How Has Selective Admission Changed?

Is Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers one of the best insider looks at how selective admission works at schools like Harvard and Wesleyan? Is the book accurate for all highly selective schools and have things changed since it was published over 10 years ago?

I was asked to answer these questions on the website quora.com

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Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers is one of the best books published on what it is like to work at a highly selective college or university admission office. Steinberg was given almost unheard of access to the way Wesleyan conducts the business of selecting students who best fit their institutional needs.

My short answer is pretty simple: Yes and No. I will try to show why this seeming contradiction forms a larger frame that has room for both ways of painting the picture.

Given that the book, at least by today’s standards, is old, the first thing to address is whether the book still accurately describes what goes on in admission at Wesleyan. For those who have not read the book, a bit of plot summary might be useful. I use the word plot because although the book is not a novel, it does trace the story of one particular admission officer, Ralph Figueroa, and the fates of a number of students too.

The focus on one office and one person allows Steinberg to let the life he depicts stand for the larger admission office staff at Wesleyan and for selective admission officers as a whole. We follow Ralph through an admission season, which includes recruiting trips to schools that in some cases are looked at as among the best in the US, and others that serve the Native American population who have tremendous challenges in front of them. We also see that “reading season’ is a several month journey into the stats, words and activities of thousands of talented students. There is little else that goes on in an admission officer’s life except evaluation during this period of time. However, once the reading season ends there are recruitment activities that are necessary for helping to enroll the lucky few who have been admitted. And shortly after that the whole cycle begins again. The book was originally a part of Steinberg’s excellent NY Times Choice Blog. (Unfortunately, he no longer writes the blog. It is still a great resource; even the old entries are useful.)

We also get to follow the admission process through the experiences of students who have applied to a variety of selective schools and we discover what their outcomes are. We come to root for some as we read the book and we share in the good news and are moved by how hard it is when some get told no. As a whole, the book lets people in on some inside views of both schools and students as they go through what has become a much more complicated and much more competitive process than it used to be even a generation ago. Most parents say, and rightly so, that they would never get in to most of the highly selective schools that they were accepted to given the huge increase in applications from around the US and the world. Acceptance rates have fallen dramatically at top schools, something I have addressed before. It is not only much harder than it used to get accepted in to top schools, it is much harder to predict who will get in top schools too.

The book, which came out in 2002, nevertheless, still rings true in a number of important ways. In fact, Wesleyan had Mr. Steinberg back on campus not that long ago (2013) and listed ten things he got right about the admission process. I won’t list all of them, but there are three that I think need a bit of a gloss.

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.

I applaud the writers of the Wesleyan overview for being far more forthcoming about the quirks that are a part of ‘holistic’ admission. From a shady past that was part of an effort to suppress Jewish students from going Ivy (the better place to find out about this is to read the long but worth reading book The Chosen), holistic admission is the screening process that lets them look at more than just numbers. Most student and families support the abstract notion of holistic admission until they find out how much falls under this rubric. Holistic admission can mean a legacy at a school gets a boost, and in some schools this boost is huge, Holistic admission can mean that an athlete with less than stellar academics in virtually every measurable way may still be invited to join one of the most elite schools in the US. Each school has its own institutional priorities and holistic admission gives them leeway to pursue what they think is in the best interest of the school. It’s important to remember that schools are first and foremost about what is best for them even if this means that some students will discover that despite having doe all about anyone can do to get into the school, they still will end up short. What drives some parents and students to distraction (and a few to law suits) is that they “know” another student with much weaker credentials got accepted. And it is likely true that there are students on the most elite campuses whose academic credentials are far weaker. Wesleyan, again with uncharacteristic openness, admits this:

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.”)

These words are one place that helps to answer your question in specific terms. Wesleyan is different than some of the other highly ranked schools in its commitment to giving an edge in admission to students who have a passion for the sciences. As the school is more well known for its arts and humanities and social science the school wishes to increase the number of science students to make sure there is a balance and to ensure there are enough students talking classes in the sciences as majors. This would certainly not be true at a place, for example, at a school like MIT. They might give an edge to the poet or the artist over a strong science student. Each of the top schools has slightly different institutional priorities and so what Steinberg writes about applies in specific terms to one school. Nevertheless, each school does have its own way of giving certain individuals or groups an edge in admission.

