Secrets Of The Ivy League

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR WHEN tens of thousands of the nation's top high-school seniors labor over applications to Ivy League and other elite colleges. They're doing their best to impress the admissions officers charged with the awesome task of selecting future leaders. But just who are these all-powerful gatekeepers?

According to Michele Hernandez, author of ""A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges'' (266 pages. Warner Books. $24), they are not necessarily the best and the brightest themselves. Hernandez, who spent four years in Dartmouth's admissions office, says they tend either to be recent graduates of the school they're working for or ""lifers,'' people who pretty much fell into admissions work. In many cases, she says, the lifers went to far less prestigious schools. ""You will note the conspicuous absence of Rhodes scholars or well-known educators on admissions staffs,'' Hernandez writes. As a result, she says, they sometimes have a hard time recognizing ""truly great applicants'' and have to resort to a mathematical formula based on grades, test scores and other accomplishments. And, contrary to what many admissions officers say publicly, the SATs are still very important, especially because scores of entering freshmen are a major component of annual ""rankings.'' Some of Hernandez's other disclosures: African-Americans have a far better chance of being admitted than whites with equal qualifications, and wait-listed students have almost no chance of getting in.

Not surprisingly, these and other insights anger the author's former colleagues (although Hernandez, a 1989 Dartmouth graduate, exempts her alma mater from most of her criticism). ""It's an unfortunate book,'' says her ex-boss Karl Furstenberg, Darmouth's dean of admissions and financial aid (who has degrees from Wesleyan and Harvard). ""It feeds into . . . the anxiety that surrounds the admissions process in general.'' He describes the book as ""glib and superficial.'' The numerical formula is ""just the starting point,'' Furstenberg says. What he and other admissions officers really look for, he says, is ""intellectual spark.''

The book has caused something of a stir at Dartmouth. Hernandez says there's gossip that she was fired and that she wrote the book out of revenge because her husband, Jorge, a former Dartmouth professor, was denied tenure in 1996. He now teaches Spanish at Middlebury College. Hernandez, who describes herself as an ""avid alum,'' denies she was forced out; she says she quit this spring because she was about to have her first child, Alexia, now 5 months old. She hopes to teach high school next year. Furstenberg won't comment on the reasons for her departure.

One thing Hernandez and Furstenberg do agree on is that rich kids don't necessarily have any extra advantage. In fact, they say that the candidate most likely to be admitted would be a promising kid from a modest background who has had to overcome many obstacles. As for everyone else, it wouldn't hurt to have an Olympic medal or two on the resume.