those who apply. This is the "yield" game, which we'll go into later.)

My plan today is to mention a few of the findings and impressions in your book that surprised me most. I'd ask you to elaborate on them, for people who haven't read the book—and for people like me who have. In the second round I'd like to ask you about several big-picture questions, from the origins of admissions-mania to the influence of college rankings. Then we'll end with a "News You Can Use" round, drawing out the implications of your research for parents and students with admissions-hell still in front of them.

Here's my quick list of surprise findings, with questions they raised in my mind.

First was the unbelievable labor-intensity of the process. It may be stressful for students to fill out applications to multiple schools, but it sounds as if the real burden is on the admissions officers. The most amazing part of the book, to me, is the two-month period in which Ralph Figueroa apparently did nothing but read students' applications from the time he got up until the time he went to sleep. Later, during meetings when the whole admissions committee voted up or down on specific students, committee members had to restrict their fluid intake—if they left for a bathroom break, they might miss a student's case. The schedule was that tight.

The fundamental problem here, as you point out, is that the number of applications has gone up—partly because of the mini baby boom, and partly because each student is applying to more places. But admissions staffs have barely increased. So my question is: How long can this go on? How can admissions officers stand it? As applications soar, should admissions offices be hiring more staff? Could the universities be using the admissions offices as cash cows—that is, should they raise the application fees (perhaps with some need-based waiver to avoid freezing out poorer applicants)? Does the need to make rapid decisions increase the importance of quick-sorting devices, notably the SAT? In general, how should we think about the question of sheer volume in making admissions choices?

Next: I was struck by the fundamental hydraulics of the system, as you describe it. That is, we have millions of students agonizing for months or years about which school is the right match for them. We also have thousands of admissions officers losing sleep and having long arguments about which students will constitute the right class. But in the end, if you used nothing but the cold numbers (a student's GPA and SAT score on the one hand, and a college's perceived fame and exclusivity on the other), it seems that you'd end up with a pretty close prediction of which students would get into a given college—and which of several colleges a student would choose to attend. For instance, you have an intriguing story about a student who ends up weighing offers from Wesleyan, Yale, and Stanford. The student pretty quickly eliminates one of those candidates but has a harder time choosing between the other two. Based only on the facts I have presented here, most readers will be able to figure out which colleges were the two finalists. (Hint: Stanford and Yale.)

Am I being too callous and determinist about this? The reason I ask is that the process, as you describe it, seems to involve tremendous wasted energy and stress for everyone involved. The students and their parents are so stressed out. The admissions officers are so overworked. And their efforts are in a way so doomed: if a particular student really would be a "catch" for a college, with higher scores or better talents than the college's norm, chances are that the student will also get into a college higher up the selectivity pyramid—and will go there instead. So if we ran things just the way the Japanese do, with one big test for students applying to each unversity (producing one numerical result), and one agreed-on ranking of most-to-least prestigious schools, wouldn't the result be pretty close to the way selective colleges work now in the United States? The highest-scoring students get into the most prestigious schools, and that is where they enroll. I hope you can show that the process is more variegated, nuanced, and humane than it looks.

Also: Your book delves into one well-understood departure from the strict test-and-grades emphasis. This is the quest for racial, ethnic, and geographical diversity. You say less about two other departures: those for athletes and for applicants with connections of various sorts, mainly alumni connections. You mention each of these phenomena, but they're not directly connected to the students you concentrate on, as racial and ethnic issues are. How should we think about these "exceptions" in general? If you had to balance, on one side, "merit" considerations—ranging from academic performance to personal leadership traits—and on the other the need to field a hockey team, placate graduates, or cultivate donors, how should we think about the comparative importance of each of these factors?

A minor but intriguing point: the scandal of the "waiting list." Your book is the first time I've seen discussion in print of a ruse I've often heard about. This involves the misleading nature of the "waiting list." Most students assume that it means they still have some plausible chance for admission. But as you show, colleges put hundreds upon hundreds of applicants on that list, mainly to avoid hurting their feelings, and end up admitting none or only a handful, as needs arise to balance the class. How have colleges kept this secret for so long? How should families think about it?

Now, a final question: Is life even less fair than we generally assume? Your book describes the long-standing personal connections between admissions officers at leading colleges and the guidance counselors at certain high schools. Indeed, your book begins by describing how Ralph Figueroa, of Wesleyan, had befriended a counselor from Harvard-Westlake when both were graduate students. The admissions officers and the counselors they know are constantly in touch—trading tips about students, arguing for the ones they think deserve another chance, giving advance hints about results.

Is this part of what students buy when they go to private high schools? In how many of the nation's high schools would you say these sorts of contacts exist? My faux-populist tone may reflect memories of the public high school I attended, where the guidance counselor doubled as a driver's-ed instructor rather than spending time on the phone with college-admissions officers. Is the relationship you describe between Wesleyan and Harvard-Westlake an exception? Or do many high schools operate this way?

I see that I'm just starting down my list of questions—but also that I've let this get much longer than I intended. So over to you for this first round. Again, thanks for the book.

Jim Fallows

Next Page: Jacques Steinberg - September 25

Part Two - October 4:
James Fallows | Jacques Steinberg

New Part Three - October 16:
James Fallows | Jacques Steinberg

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.