New York Times senior editor Jacques Steinberg helps pull the curtain on the perplexing and highly competitive world of college admissions in "The Gatekeepers," helping prospective students and their parents hone their approach. Here's an excerpt.
Wesleyan University Admissions Officer Ralph Figueroa reached over to the pile of applications that he had been assigned at random and pulled out the submission of Jordan Michael Goldman of Staten Island. Opening the folder, Ralph saw that the computer had printed the code “CV”—indicating that Jordan had made a campus visit—at the bottom of the file.
Over the course of the next few minutes, Ralph would note that Jordan had checked the box for Caucasian, that he was interested in English and creative writing and that his SAT’s were strong—750 verbal, 710 math, for a combined 1460. Ralph also read that Jordan’s parents had both attended college and that his mother had a master’s degree. With a profile like that, Ralph would be expecting a lot.
He noticed that Jordan was ranked 69 in a class of 741. That fell within the top 10 percent, and Ralph scribbled Jordan’s standing on the workcard. While Jordan may have been preoccupied about being ranked below the top 20 kids in his class, admissions officers at most of the elite colleges didn’t usually set the bar that high. The top 10 percent was the unofficial threshold, and Jordan had met it.
Ralph noted that Jordan’s grades were almost all A’s and A minuses, and that he had taken four Advanced Placement courses—American history, European history, political science and English. Jordan’s counselor had rated his program among the most demanding in the sprawling public school that he attended. Wesleyan liked to see its applicants “max out” what their high schools offered, and Jordan appeared to be doing so. That Tottenville High in Staten Island did not have as many Advanced Placement courses as Gunn in Palo Alto may have helped Jordan, at least in terms of applying to college.
Jordan had also taken four years of foreign language (Spanish) and calculus as a senior. He was hitting every mark that Wesleyan expected.
Jordan had entered all of his extracurricular activities on the form provided: junior class president, business editor of the school newspaper, volunteer in a homeless shelter, among many others. But Ralph grew a bit irritated when he saw that much of this information had been repeated on a typed, five-page résumé. I’m getting tired of seeing résumés, Ralph thought, and without even looking at it, returned it to Jordan’s folder and picked up the first of his essays.
More in books
In response to the question about the extracurricular activity that had the most meaning for him, Jordan had written:
I first met Devin Cutugno the summer that I turned seven. For me, being seven was all about plastic Thundercats’ lunch boxes and X-Men action figures and day-glow fluorescent clothing that seemed to exist only so the wearer could loudly proclaim to everyone within a ten mile radius—“Here I am!”
Ralph paused after finishing that opening paragraph; it was the reference to X-Men that stopped him. As luck would have it, he loved the X-Men comic books. At Stanford, a friend of his had written a major research paper on the ragtag bunch of superheroes and how they existed as a mirror of teenage angst. The friend had collected virtually every X-Men comic ever published, and Ralph had read many of them.
Just two sentences into his essay and Jordan had made a good impression, but a shared love of comic books would get an applicant only so far with Ralph, who was eager to see where Jordan was going with this idea:
That summer Mom sent me to Sports Camp at a nearby school. She told me that it was “about time I learned what a football was,” and so, with a plastic Thundercats’ lunch box in hand and a brand spankin’ new pair of Keds Athletic Footwear on my feet, I was shipped off to camp.
At the very same school a boy named Devin was going to a Special Education summer program. The way our schedules worked out, Devin and I ate lunch at the same time everyday. And it’s funny, the way people remember things; for the life of me I can’t tell you how many days into camp it was, or what I ate for lunch that day—but I can still remember exactly what I was wearing the first time I spoke to Devin Cutugno. My day-glow orange T-shirt was being sported in full effect, complementing a pair of cut-off blue jeans and a formerly new pair of Keds that was, by now, so fully encrusted with dirt that the Keds logo was reduced to K——S. I remember this because, as I sat down to eat my lunch that particular day, I noticed some other kid halfway across the cafeteria whose day-glow orange T-shirt just screamed, “Look at me, too!!” So I decided to walk over to that kid with all the unabashed courage of my full seven years, unsure if I was planning on hugging him for sharing in my fashion sense or demanding that he take the shirt off right way, but moving toward him nonetheless.
I took about eight steps before I realized the boy was in a wheelchair. By ten steps I saw that there were X-Men action figures on his wheelchair tray. Eighteen steps and I saw that our shirts were, in fact, exactly alike.
