Today, Jacques Steinberg returns to campus. We’re looking back at his classic book.
Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College is pretty much indisputably the most illuminating and insightful book written in the past few decades about elite college admissions, which Steinberg terms a series of decisions made “behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope.” Conveniently, it also happens to focus on Wes. Steinberg, a journalist and education expert, tracks a diverse group of high school seniors and a then-Wesleyan admissions officer (Ralph Figueroa, currently Director of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy) as they navigate the 1999–2000 admissions cycle.
Along with a handful of other Wesleying staffers, I read the book in high school, around the time I decided to apply to Wesleyan, and realized what I had already suspected: college admissions is about as complex, random, and ultimately meaningless as—well, the selection of a pope. It also makes for more thrilling drama than any reality show on TV. Before the rise of CollegeConfidential, The Gatekeepers was the most intimate glimpse at the people on both sides of the admissions process that existed. In fairness, it still is, because CollegeConfidential is a hellish underworld.
Mr. Steinberg, who also founded the New York Times’ “The Choice” blog, where he recently announced his departure from the newspaper after 25 years, is on his way to Middletown yet again. This time, he’s not writing a book about us (we think). He’s coming to lead a talk and Q&A in the Chapel, which is being hosted by the WSA. In honor of this glorious occasion, here’s a round-up of six things we learned about Wesleyan from The Gatekeepers—before even setting foot on campus.
1. Wesleyan practices “holistic” admissions. There’s no SAT cut-off or minimum GPA to get into Wesleyan. Nothing as staunchly empirical as the University of Michigan’s longtime admissions formula. Instead, admissions officers combine numbers like GPAs and test scores with raw, human decisions regarding abstract qualities like “character,” “diversity,” and “merit.” (Of course, that’s not to mention the obviously charged negotiations over legacy admits, athletic recruits, celebrity children, and talented oboists.) Steinberg intimately examines an unscientific, complicated admissions process whose (largely antisemitic) origins Malcolm Gladwell later traced in a popular New Yorker article, “Getting In.” It’s messy stuff, and sometimes there are no easy answers, as in the case of Mig Pensoneau, a Native-American applicant with a rough academic history who ends up dropping out of Wesleyan.
2. There used to be a thing called the “Cunt Club.” When one highly sought accepted student, a gifted dancer from California’s prestigious Harvard-Westlake School named Julianna Bentes, visits Wesleyan, she finds herself an honorary member of the Cunt Club, a student group whose primary objective was “to empower women in sexual situations.” This particular meeting involved a bag containing a diverse selection of sex toys and instructional videos on “how to make love like a pro.” Doesn’t sound particularly scandalous when you’ve been at Wesleyan for three years, but Julianna wasn’t down. Appropriately, she ends up choosing Yale. (Ralph, the admissions officer, learned to pay more attention to who on campus was hosting his most prized candidates.)
3. Jordan Goldman ’04 was (and is) the freaking man. An 18-year-old aspiring writer from Staten Island, Jordan dreams of attending Brown, where he is eventually rejected. Jordan ends up wowing Ralph Figueroa and getting into Wesleyan instead. In a moment of passion, he sends a rambling, eight-page email to the accepted students listserv explaining why “Wesleyan is ABSOLUTELY the school for you.” Today, Jordan is a major entrepreneur and education expert who founded Unigo.com and created the unequaled “Students’ Guide to Colleges” guidebook series. He still finds the time to visit campus on occasion and advise current students at Digital Wes meetups (as he did in New York last month).
4. Wesleyan has a really, really weird hodgepodge of architecture. As Steinberg visualizes it, “Wesleyan had no main gate and no central quadrangle. Though the architects of the Lincoln Memorial and the original Pennsylvania Station had designed some of its buildings, the overall crazy-quilt quality detracted from the whole. At Wesleyan, a medieval-style castle (the old gym) stood across from a modern, concrete-covered arts center that was laid out like Stonehenge.” Can’t imagine what Steinberg will think of Usdan.
