The September issue of Commentary

The September issue of Commentary contains a review of Jacques Steinberg’s book The Gatekeepers. The book is an account of the admissions system at the ultra-liberal Wesleyan University. The author covers education for the ultra-liberal New York Times. The review is by Dan Seligman, and I rely on it for this rendering of the book.
Steinberg was given unlimited access to the Wesleyan admission process, including the conferences during which applicants were voted up or down. His book documents the school’s elaborate procedures for reinterpreting grades and test scores in order to, in Seligman’s words, “guarantee high admission rates for minorities, [with] blacks targeted to [constitute] 11 percent of the freshman class.” Wesleyan has developed “elaborate dodges for defining merit down” so that it can find “the low-scoring minority applicant somehow more qualified than the white or Asian with the stellar SAT score.” In one case, a Native-American applicant with a 1210 SAT score, about 150 points below the Wesleyan mean, was admitted on the theory that his high school grades had recently improved. This individual dropped out during his freshman year after failing three courses. By contrast, an Asian-American with a 1450 SAT score was rejected. She had scored 750 on the verbal portion, even though she was raised in a Chinese-speaking household. Moreover, she was a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist and had played on her high school basketball team. Her main flaws apparently were that her parents were wealthy and that other Asian-Americans at her school had done even better on the SAT.
Unfortunately, this is not really news. More interesting to me is the discussion about the student essay component of the admissions process. This is where applicants are required to produce a “personal” essay, often about obstacles overcome or the like. Well-off white candidates can try to make up some of the ground lost due to their skin color by producing a tale of woe. Examples include an eating disorder, an abusive or alcoholic father, or a mother with breast cancer. Often, these essays are heavily vetted by parents, teachers, and/or hired professionals. Steinberg reports that one of the admissions officers would read the essays out loud to his wife and that “sometimes they would cry together.” The student essay as a supplement to watching the Lifetime channel.