The last of the things that Wesleyan says that Steinberg gets right is in some ways the most controversial:

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.)

There are many stories in the media about how students from privilege get all sorts of advantages when applying to the most selective schools. The data is there to show that students whose parents make above the top 1% have a distinct edge in admission. Some argue that this should happen as the students attend great schools and have the opportunity to do things outside of school that costs a lot of money (summer camps, travel, internships via networking etc.). The things I have just mentioned should certainly be looked at as ways a student may stand out in ways those who cannot afford these opportunities cannot. This is simply, to me, the way that life is unfair to those who are not at the high end of the income bracket.

What The Gatekeepers shows, however, that not only does attending a great school provides wonderful educational opportunities, it also provides the student with access to admission officers that the vast majority of students do not have. If an admission officer has a great working relationship with a counselor and the counselor calls an admission officer to lobby on behalf of an individual or group of students this does seem an unfair advantage. The final comment from Wesleyan’s writers “don’t hate the player hate the game”, sounds like a nice sound bite but it still makes it easy to overlook what a small group of students get that most don’t. Having said this however, a number of the top schools have made great efforts to visit schools and communities that are primarily low income. Harvard, Princeton and Yale have done this for years. Other schools, who do not have as much money set aside for financial aid, simply cannot afford to do as much. But The Gatekeepers also shows that Ralph makes a special effort to encourage Native Americans to apply to Wesleyan. Most schools do not target this group, but some target low-income students and almost all target other under-represented groups. Once again, each school will have a slightly different approach depending on what it feels will best support their needs academically, on the playing field, in certain academic majors ad among targeted groups of students.

No

If The Gatekeepers still has much to teach us about how selective admission works, it also does not address in a substantive way a number of things that have become much larger issues since the book was published. It also does not address how far apart some schools are from each other in using these things that affect admission decisions. I will mention just a few.

Early Decision/EarlyAction:

One of the factors that is a part of US News rankings is selectivity. The more applications a school gets is one part of the equation but the other is what the response rate of those students who are offered admission. At about the time The Gatekeepers came out there was a rush for the top schools to get rid of early decision. This came about after stats were published that demonstrated that the vast majority of all ED students were not eligible for financial aid. Needy students often shop for the best package they could find, so applying early could limit their choices. Remember that Early Decision is a binding agreement. If a student applies Early Decision and is accepted then the student has to withdraw all other applications. The advantage for early decision for schools is that the more they take early (which happens in November/December) the fewer they will have to offer to in regular decision.

Regular decision notifications go out in March or early April and at that point a student will typically have a number of schools to choose from. Getting students to apply ED means that they will have no other choice if accepted and this increases the yield (the percentage of student who accept offers). Harvard and Princeton tried to get the movement going, but it did not filter down and a few schools that did follow have backed off in some way. In almost every other case when HPY does something big, others scramble to follow the leader but not this case. Very few changed (and some that did change have since changed back to either early decision or early action.) Why? It was not in their best interest from an institutional perspective. Harvard, Princeton and Yale’s yield is already very high.1 Harvard has the highest yield rate of any school (see chart) other schools not that far down the top schools list do not have that luxury.

Wesleyan, for example, has two ED plans. One has a November 1 deadline and the other Jan1. This dual strategy helps them because while some students may have applied to other top schools early in November they have heard whether they have been admitted by Mid-December. If they have been turned town at their original top choice they still can apply ED by Jan 1. Why would a student want to apply ED? The answer is simple. The acceptance rate for ED students is much higher than it is for regular decision. It is a significant advantage because the schools benefit from enrolling many strong students who are locked in as enrolling students. Duke, this year filled almost 50% of its class through ED. This means that the competition for regular decision candidates will be far, far tougher than it was for the ED students. Places like Penn make it clear that ED is an advantage too.

