January 01, 2003 6 min read

Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

by Jacques Steinberg
(Viking, 292 pages, $25.95)

Thirty years ago, getting into a college, even a pretty good one, was no great accomplishment. You showed up with little, if any, special preparation for the SAT, applied to only a handful of colleges or universities, and, if you had a reasonably good academic record, were on your way to someplace like Chapel Hill or Berkeley. But these days, getting into the better public universities can be extremely difficult. And entree into elite private ones, as Steinberg shows in this enlightening and timely book, is beyond the grasp of most “merely good” students.

Steinberg, an education reporter for the New York Times, spent much of 1999 and 2000 observing the decision making process of Ralph Figueroa, an admissions officer at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. While Figueroa and hiscolleagues want to attract candidates with diverse interests, abilities, and ethnicities, they are constrained by the institution’s ferocious selectivity. At Wesleyan, there are only 700 spots for 7,000 applicants with an average SAT score of nearly 1400 and stratospheric grade-point averages. As a result, almost any blemish—taking three years of a foreign language instead of four or failing to complete a full sequence of advanced science courses—can put you in the reject pile.

Sometimes the selectivity leads to outright absurdities. A California girl named Becca with impeccable academic and leadership records lands on the waiting list because she once ate a marijuana brownie before school, a mistake she immediately confessed to the principal. The irony with this, Steinberg writes, is that Wesleyan has a reputation for its counterculture flair. During a later visit to the university, the girl smells marijuana smoke wafting through dormitory corridors.

It’s clear that Wesleyan wants students with outstanding scholastic records, but Steinberg, who was permitted to sit in on admissions committee meetings, found that some youngsters have significant advantages that have nothing to do with academics. Athletes, for example, have a leg up. And “legacy” candidates—children of alumni—are twice as likely as others to be admitted.

Steinberg points out that the sheer competitiveness of a college like Wesleyan pressures students to approach high school as one long résumé-building exercise. While students should in general be applauded for their involvement in sports, clubs, community service, and the like, many, he writes, take part in suchactivities just to curry favor. Aware of this kind of gamesmanship, admissions officers do their best to spot kids with sincere, deep-felt interests and ideals. Even so, some slip by the radar. Steinberg meets one well-qualified candidate who, as a high schooler, corresponded with prison inmates and actively opposed the death penalty but opted not to boast about it in her college essay. Wesleyan winds up rejecting her.

As insightful and comprehensive as he is, Steinberg fails to address the impact this college madness has on high school teachers and curricula. More than ever before, teachers are incessantly hassled by grade-mongering students who fear that even a fractional drop in their GPAs may result in rejection down the line. And because prestigious colleges mainlyaccept applicants who have taken a full slate of rigorous courses—such as calculus and French 4—students are less able or willing to pursue nonacademic passions like drama, art, or PE, which arguably should be part of the high school experience.

Still, this is a fine book that raises important questions about the college admissions process and the obsessive behavior it promotes. One comes away wondering whether getting into the best college is really the make-or-break proposition everyone seems to think it is. “They’re all going to end up in good places,” Figueroa says of the many applicants he has to turn away. “They’re going to have good lives.”

Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools

by Amy J. Binder
(Princeton University Press, 307 pages, $35)

In this provocative and engaging book, Binder, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, traces efforts by Afrocentrist and creationist advocates over the past two decades to get their ideologies into public schools. Of the two, Afrocentrists were more successful. Concerned about the chronic underachievement of black youngsters, many urban school officials in the late 1980s and early 1990s were receptive to Afrocentrist arguments, adopting curricula that emphasized the achievements of ancient African civilizations and African Americans. They hoped that black children would identify with such courses and that their achievements and self- esteem would improve as a result.

While Afrocentrism has lost whatever clout it once had, it did succeed, Binder argues, in bringing more black history into the schools. Creationism, on the other hand, failed to make inroads, meeting with one defeat after another. In Vista, California, for example, voters threw out Christian fundamentalist school board members who had pushed a creationist agenda that even conservatives saw as extreme. And two yearsago in Kansas, a newly elected state board of education reversed an earlier board decision to develop science standards emphasizing creationism. The general public, she writes, rejected the argument that schools were shortchanging Christian children by not teaching creationism and that there is sound science behind creationists’ claims.

As different as the two movements and their constituents were, Binder astutely shows that both used the rhetoric of pluralism, among other shared tactics, to make their cases. The Afrocentrists claimed that black history, at the very least, deserved its own piece of academic real estate, while creationists argued that their theories deserved to be taught alongside those of that conniving secularist, Darwin.

The Odyssey of a School

by David Winkley
(Giles de la Mare, 336 pages, $24.95)

Because it was written by the headmaster of a public primary school in the blighted Handsworth district of Birmingham, England, this book will probably not get much attention this side of the Atlantic. That’s a shame because Winkley’s insights into transforming an impoverished, ethnically diverse school into one of Britain’s best are certainly relevant to American educators.

The most important thing he did after arriving at the school in 1974, he writes, was to weed out “merely competent and half-committed teachers” in favor of those who were passionate, if flawed. “Teachers may punish, berate, drive,” he notes, “but the fire, the bothering, gives children a feeling of security and animation; they sense that the experience is worth having.”

Winkley offers a number of aphoristic insights about running a good school: “Caring is not the same as kindness"; while it’s necessary at times to punish a child, he or she “must be recognized once more as an equal, forgiven member of the civil community"; the problem with education bureaucracies is that the word “children” rarely appears in their documents. Too often, he writes, children are “afterthoughts in a system that is constantly expanding its plans to control schools.” May the words of Sir Winkley, as he is called in the United Kingdom, find their way to these shores.

—David Ruenzel