Edward Lai Harner, Edward Harner
Andrea Harner
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May 29, 2007

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg

This was such a memorable book (and it's not just because its setting is my alma mater). Steinberg shadows Wesleyan's admissions officers in the fall of 1999 to gain insight into the little-known admissions process of top colleges. In this quest Wesleyan serves as a mirror, albeit an imperfect one ( Wesleyan is unique in that it has a more progressive history and mission that those of its peers) to the admissions processes of other elite, northeastern colleges. Amidst the grueling process of recruiting applicants then rating thousands of applications are suspenseful stories of a handful of high school seniors who applied to Wesleyan among other schools. And although the question of whether or not they would gain acceptance to Wesleyan and their other choices had me tantalized, the theme most salient to me was an extended, more comprehensive form of affirmative action in which not only race but socioeconomic status as measured by how far an applicant's parents received schooling are significant factors, and how that plays out in the Wesleyan admissions process in 1999 - I'm curious about the philosophical and administrative changes which have undoubtedly affected the process since then. The basic idea can be summed up by stating that students are not just being rated by their absolute test results (there is of course no such thing since not everyone attends the same classes taught by the same teachers and subject to same grading system) but are also judged in relation to their environment. In general I believe in this idea. For example, if both your parents have gone to college you are not just financially more privileged but your home environment is more intellectually enriching, therefore you should exhibit higher grades or test scores than someone who grew up with less financial means and intellectual stimulation at home. The strengths of this argument are fairly obvious to me but perhaps the more interesting discussion centers around its limitations: Does this mean wealthy kids must become leaders? While that would be great, reality doesn't support that. It seems that as an educator or admissions officer you're always seeking out potential but unfortunately potential isn't limitless. I would surmise that for all the potential that is tapped and then blossomed in the middle of the spectrum, there are on the extreme ends, cases of rich kids who have been bred for leadership all their lives and poor kids who have thrived relative to their environment all their lives, who in the end have maxed out their potential and aren't able to fulfill the affirmative action dream. I could go on and on about this but I'll stop to say that this book is fascinating and I highly recommend it!


* Thanks to Eric Klinenberg for lending me the book! P.S. I won't hold it against you that you went to Brown.

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