The Gatekeepers' Secrets

In the fall of 1999, New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg attempted to demystify the admissions process at the nation's most selective colleges by chronicling a year at Wesleyan University. The resulting series of articles is now the basis for his compelling new book, "The Gatekeepers," which should be required reading for any student or parent who seeks insight into what Steinberg correctly describes as a process hidden "behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a pope."

Steinberg's timing was critical. The class of 2000 formed the leading edge of a baby boomlet now producing record numbers of applicants to leading universities (along with a legion of increasingly anxious parents). As the numbers of applicants have grown, so have the how-to guides. But the genre is gradually expanding to include a more journalistic look at admissions. Steinberg's biggest revelation is that there is no revelation, no secret to getting in. Perfect test scores and grades are as important as the intangibles: intellectual curiosity, creativity, unusual background or personal appeal to a particular admissions officer.

Steinberg zeroes in on one of these gatekeepers, Ralph Figueroa, and he emerges as a real hero. Figueroa (who is the brother of a NEWSWEEK staffer) came to Wesleyan through a rather circuitous route that included law school, and he brought with him not only a deep sense of mission (partly inherited from his mother, an educator) but also an impressive work ethic. He's exactly the kind of guy you hope will read your kid's application.

Figueroa's heavy-duty work begins in late January, after the Early Decision candidates are chosen, when he and his colleagues wade through the Regular Decision applicants. For weeks, Figueroa works at home, studying each application and grading it. Late at night, he regularly reads a few of that day's favorite essays to his wife, a high-school teacher. His picks fall into no particular pattern. One is a Native American boy from Minnesota who is also a film buff. Another is a New Yorker who turns in a moving essay about his best friend who was confined to a wheelchair.

Whether they land at Wesleyan or not, all the students Steinberg profiles end up reasonably satisfied--which should encourage members of the class of 2003 as they send out applications. As for Figueroa, he has moved on. According to the epilogue, he's now director of college guidance at a private school in New Mexico, keeping the gates open to a new set of students.