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

Atlantic Unbound | October 16, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Jacques Steinberg
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Is it all a numbers' game? - Part Three

Dear Jim:

You make a persuasive argument that many, many families in this country have run wild with the idea that their children must secure a place within the ivy-covered walls of a brand-name college to have a shot at a great job and a happy life. I'm sure it would make for livelier reading if I disagreed with you, but I can't and won't. You and I may have gained entrée to our respective careers and publications with at least partial assistance from our alma maters (and the contacts that came with them), but I am well aware that a marquee degree represents but one of the innumerable potential pathways to a Fortune 500 company or blue-chip graduate program or—most important of all—to a blissful and successful and even prosperous life. Like you, I know that there is research that bears this out. And I, too, regret that so many children and their parents fail to grasp this idea, and pretty much wreck an important time in their lives in the process.

You spend a fair amount of time imagining that you are angrier than I am about all this college-related mania, and that this difference is born partly out of the sixteen-year age difference between us. I'd like to respond with a comparison of my own, which may also be partly attributable to age and experience. I suspect I see my role as a journalist in a different way than you see your own. I believe that, at this point in my career, the greatest contribution that I can make to the nail-biting process of applying to highly selective colleges is to cast a bright light on this long-secretive world and then leave it to others (including you) to respond to what I have learned and shared.

For example, I write at some length in The Gatekeepers about one applicant for the Class of 2004 at Wesleyan who believed, at various points in high school, that his anticipated career as a writer might be stunted or slowed if he did not receive admission to an Ivy. When he gets spurned by Brown and Penn, the two Ivies to which he ultimately applied, the reader gets to watch as he picks up the various pieces and realizes, in the end, that his reasons for seeking an Ivy League bumper sticker for his mother's car were not necessarily sound. Best of all, in an epilogue that carries the reader to the end of that student's sophomore year of college, the reader sees that the student is doing well and is excited to be where he is. I wanted to tell that story, in part, because I knew that other applicants to college had succumbed to this Ivy-or-bust mentality, and did not necessarily believe their guidance counselors—or parents—when told that things would work out wherever they went to college. I wanted to show those applicants that, at least in the case of this young man, life was indeed going on—quite nicely, in fact.

If there was an anxiety I was trying to tamp down by writing The Gatekeepers, it was the anxiety that parents and applicants feel at not being able to understand how highly selective colleges select their classes. I couldn't do anything to change the odds of admission—three out of four were rejected from Wesleyan, at least for the Class of 2004, and the odds were even more daunting that year at Harvard and Yale. (Nor do I think it's my place to lessen those odds.) But I hoped that at least by seeing what happens to an application once it arrives and is slit open in the admissions office of a representative institution, parents and applicants—and even guidance counselors—might feel some sense of ease. At Wesleyan, for example, they would know that in nearly every case at least two people, and quite possibly the whole committee, would review the contents of that file, with the express purpose of giving each applicant the floor to make the best case for admission. I thought that applicants and parents would take some comfort in knowing that this work is carried out by human beings like Ralph Figueroa, the book's main character, and not computers, and that people went into such work because they believed in the importance of access to higher education—and not because they delighted in saying, "No, No, No" far more often than they got a chance to say "Yes." Indeed, Ralph, at least, often agonized at having to say "No" so often to so many good candidates.

But in presenting the human side of this process, I knew that I would invariably touch off new anxieties. Watching Ralph and his colleagues give a lift to black and Hispanic applicants with lower SAT scores than some white applicants—as well as giving a lift to some athletes and alumni children as well—has not sat well with some readers. Readers of the book also get to see that Wesleyan is no more immune than the applicants themselves to paying too close attention to the U.S. News survey.

You ask for some how-to-get-in advice. Your readers must first bear in mind that admissions considerations are very often messy and subjective, and at least partly dependent on who happens to pick up the file at a particular institution. Sometimes two people at the same college can have a very different reaction to the same file, in part because the people who make these calculations bring so much of themselves to the table. As an applicant, that can be difficult to strategize against. Indeed, I feel that the only way to try to understand this idiosyncratic process is to watch it first-hand—which is one of the experiences I tried to give readers of the book.

In that vein, I feel comfortable making the following general observations. Often, the admissions officers I shadowed looked first for evidence that an applicant had "maxed out" on the curriculum in his or her school, taking as many tough courses (usually, but not always, Advanced Placement courses) as could be handled, without becoming mired in C's (a smattering of B's was often okay) and without working to the point of physical collapse. I was also struck that admissions officers were often less likely to want to see a five-page resumé of extracurricular activities, and more likely to be impressed by an applicant who had stuck with two activities (ideally two very different activities) for a sustained period of time, perhaps becoming a leader in the process. The officers certainly looked for some sign that the student enjoyed those activities, and wasn't just engaging in them to please the committee, but that can be hard for an applicant to convey. One way is within the personal essays that highly selective colleges request and that give applicants an unfiltered opportunity to tell the admissions committee what they like to do, as well as who they are and how they think about the world.

I have enjoyed our exchanges, and hope they have served to demystify a process that has puzzled too many outsiders for too long.

Jacques Steinberg

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