The high-stakes game of college admissions

9780142003084So I went to this high school that was *very* focused on college. I spent a lot of time obsessing and a lot of time reading college guidebooks and how-to-write-the-greatest-college-essay-ever books and making lists of perfect colleges to apply to and…whatever, it was unhealthy. In any case, I am now a relatively well-adjusted adult, but I still have a tiny hangover obsession with how people apply to and get into super selective colleges. And the best book I’ve ever read on that topic is The Gatekeepers by former New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg.

During the 1999-2000 school year, Steinberg shadowed Ralph Figueroa, an admissions officer at Wesleyan University. In the fall, he travels all over his territory trying to convince as many students as possible to apply to Wesleyan for the class of 2004; in the winter, he reads their applications as quickly as possible and says no far more often than yes.

Ralph is a pretty interesting guy: the child of Mexican immigrants, he spent a lot if his youth trekking around southern California with his teacher mother and working with underserved students. And as an admissions officer, one of his major objectives is to bring as much diversity as possible to Wesleyan’s campus. The Gatekeepers follows six of that year’s applicants, including a star writer/white boy from Staten Island, a black Latina ballerina/academic superstar from Los Angeles, an almost perfect (except for one tiny pot brownie) student body president, and a spotty-on-paper Native American kid that Ralph desperately wants to bring to campus. Each of these kids has a unique story, and watching their college selection processes take shape—sometimes in their own words and sometimes from Ralph’s perspective—is fascinating.

One word of caution, though: don’t read this book if you’re in the process of applying to college. It will just make you obsess more. But otherwise, this is character-driven narrative nonfiction at its best. (Also, all the people are real and you can google them for a create-your-own-epilogue. But don’t, because that’s creepy.)

(Also, we’re linking to Nicola’s Books this month. It’s in Ann Arbor, MI, which is where, after much agony, I landed for college lo those many years ago.)

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