Early action, which some schools, like Harvard, Princeton and Yale offer, also has a November deadline, but should a student be offered admission they are not required to withdraw all other applications and commit to enroll. A student will hear a decision before the Jan 1 application regular decision deadline from other schools, but almost anyone who gets in to the HYP early action will go. This is not as true for most other schools that offer EA. However, they use the time they have from December to the May 1 national reply date (when deposits to schools are due) to woo students. They invite them for special programs and send unending emails etc. They recruit in ways that were largely unheard of a decade ago including Tweets, Facebook pages, Instagram, blogs etc.

I tell students who are looking at places like the Ivies, Stanford, and Wesleyan that they should plan on applying to a school early. ED is a bit trickier as it is binding, but the benefit in terms of getting in now weighs so heavily that it may be worth it. See chart for differences in acceptance rates for early vs. regular decision

As already mentioned, low income students do not apply early nearly as often as those that can pay because they want to weigh the aid options they might get. Low-income student may face more challenges because of early programs but schools with lots of aid money try to give low-income student a break in admission and provide generous funding too. This year Harvard, for example, offered to a significantly higher proportion of low-income students EA than they did the year before.

Profile:

If there is one easy way to see how top schools are different from one another in terms of admission and, as a consequence, in terms of the make up of the study body, it is through a document called the profile. Typically, a profile describes the applicant pool, the students who have been offered admission and the students who have accepted the offer. It is meant to give families, students and educators a snapshot of the kinds of students who fit in the mix of enrolling students. While what I have just written is accurate as far as it goes, it is also far from comprehensive. A profile is also a marketing tool. Students and families can learn a lot about what the school values by looking at what information the schools include in their published profiles and what information they leave out too.

Harvard, for example, on their official admitted student profile does not list any academic numbers. There is nothing listed about Rank in Class, GPA or SAT/ACT scores. Instead they list the number of applications, the number admitted, where the applications apply from, the race of the students and financial aid information. Why would they leave out the stats that most would want to see when deciding whether a student has much of a chance of being admitted? Harvard is smart. If they listed the numbers I have just mentioned it would discourage many students form applying. Don’t believe me? Here are the stats that were left out as published by The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper:

The average self-reported unweighted GPA on a 4.0 scale was 3.94. Fifty-four percent of students reported a perfect 4.0.

Freshmen reported an average composite SAT score of 2237. The reported average subject score was consistent across the three sections, with an average of 748 in the math section, 746 on writing, and 744 on critical reading.

Source: Harvard Crimson

These daunting numbers might discourage students that Harvard wants to apply (and in some cases enroll. For example low income and under-represented students, have, as I have mentioned, lower scores in the aggregate compared to other groups. Harvard wants to recruit more of these students and posting numbers that say that only near perfection gets in will discourage applications. Remember that schools’ rankings are affected by how many applications they get, so Harvard is casting a wide net. There have been a number of stories condemning highly selective schools for encouraging applications from students who have no chance of getting in, something I have written about (and actually defend when it comes to the decision of schools to encourage or dissuade students from applying). Given the institutional priorities of enrolling a diverse student body it makes sense for Harvard to downplay how hard it is to get in.

Wesleyan’s profile is far different than Harvard’s. While they too list the number of applicants, number accepted and enrolled, they also provide some numeric data. For a small school like Wesleyan and for ultra competitive schools like Harvard they are trying to make each space count. How they count however, is somewhat different.

