Jacques Steinberg, senior editor, New York Times and author of Gatekeepers
If the American college application system was built solely around test scores and grades, what you would get is an overwhelmingly similar classroom of high test scorers. Fortunately, the admissions offices at top American universities put in hard work to fill classrooms with intelligent, interesting individuals who have a diversity of skills, experiences and backgrounds.
“I would argue that each admissions committee is trying to get as full a portrait as possible of the applicant,” says Jacques Steinberg, senior editor of The New York Times’ college admissions blog, The Choice (nytimes.com/thechoice).
Steinberg is also the author of the substantive bestselling book, “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College,” which examines the inner workings of admissions committees at prestigious colleges in the United States.
He talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about how American schools rely on a mix of test scores, grades, essays, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities to weigh a student’s application.
Your excellent book, The Gatekeepers, focuses on a year at the college admissions office of Wesleyan University where you had unprecedented access to admission officers. What does the admissions team really want to learn about a candidate?
In its admissions practices, Wesleyan is representative of about four dozen or so highly selective private (and public) American colleges and universities that wind up having to turn away far more applicants than they can accept. The 8 colleges and universities of the Ivy League follow a very similar admissions template to Wesleyan, which is actually not that far, geographically, from Yale in Connecticut.
What are they looking to learn? I would argue that each admissions committee is trying to get as full a portrait as possible of the applicant. The sort of questions they ask themselves are these: How rigorous were the high school courses this student chose to take, and do they suggest the student likes to seek out challenges? (The high schools can provide some clues by enclosing a description of their class offerings for the admissions officers to review.) How well did the student do in these classes? —while A's are obviously prized, a B in a hard course might be considered more desirable than an A in an easier course, though applicants should be wary of broad generalizations like these.
“The sort of questions they ask themselves are… How well did the student do in these classes? — while A's are obviously prized, a B in a hard course might be considered more desirable than an A in an easier course…”
Did this student engage in activities outside the classroom? —the desire here is to admit students who have at least a couple of things they like to do outside of class, things they are passionate about, ideally for a few years running, and perhaps to the point of attaining a leadership position.
They also want to know what your teachers say about you, how well you do on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT (though there are plenty of schools that don't require these tests — see www.fairtest.org for a list.) This is known as holistic admissions.
Your book highlights the importance of essays and personal statements in a college application in conveying the individual behind the test scores and numbers. Should the essay be narrowly tailored, i.e. based on one specific experience or be a sort of mini biography?
I would argue that everything I discussed in my first answer, while immensely informative to an admissions committee, wouldn't necessarily give you the sense of what it would feel like to sit down across from the applicant and have a cup of coffee. That is one of the reasons behind the essay — what can you tell an admissions committee about yourself that will make you come alive, as a person, not a stack of papers, to the point that your life and life experience are relatable? The essay makes you human. It gives the writer wide latitude in terms of what to write about because no two applicants, of course, have had the same life experience.
“That is one of the reasons behind the essay — what can you tell an admissions committee about yourself that will make you come alive, as a person, not a stack of papers, to the point that your life and life experience are relatable?”
While each admissions officer brings his or her own perspective to reading the essay, I would caution students against feeling that they have to write their ENTIRE life story. The idea is to provide details from your life or experience or point of view that give the reader a glimpse of who you are — as opposed to every facet of you. And applicants should remember that these admissions officers are under immense time pressure. Follow the guidelines on length. And be sure the essay represents your voice, as opposed to being written by a teacher or parents.
In "The Choice on India Ink,'' a new weekly admissions feature The Times recently started on its Web site, we recently commissioned an entire post on this question. You can read it here: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/choice-blog-admissions-essay/
What advice would you give today’s applicants, especially those coming to America from South Asia?
Certainly applicants from South Asia should know that American colleges and universities are increasingly quite interested in receiving applications from students in South Asia. In another recent post on "The Choice on India Ink,'' two top admissions officers from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution, reported that when one of them visited a high school in Mumbai in October, he was told that representatives of about 50 other American colleges and universities had already been to the school in recent weeks. Here is that post (which also includes an answer to your question): http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/04/choice-blog-admissions-upenn/. So one piece of advice is to know you're in demand.
“…there are the enormous challenges of asking what would you want to study while there, do you think you could handle the rigors of the college's curriculum, could you persuade the college you are a formidable candidate, could you handle attending college so many miles from home and how would you pay for it?”
The other piece is to educate yourself about specific American colleges and universities, using books like "The Fiske Guide to Colleges" and "The Insider's Guide to Colleges" (produced by the Yale Daily News) and "Colleges that Change Lives.'' While these books will give you a good grounding in particular colleges, students need to be skeptical readers. These citations are often written from the perspective of one person's opinion, or a smattering of opinion, and students need to do their own research, too — particularly steeping themselves in college Web sites.
And, once you start assembling a list, there are the enormous challenges of asking what would you want to study while there, do you think you could handle the rigors of the college's curriculum, could you persuade the college you are a formidable candidate, could you handle attending college so many miles from home and how would you pay for it? Here's some financial aid advice for international students, hot off the press from "The Choice on India Ink,'': http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/18/financial-aid-advice-for-indian-students-from-colgate-university/ And finally, as the Upenn post referenced above emphasizes, pay close attention to those teacher recommendations. They are read carefully by committees, and taken seriously.
Do many South Asian students apply to a liberal arts college like Wesleyan? For that matter, does Wesleyan, along with Amherst College and Williams College, long known as the Little Ivies get much traction from South Asian students?
I know that Wesleyan has deep roots in recruiting, and enrolling, South Asian students. I would advise that students interested in Wesleyan, Amherst, Williams and other schools that are similarly well-known (and that cast a wide net in their admissions efforts) reach out to those colleges directly for specific data. The broad trends in South Asian, and other international students, attending American colleges and universities as undergraduates can be found here: http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors