New York Times education reporter Steinberg demonstrates that character is not always fate for the students who apply to elite Wesleyan University.
“Here is what American society looks like today. A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven't on the other.” The author takes this quote from Nicholas Lemann, who wrote a sobering study of the SAT (The Big Test, 1999), as the starting point for his microscopic examination of the how Wesleyan, a prestigious liberal arts institution in Connecticut, composed its Class of 2004. Running with Lemann's thesis that higher education in the US is the great determinant of class and social mobility, Steinberg takes a disparate group of high school seniors, from a cinephiliac Native American male in New Mexico to a relatively privileged female at L.A.’s prestigious Harvard-Westlake private school who has one damaging incident with pot in her record, and follows the fate of their applications through the decisions of Wesleyan's “gatekeepers,” the admissions officers. The clashing points of view of the students and the college form a tragicomic undercurrent here. One factor in particular influences Wesleyan’s admission process: the need to rank high in such influential compendiums as The US News Guide to Colleges. Since these texts rate schools partly on the number of students they refuse, Wesleyan, like other colleges, has created a mechanism for generating many more applications than it can possibly accept. Admissions officer Ralph Figueroa, whom Steinberg shadowed for this study, spends half of his year selling Wesleyan and the other half rejecting most applicants. What shines through in the portrait of Figueroa and his colleagues is their utter commitment to a Herculean, if somewhat paradoxical, task.
Puts human faces on the often impersonal and obscure college-admissions process.