Here are some details from the Wesleyan profile:

SAT: 2100 average

Class Ranking

Class Rank Reported 31%

Top 10%: 63% of enrolled students

Top 20%: 83% of enrolled students

Secondary School

Public 49%

Other 51%

Wesleyan demonstrates that they are a school that looks for most of its student to have high test scores. Despite all the critics of the SAT/ACT, standardized tests doe predict well at the end of the bell cure. Both Harvard and Wesleyan look for students who are near the top of the testing spectrum. What is different, however, between Harvard and Wesleyan is how many students at Wesleyan were not necessarily at or near the top of their secondary school class It needs to be noted that most private high schools and many highly ranked public schools do not rank students as they know that many students outside the top 1o% are often penalized at this statistic is used by the US News rankings. While many schools will simply turn down students who are not in the top 10%, Wesleyan does not follow this model. It is rare indeed for a top ranked school to enroll nearly 40% of its ranked students out of the top 10%. Harvard on the other hand, has almost an entire class in the top 10% and of those many are in the top 1%. The majority of its students have perfect grades. These differences between the schools are significant. Wesleyan looks to enroll students who are great testers but may not have had perfect grades.

Another difference between Harvard (I am using Harvard as shorthand for all the Ivies, Stanford and a few other of the most selective universities and colleges) and Wesleyan is the percentage of public school students they enroll. Less than half of the class comes from public schools at Wesleyan. Over 61% of Harvard’s students come from public schools; small liberal arts colleges often draw many of their students form private schools. These students are used to the Harkness table and other seminar classes that are small, and they know they will find this in many of their classes at places like Wesleyan, Williams, Amherst, Middlebury etc.

Finally, schools will have will be differences between male/female percentages and racial composition.. Small Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) tend to draw far more female applicants than males. Males, the theory goes, often want to go to places that have big time sports programs (This statement applies only to the aggregate. I know some female fans that are as rabid supporters of their school as any 10 men put together). There is sort of an unwritten law however that highly selective Liberal Arts Colleges will never enroll a class over 61% female. This brings up the issue as to whether it is harder for females to get in and the answer, it seems, is yes.

There is some good data about this but since holistic admission permits schools to keep at least some institutional priorities under wraps, Wesleyan and 56% females They do list this on their profile, as it is, for a liberal arts school, a good statistic. It will not discourage males from applying. (Surprisingly, perhaps, applications from males tend to drop when the female percentage at schools is too high.)

Harvard does not even list the male/female percentage on their official profile. The student newspaper posts it: 50.1% male. If I had to guess why this statistic is not included, it is because it is too perfect. The institutional goals again affect individual students. I could be wrong and it is random that the percentage is perfect, but if I had to guess the Harvard admission office uses data on male/female offers, acceptance rates and lots data analysis to try to achieve the ‘perfect’ mix.

While gender balance at schools may differ or may be perfect, there is another issue that The Gatekeepers does not address in any detail that has become an increasingly reported to the public —the percentage of Asians that are a part of each entering class. Both Harvard and Wesleyan have about 20% Asians populations in the their incoming class. This percentage is far higher than it used to be for both schools, but given the performance of Asians in class and on the SAT the percentages it could (and some would say should) well be higher. Asians score better on the SAT than anyone else by a wide margin and there is now a law suit that has been filed on behalf of Asians who were not admitted to Harvard. I won’t go into detail as I have written about this issue before, but from the stats that have been gathered it looks like, from the outside, that it is far harder for Asians to get a spot at the Ivies. Whether this is true at some other schools is harder to tell. At schools like Berkeley that are largely number driven for admission, Asians comprise nearly half the class.

Deep Data

While The Gatekeepers show the human side of admission officers’ jobs and how they advocate for individual students, it does not address in detail what has now become a reality in any “business” today — deep data. Schools can now run numbers and stats that vastly improve the information they need to recruit students they most wish to enroll to meet their institutional needs.

In addition, they can run data to help enroll the students they accept. The human touch is certainly still an important part of the process, but now it is supported by much more information than was available even a few short years ago. The most selective schools are not dependent on deep data to enroll great students, but they can use the information to get exactly what they want. Schools that are out of the group of the most elite institutions now need the deep data as they have issues with finding enough students to enroll to meet enrollment goals (getting enough students and enough students who can afford the costs).

