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College Admissions Advice

With the start of the fall semester just around the corner, high school seniors will soon be applying to colleges. Whether they ultimately receive a thick or thin envelope depends on a host of factors that are poorly understood. To help them survive the ordeal, I think it's worthwhile considering what insiders have said about the process.

For students applying to state universities, I refer them to Ruth Starkman, who signed on as an "external reader" helping to rank nearly 53,000 applications to the University of California, Berkeley ("Confessions of an Application Reader," The New York Times, Aug. 4). She concluded that the admissions process is opaque, secretive and subjective at what is widely considered the most prestigious public university in the country. Despite the objective criteria that constituted her training for the job, Starkman quickly learned that the process was anything but that.

For students applying to private universities, I recommend Jacques Steinberg, a national education correspondent for the New York Times who spent eight months inside the admissions office of Wesleyan University. Although his book The Gatekeepers (Viking, 2002) is specifically about Wesleyan, it has direct application to other marquee-name universities as well. He explains the agony that permeates the decisions about who gets in and why others get rejected. Of particular interest is how admissions officers struggle with the definition of "merit" in shaping the freshman class.

Both Starkman and Steinberg explain that there is no surefire predictive formula. Objective data such as grade point averages and SAT scores are not nearly as certain as students and their parents believe. Seeming slam-dunks with perfect transcripts are often rejected in favor of those who impress the admissions committee for idiosyncratic reasons. Despite statements about making the process more transparent, institutions have vigorously guarded their secrets.

If it's any consolation, there is life after rejection. Years later, what caused such despair will be a dim memory. The most important thing for applicants to remember is that they can get a solid education at any college or university. They are merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. They are not an absolute determinant.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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