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.

Atlantic Unbound | September 25, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Jacques Steinberg
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Is it all a numbers' game?

Dear Jim:

I'm grateful that you gave The Gatekeepers such a close reading and that it prompted so many questions. As you know from reading the book, I was admitted to Dartmouth (under the early-decision program, a favorite target of yours, but it was good for me!) in the fall of 1983, and I always wondered how I got in. I was particularly curious because I knew that my SAT scores were lower than most of my friends' (at least that's what they told me) and that my high school, in a small town in southeastern Massachusetts, was barely on Dartmouth's radar. A life-long curiosity about this secretive process was born.

Your first set of questions concerns when this madness—the ever-growing pile of applications at an ever-growing list of colleges considered highly selective—might end. I can't see any end in sight. Yes, the process is grueling for admissions officers (whose salaries are often lower than the cost of an annual year's tuition) and many burn out after seven years or less. But they can be easily replaced, at least as far as the universities are concerned. Their main qualification appears to be life experience, with the institutional goal being to assemble an admissions committee (and, by extension, a freshman class) with the broadest possible life experience collectively. I don't see the universities using admissions offices as cash cows, at least in part because they spend so much money sending admissions officers all over the country and the world in search of top applicants. But I was surprised at how much effort the universities themselves invest in beating the bushes to try to get a record number of applicants to apply each year, at least in part to impress U.S.News and its selectivity index. Raising the price of applications any more might depress these numbers, which, as of now, a college acting unilaterally can't really afford to do.

Watching this process, one can't help but wish that several dozen highly selective colleges would sign some sort of mutual non-aggression pact and all agree to stay home in the fall of, say, 2006. But in response to such a proposal, the colleges would say, rightly, that there are good candidates who might never apply to a particular institution (one where they might end up fitting quite nicely) without having met an emissary from that institution on the road.

From the archives:

"The Tests and the 'Brightest': How Fair Are the College Boards?" (September 2001)
Each year some 2.5 million high school students match wits with the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The results go a long way toward determining who gets into the most selective colleges. The tests are the subject of a growing debate. Do they really discover the best and the brightest? Or do they chiefly identify the richest and the most expensively educated? By James Fallows
You also raise the question of "cold numbers," a student's GPA and SAT score among them. I think that what surprised me most, after spending a large chunk of 1999-2000 in the Wesleyan admissions office as an observer, was how often such numbers were set aside when the right applicant was on the table. There was a quotation that I reproduced in the book from Douglas Bennet, the president of Wesleyan, in which he said, "It's a mistake to hold out that total fairness is the only objective." Wesleyan and many other institutions believe that an SAT score is not the ultimate barometer of merit—and must be considered in the context of everything else in an applicant's life. While numbers often decide a case, they don't always. It's a messy, idiosyncratic process carried out by humans, not computers. And I don't agree with you that these admissions officers are mostly spinning their wheels, and that an outsider could probably predict at the beginning of the season who is going to end up where. There are too few spots in the Ivies, as well as at Amherst and Williams, and at Wesleyan and Tufts. In my limited experience, there are few sure things in college admissions.

It's important for applicants and their parents to keep in mind that Wesleyan, like other highly selective colleges, is trying to build a community. Admissions officers are talent scouts, but they're also social engineers. That community certainly needs "brains"—students who score off the charts on standardized tests and who are capable of doing original scientific research. But that community also needs newspaper editors and tuba players (a perennial shortage area in the Ivies, I'm told) and second basemen, as well as a critical mass of blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. In such cases, numbers aren't always going to be as important as other factors. You observe that I don't spend much time writing about athletes and legacies. In part, that's because there were only so many students I could follow before losing the reader's attention. But I would also argue that after watching Wesleyan adjust the bar of expectation in terms of the grade-point average of one of the applicants I trail—a Native American applicant in whom Wesleyan was particularly interested, in part because of his ethnic background—it's easy to imagine how a quarterback with similar grades might be assessed. And I would argue that one can't criticize the arguably lower standard against which a minority candidate might be judged (especially one whose parents had not attended college, who would be coded as "NCP," or "non-college parent," in admissions lingo) without also looking at the standards against which other applicants with specialized talents are held.

Legacies are a relevant part of this thread of our discussion, too. While the rate of admission in general for the Class of 2004, the class that I followed at Wesleyan, was about 1 in 4, the rate of admission for legacies (applicants who were the children or siblings of alumni or university employees) was about 1 in 2. (This was the same ratio, by the way, at which Hispanic applicants were admitted.) Wesleyan, which has been admitting black applicants in large numbers for longer than most highly selective colleges, likes to say that its alumni body is diverse, and thus taking legacies helps guarantee a diverse class. Perhaps. But the university, like its competitors, acknowledges that it sometimes accepts a legacy as a thank-you for a family's generosity in the past, or as a marker for a future donation. To stretch Wesleyan's "community" metaphor, every community needs philanthropists. In the end, there are just too many components that Wesleyan needs to pay attention to in stocking its community to consider these cases exceptions. Again, this is so much messier than the "how-to-get-in" books will tell you. You really have to see it, as I was privileged to do, to understand it. And that's the experience I tried to convey through the book.

I'll close this round by trying to briefly tackle your questions about the waiting list and guidance counselors. You rightly point out that, for the Class of 2004, Wesleyan invited more than a thousand applicants to join the waiting list, about half of whom did so. Considering that only a handful of those applicants were subsequently admitted into the Class of 2004 the year I was there, applicants would be correct to assume that Wesleyan assembles such a list primarily to keep its own options open, not the applicants'. Certainly one reason Wesleyan put so many kids on the waiting list was to allow guidance counselors to save face with parents and their high school communities. Somehow "waiting list" has less of a sting than "deny." But the larger reason was that, in stocking their community, Wesleyan needed reserves, in case a prized quarterback or applicant from Nebraska (geographic diversity is important, too) chose to go elsewhere and needed to be "replaced" in the community. Not every college does its waiting list this way, but I know that Wesleyan is hardly the exception, despite what some colleges might say publicly (which may explain why you or I hadn't heard much about this previously).

As for guidance counselors, there is no question that when you pay a premium to attend a school like Harvard-Westlake, one of the things you're buying is superior college counseling. The ratio of seniors to counselors might be 50 to 1, as compared to a large NYC high school, where the ratio might be 500 or more to 1. At a place like Harvard-Westlake, you're also buying that counselor's connections to admissions offices at the best colleges in the country. And that counselor will have opportunities to educate an admissions officer about the various qualities of the applicants in his or her stable—opportunities that might not be afforded to a less savvy or less valued counselor at a school with less prestige. But while there are no quotas for the number of applicants that Wesleyan might accept from a school like Harvard-Westlake or Stuyvesant in New York, there is, in truth, only going to be room for so many students from these schools. And in building that all-important community, an admissions officer like Ralph Figueroa—the main character in The Gatekeepers—would be eager to take a phone call from a guidance counselor at a top inner-city high school, where a bumper crop of top minority applicants might be being raised, if only that counselor had the time or inclination to pick up the phone and make such a call.

Back to you.

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