There are few more unnerving rites of passage in America today than the process of applying to college, for at almost no other time in young people's lives do they face a decision that they perceive will have as profound an effect on their futures. Over the last two decades the competition to gain admission to a top-tier school has grown ever more intense, as the pedigree these schools confer becomes ever more significant in the job and graduate school markets. This competitiveness has helped generate a range of businesses, from SAT preparation courses to counseling services; to shelves of college guidebooks; and to US News & World Report's highly influential annual college rankings issue.

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 American today.

The Gatekeepers opens in the fall semester, as Steinberg accompanies the central figure of the book, admissions officer Ralph Figueroa, on his annual sales trip around the country, as he presents the case for Wesleyan to groups of high school seniors, while assessing the most talented among them. In the course of Ralph's travels we meet a number of prospective Wesleyan students whom we will follow through the course of the academic year, as they compete for places in the nation's most elite colleges.

There is Julianna Bentes, a gifted multiracial student on scholarship at an exclusive Los Angeles prep school who is pursued as ardently as any pitching prodigy would be in the major leagues; Becca Jannol, who broke a cardinal rule as a high school sophomore and then takes the risk of writing about what she learned from the experience in her college essays; Migizi Pensoneau, a Native American who has overcome a poor educational record to successfully attend a progressive, experimental school in New Mexico; Jordan Goldman, an ambitious Staten Island writer for whom attending an Ivy League school has been a lifelong dream; and Aggie Ramirez, a Dominican who has already shown herself to be a natural leader, but whose grades have suffered in the process.

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.
Barnes & Noble
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