Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process by Rachel Toor. College admissions is a topic much on my mind at the moment, because classes start in a little more than a week, and for the first time, I'll be acting as an advisor to a bunch of incoming freshmen. We've gotten a barrage of emails recently about the qualifications and character of the incoming class, but I'm a little worried about what, exactly, I'll say to them, which will depend in part on where they come from.
With that sort of thing on my mind, this book caught my eye on a recent library run. I wasn't foolish enough to think that it would convey any deep insight into the nature of the students I'll be dealing with (after all, Toor is a former admissions officer, having left after three years, and she's writing about her experiences circa 1999, in a much different setting), but it is tempting to get a look inside the black box of the college admissions process. Things probably don't work the same way at my school, but they're also probably not a whole lot different (indeed, most of what Toor has to say fits with my general impression from things the admissions people tell us...).
Refreshingly, this is not one of those books whose real goal is to tell a student how to game the system and get into a very good college. In fact, it's a brutally honest description of the vagaries of the process:
My experience as an admissions officer at Duke showed me the arbitrariness of the process, from all sides. From the way that kids decided on their "perfect school," the way parents pushed them in their applications, and most especially, the way decisions about applicants were made. The process is brutal, stressful, not always meritocratic, and rarely fair. But overall, it is just human, all too human. Ecce homo.
There's some great stuff here-- anecdotes about pushy guidance counselors, desperate students, irritating parents, and quirky admissions officers. There are excerpts from particularly good essays, some of which were startlingly good, and interesting tidbits about the emphasis put on various aspects of the application by the people who read them, and some damning commentary about the role big donations play in the process. There are also a number of recommendations, not for students trying to game the system, but for administrators or admissions officers who might be seeking to improve the process (something that I like to see, even if I don't agree with the specific recommendations-- I like to know that the author has enough confidence in her opinions to present concrete ideas about how things could be better).
There's also a lot of personal content, some of which is very good, some of which counts as Too Much Information. There's some nice material about what it's like to be in an academic setting without being an academic, but there's a fair bit of stuff about ex-boyfriends of the author, which I didn't really need, and each chapter begins with an excerpt from a column the author wrote for a magazine, some of which are of dubious relevance. It's very much a personal testimonial in the Salon mode, rather than a scholarly investigation, which sometimes makes for awkward reading. Even if that sort of thing bugs you, though, I'd recommend pushing past it, because the meat of the book is well worth reading.
I do sort of wish that she'd been writing about experiences at a different school, however. My exposure to Duke University is primarily through the world of college basketball, where the Blue Devils boast some of the most irritatingly smug fans in the world. This means that my initial reaction to Toor's description of some students as "bright, but not the sort of student's who'll make it into Duke" was along the lines of "Oh, hell. Another goddamn Dukie..."
(There was also a little bit of incredulity whenever the "good, but not Duke material" designation came up-- while they do rate highly in the infamous US News rankings, I'm not used to thinking of Duke as an "elite" school. It was certainly never on the radar when I was a student considering "elite" colleges, back in the day, but then I'm fundamentally a small liberal arts college kind of guy. Also, there's some regional bias at work-- Washington, DC (where I went to grad school) is the last bastion of Yankee-dom, and it was as Southern as I ever want to deal with... Still, my impression of Duke was and remains "It's a good school, for a Div. I basketball power...")
Anyway, I enjoyed this. It's nicely readable, and contains lots of interesting information (which will probably eventually lead to a long post on my other web log...). If you have any interest in looking inside the sausage factory that is the college admissions process, I'd recommend checking it out.
(Previously posted to The Library of Babel.)