I remember everyone else in the cafeteria looking at me strangely that day, but I didn’t much care. I had decided I was overjoyed by our common interest in clothing. I asked the boy his name and why he was in a wheelchair, and, more importantly, if I could play toys with him. He told me that his name was Devin Cutugno, and he couldn’t walk because he had cerebral palsy, and then he began to attack me with his favorite X-Men figure. Within mere minutes we were immersed in an X-Men battle of epic proportions. Since Devin cannot speak clearly, we used a series of clicks and head movements to communicate. We soon invented our own secret language.
And that was that. Every day afterwards Devin and I would bring in toys to play with one another, and when everyone else went to the school yard to climb on the monkey bars and then swings, I wheeled Devin around and we played our own games.
Ralph went on to read how the two boys had become best friends, “eagerly awaiting the newest issue of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit calendar,” “debating Euclidean Geometry,” and now talking about college. That Devin’s dreams had not been impeded by his inability even to go to the bathroom unassisted prompted Jordan to come to the following conclusion: “Anything can be overcome with the proper amount of effort and resolve.”
Ralph put his pen down and just shook his head. A year later, he would still be able to tell the story of Devin and Jordan without having the essay in front of him. “It touched me that a kid could be so unselfconsciously good and have it be so natural,” Ralph recalled.
Ralph began to contemplate summarizing Jordan’s words on his workcard, the ballot, in effect, that would accompany his file. How could he do justice to what he had just read? He decided not to even try, and instead, simply wrote: “Very touching essay about friendship with boy in wheelchair since age 7 (when they met). Nicely done.”
Jordan had also been asked on his application to write a second essay, on a topic of his choice, and Ralph decided to read it quickly. What more did he need to know?
Not surprisingly, the second piece was a bit of a letdown. Jordan had sought, like so many applicants, to convey his uniqueness. But his references to being “an oil painting that has yet to receive its finishing touches,” or his Seinfeld-esque realization that “it is counterproductive to put laundry detergent in the dishwasher” only made Ralph yawn. And when he got around to Jordan’s conclusion—describing himself as a dreamer, with a “dream of attending Wesleyan University”—he found himself dreaming, too, and wishing that Jordan’s second essay had been less contrived. But no matter. “I forgave him,” Ralph said later, “because the first one was so good.”
Ralph next noticed that Jordan had enclosed a thick portfolio, which began with a series of testimonials and then, according to the table of contents, included four short stories. Ralph hated when kids bent the rules like this. With a recommendation from one guidance counselor and two teachers, each applicant had more than enough references. Moreover, he believed that any truly good writer should be able to shine in the space provided. Jordan’s first essay was testament to that.
Ralph was about to put the packet back in the folder, unread, and make his recommendation when he noticed that it included a letter that Devin’s parents had written on Jordan’s behalf. He decided to break his rule about not considering extra materials, simply because he was curious. Was Jordan for real? The letter went on for two pages, but one passage near the bottom stood out:
Jordan has spent a great deal of time with our family, and he has often traveled with us as a companion for Devin. Jordan has aided our son in all facets of his life, and the grace in which he has carried, fed, dressed and toileted our son is far beyond his years. He has always been there as a role model for our son, and his ability to make Devin laugh is endless.
When Jordan was diagnosed with a heart ailment in June 1997, Devin was distraught. It was somewhat ironic, because Devin had always been the one with medical problems throughout the years, and the fact that Jordan could be ill was inconceivable to our son. Once again, however, we witnessed the incredible strength of their friendship, and now Devin had the opportunity to be strong for Jordan … After two attempts, Jordan’s heart surgery was finally successful in April 1998, and we don’t know who was more relieved—Jordan or our son. I don’t know what Devin would have done if something ever happened to this wonderful friend.
Ralph, who had seen a reference to Jordan’s heart surgery in a teacher’s recommendation, didn’t need to read any further. He turned to the ratings and quickly moved down the list, giving Jordan all 8’s on a scale of 1 to 9, with two exceptions. When Ralph came to the rating for Jordan’s extracurricular activities, he thought again of the long list the boy had presented. Other than being elected junior class president, he hadn’t distinguished himself with his activities. Ralph gave him a 6. “It could have been a 7,” Ralph admitted later, “but I was trying to temper my enthusiasm.” But when it came to Jordan’s personal rating, Ralph didn’t hold back, and awarded him a perfect 9. Of the nearly fifteen hundred applications that Ralph would read that year, he would assign only about twenty-five perfect scores. Jordan had gotten one of them.
I want this kid, Ralph thought to himself.
Ralph quickly scribbled his final evaluation: “Strong student and compelling person, too. Very gifted writer.” Almost as an anticlimax, he circled his recommendation: “ADMIT.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg. Copyright © 2012 by Jacques Steinberg.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive