Book Review: The Gatekeepers

From time to time, we like to review some of the books available for parents of college students.  There is a wealth of literature available to help parents cope with the transition to college and the changes that occur throughout the college years.  We’ve created lists of recommended reading, and there is something for everyone.  Please check out our Resources and Tools page for suggestions.

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College is a must-read for any parent whose son or daughter is in the process of applying to college.  It is not a how-to book with secrets to getting admitted, but it is a book which tells the real stories of students and admissions officers as they take the journey of putting together a college freshman class.

The Gatekeepers grew out of a newspaper series.  Specifically, it tells the story of one admissions officer and the high school seniors whose cases he and his colleagues considered that year.  The story begins in the homes and classrooms of the applicants as they work with their guidance counselors and parents in their junior year.  The narrative then travels behind the closed doors of the admissions office, as well as the officers’ homes as the applications are debated.  It continues to follow the story as the applicants receive their responses and make their decisions.

The author, Jacques Steinberg, was given unlimited access to spend time with the admissions staff of Wesleyan College.  The stories are wonderfully compelling and you will not want to put the book down.  As readers, we often forget that these are real stories and not fictional accounts.  However, the true benefit of the book is that it will help students and their parents understand the humanity of the admissions process.  The book gives an important perspective, without being judgmental, on the process.

The book’s website describes this book in the following way:

Most high school students and their parents head into the admissions maze after years of diligently planning their strategies for success, yet in fact knowing little about how the system really works. What aspects of a candidate do admissions officers consider most significant? What role do grades, board scores, and extracurricular activities play? What effect do diversity policies have?

In the fall of 1999, New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg had the chance to find the answers to these questions when he was given a remarkable opportunity: the chance to spend nearly a year observing the selection process at Wesleyan University. No reporter had ever been given such extended and unfettered access, and The Gatekeepers, his account of that experience, offers one of the most compelling and fascinating portraits of how the higher educational system works in America today.

Because Steinberg has had the cooperation of the Wesleyan staff, the students, and their teachers and advisors, we are able to follow the admission process in every detail, from the initial reading of the applicants’ essays to the final, often contentious meetings at which their fates will be decided. The Gatekeepers will be required reading for every parent of a high-school age child, and for every student who is facing the arduous and anxious task of applying to college. Never before has this mysterious process been revealed with such clarity, such insight, and such drama.”

About the author:

Jacques Steinberg has been an education reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years. He has written broad national stories about the errors plaguing the standardized testing industry; school vouchers in Cleveland; affirmative action at the University of Michigan; bilingual education in California; the nation’s teachers’ and principals’ shortages; the enormous new pressures on sixth graders; and the issue of education on the campaign trail.  He spent much of the 1996-1997 school year inside a third-grade classroom on West 96th Street in Manhattan, writing an occasional series about the children’s efforts to learn to read. The Education Writers Association honored Mr. Steinberg’s reading series with its top award, The Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, in 1998.

Mr. Steinberg, who attended public schools in Somerset, Mass., is a graduate of Dartmouth College. He lives in New York City with his wife, Sharon Weinstock, a lawyer, and two young children.

What the author has to say about the book:

The Gatekeepers grew out of (a) newspaper series.  Specifically, it tells the story of one admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, and the high school seniors whose cases he and his colleagues considered that year.  My goal in writing this book is to allow any outsider – including those teenagers hoping to gain access themselves – to follow along as actual applications pass through each stage of an entire admissions cycle at an elite private college.  None of the applicants’ names have been changed, nor have the details of their lives.”

“I have made a conscious decision not to write yet another volume for the buckling shelf of books that promise to reveal the secret password for gaining entrance to a top college.  As far as I can tell, no such formula exists.  Instead, it is my hope that the tales within The Gatekeepers will convey a real-life sense of what it is like to be an admissions officer at a time when more American families than ever are intent on passing muster with such people. . . I hope the reader will find it heartening to discover that Ralph and his colleagues give serious and careful consideration to nearly every request brought before them and that in making their final determinations, they regularly plumb the depths of those applicants, probing far below the surface of test scores and grades.”

“Among the questions that have informed the reporting of this book is one that has stumped me for nearly twenty years, ever since I applied to my own dream college:  How had I managed to get in, when so many others had not?”

What others have to say about the book:

”Excellent, thoroughly engrossing drama.”

Business Week

“Compelling . . . should be required reading for any student or parent who seeks insight into a process hidden behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope.”

Newsweek

The Gatekeepers provides the deep insight that is missing from the myriad how-to books on admissions that try to identify the formula for getting into the best colleges.  I really didn’t want the book to end!”

The New York Times

“The Gatekeepers is a stunning piece of education reporting.  By documenting the aspirations and anxieties of real life applicants as well as strategies and motives of real live admissions officers, Jacques Steinberg has demystified the admissions process of an elite private college in compelling fashion.  The Gatekeepers blends helpful information with engaging – even suspenseful – story telling.  He describes a distinctly American rite of passage that turns out to be more reasonable than most applicants and parents fear – but far more complex and idiosyncratic than colleges would have us believe.”

Edward B. Fiske, editor of The Fiske Guide to Colleges

“Jacques Steinberg’s book is an absolutely fascinating inside look at how some of our most prestigious colleges and universities determine their admissions. It’s an engrossing narrative and, while the author’s voice is not judgmental, he leaves us with some very searching questions as to how our nation’s meritocracy is actually shaped by personal decisions and connections and by all-too-human interventions – and whether, for these reasons, it is actually a ‘meritocracy’ at all.”

Jonathan Kozol, author of Amazing Grace

Related Posts:

Parenting College Students: Recommended Reading List

Parenting College Students: More Recommended Reading

Parenting College Students: Still More Recommended Reading


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