5. Carter Bays ’97 got waitlisted—and then sent the office of admissions a postcard every day for a month. Acclaimed today as the award-winning writer and producer of How I Met Your Mother, Carter Bays ’97 was just an aspiring playwright from Shaker Heights, Ohio, when he applied to Wes in 1992. He got waitlisted, so he did what any other student would do: he attempted to “prove that I am worthy of attending your school” by sending the office of admissions a new postcard every day for weeks. Office staff members began to race to the mailbox to get his latest note; eventually, they vouched for him and pushed his name to the top of the waitlist pile. At Wesleyan, he ended up becoming editor of The Ampersand; today, he’s apparently really embarrassed by his articles. After he graduated, the same admissions staffers typed his name into the alumni database to check his first job. The answer: “Staff Writer, The Late Show with David Letterman.”
6. People have lots of preconceived notions of what Wesleyan is like. The 1990s were the heyday of Wesleyan’s neo-hippie PC reputation, so it’s fitting that only a few years before Steinberg began this book, two early alums made a movie about Wesleyan called PCU. As Ralph tells one group of high school students, “People think it’s a place where students are holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.'” Don’t be fooled. That’s only on WesFest.
7. 4/20 was (and is) a really big deal on campus. Today, Wesleyan students celebrate 4/20 by gathering on Foss and getting really, really blazed. In 2000, students celebrated 4/20 by, uh, doing the exact same thing. When one waitlisted applicant, Becca Jannol, haplessly visits campus on 4/20, she remarks that it “smells like weed everywhere.” Jannol had taken a risk by writing her college essay about the lessons she learned after getting in trouble for eating a weed brownie. Already sensitive about the drug culture on campus, Wesleyan’s admissions officers ended up waitlisting her. More than a decade later, not much has changed. It’s no wonder the office of admissions moved this year’s WesFest to an all-weekday format presumably to avoid having it fall on Saturday, April 20.
8. Wesleyan sometimes hosts weird hippie Seders on Passover. The same applicant, Becca, visits Wesleyan with her mom on Passover. Naturally, they attend a Seder, where they’re informed that it’s a special “environmental Seder” combining the traditional story about Moses and the Israelites with poems “about our earth as our mother.” Becca describes it in one word: “hippie-ish.” For comparison’s sake, here’s our rundown of this year’s on-campus Seders.
9. Wesleyan really wants more science students and more athletes. Wesleyan remains one of the few top liberal arts colleges where science majors can expect to do original research as undergraduates, and Steinberg’s book reveals how a proven interest in science can give you a huge boost in the admissions process. (A former admissions officer tells Steinberg, “Someone once asked me, ‘Would you take a kid with high physics scores and nothing else?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ The faculty wants them, and the faculty needs them.”) It also reveals Wesleyan’s longtime struggle to be taken seriously on the athletic fields. Steinberg interviews former Dean of Admissions and current Vice President for University Relations Barbara-Jan Wilson, who apparently went to great lengths to improve communication between the admissions officers and coaches. (“I always believed that if the New York Times wanted to write about a draft dodger, they’d call us,” Wilson tells Steinberg. “If they were looking for a good student athlete, they’d call Williams.” But this is a source of frustration: “At Wesleyan you could find a great student athlete,” she protests. “It’s a stereotype.”)
10. Wesleyan admissions officers are often in close contact with guidance counselors at top prep schools. If you went to Exeter or Trinity or whatever, chances are your guidance counselor told Wesleyan about you. The Gatekeepers traces a long-term friendship between Ralph Figueroa and college classmate Sharon Merrow, who becomes a dean at the Harvard-Westlake School. Merrow frequently gives Ralph hints about her favorite students, and nudges him for insider tips when they end up applying to Wes. In the case of Julianna Bentes, Ralph had been secretly tracking her since she was in ninth grade. (Creepy? Don’t hate the player, hate the game.)