Ability to pay

At schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, they have enough money set aside to support any student they admit who does not have the ability to pay. But the number of schools, even highly selective schools, who have this ability shrinks each year. There are schools that say they meet full need, and that is accurate, but they can say this because they are “need aware” when making decisions. The cost of education at the most selective schools now is in excess of $60,000 a year. There are few schools left that have the resources to pay for all the qualified low-income students who might add to the mix of students. The high cost of education has now become a much bigger topic than it was when The Gatekeeperscame out. The debt load on students now, in the aggregate, exceeds the debt during the housing bubble. Changes need to happen and while the new Obama plan may help some attend community college for free, those still hoping to get into the most selective schools without adequate funds will, except for the very elite schools, face tougher odds.

Marketing, enrollment management, demonstrated interest, The Common Application

The last series of things that have changed since The Gatekeepers came out logically follow from several things I have already mentioned.. Schools are trying to market themselves in ways that will improve their rankings. They are using data to do this but also have been given large budgets and increased staff to attract the students that will help them fulfill their mission. One of the big changes that has come about is something I have mentioned in other posts — the deans of admission have gradually been replaced at many colleges and universities by enrollment mangers. This is not the case at the Ivies the most selective LACs, but at many selective schools, the deans of admission are not the ones in charge of the much more broad based and bureaucratic effort to get exactly the mix of students they both want and need. For example, schools look increasingly at a students’ “demonstrated interest” in the school. Those who have not visited, have not opened emails sent by the school, and who have not shown other ways that they know the school and see it as a fit may not be offered admission as the schools think the student has probably put their particular school low on the list of places to enroll.

Remember that yield of students is a crucial part of what drives rankings. Part of what has happened since The Gatekeepers has been a significant rise in the number of applications an individual student applies to. It used to be 6 or 8 was perceived as more than enough. For those seeking admission at highly selective schools this is a low number now. The competition to get in has increased so much that it is hard to tell if a student will be admitted; therefore, students will submit more applications in hopes that at least one top school will say yes. There are many students now who submit more that 12 applications and this has been aided by The Common Application. In the last few years the number of schools that use this form has rise significantly. Students go to their portal and fill out information that can then be sent, with a push of a button, to hundreds of schools. The most elite schools use The Common Application, although most also have supplements that require additional essays and other information. Nevertheless, the technology has made it much easier to apply to more schools which in turn makes it more difficult for schools to know how serious the student is about enrolling. This cycle brings us back to what I said above: early decision and early action numbers have risen as students use this to demonstrate interest and schools use it to increase yield.

All told, the whole process has taken on a much more bureaucratic and business like approach. At the same time, schools can now craft individualized emails and tweets and other marketing efforts to woo students. Schools are reaching larger audience all over the world and the crafting marketing strategies that speak directly to individual students. Some call the whole admission process arbitrary, but the way schools at the top select students is anything but.

For those trying to get in, the whole process has become a huge time commitment and it is incredibly complex and confusing .As a result, families are seeking extra help. There has been a huge increase in the number of private counselors who help families negotiate all the variables. When The Gatekeepers came out, private counselors were often looked at in negative terms by schools, but the reality now is that the schools (in some cases) depend on these counselors to help great students stand out (and even in some cases to provide the schools themselves with information that will help them with decisions. I feel sorry for students and families now. The process which was already full of stress on these wonderful students who Steinberg so movingly portrays in his book has now increased by orders of magnitude. Students keep continue to ask directly or indirectly what the top schools look for and what is the ideal student.

Each school has different answers, but at the most selective schools the answers are far more complex than they used to be. How much more complicated can things get? It is hard to know the answer to this very tough question. My answer will have to wait as I really do not know. I only hope that there might be a slowing of the arms race that are the rankings games so that students could begin to worry more about finding the best fit rather than the highest ranking school. I am not optimistic this will happen any time soon.

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1: It surprises some people to see the vast differences in yield rates but it should not. Most students tend to accept the offer of the school with the highest ranking. I wish more students would think about match and also about whether it is in their best interest to compete with many of the most successful secondary students in the world for 4 years. The stress of trying to keep up is high.

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