Give or take a few weeks, D-Day looms: the day on which college applications are due.
On or about New Year's, 12 years of sacrifice, tears, athletic and artistic practices, missed meals, and wee-hour nights are consigned to paper and slipped into manila envelopes on the way to some distant ivory tower for judgment by an anonymous jury. It's as if our high school seniors are set adrift on those paper rafts, in the hopes of a safe landing at a pedigreed university gate - preferably one with climbing ivy.
What happens behind closed doors at those colleges - until the results come back in early April - has remained largely myth and speculation.
With "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College," the intelligence report goes public. Jacques Steinberg, an education writer for The New York Times, spent the 1999-2000 school year shadowing Ralph Figueroa, a senior admissions officer at prestigious Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Mr. Steinberg was privy to everything on the table. Each application, each deliberation became his uncamouflaged quarry. He witnessed the up or down vote on each applicant - decisions made with the swiftness and surety of judges in the Roman Coliseum.
Steinberg's account offers insights on affirmative action, standardized testing, and the importance of the arts in the rubric of admissions officers. Consistent with a practice at all premier universities, Wesleyan's admissions team uses double standards when evaluating candidates, according to Steinberg. Applicants with rigorous academic backgrounds, especially those whose parents are college educated, are held to higher standards than those whose families or communities are deemed less advantaged. He underscores an unwritten, yet puzzling, ethnic hierarchy, one that disturbs Figueroa: Asian-American students must clear an even higher bar than white candidates and other minorities.
Steinberg's dominant message, however, is that no secret formula governs admissions. The process is imperfect, human, and "utterly messy." At times, the choices seem almost impossible, considering that 9 of 10 applicants will be rejected. Wesleyan seats only 700 new freshmen from a sterling applicant pool of more than 7,000. At Harvard last year, rejection letters went out to more than 18,000 of some 20,000 superb candidates.
Steinberg's investigation is not another "how-to" book on gaining the edge in the college-application scramble. Rather, he pens a nonfiction tale in novel form. He uses real names and real lives of a half-dozen high school kids from across the country during the marathon of their senior year. Steinberg, building drama, waits along with the students for the photo finish, not just for Wesleyan's decision, but for those of a dozen other elite universities.
By the end, readers are entwined in the wrenching process. We marvel at the brilliant, biracial Julianna Bentes, a graceful dancer with perfect SAT scores. America's top colleges recruit her with the intensity reserved for a prospective Heisman Trophy quarterback. We wince at the cockiness of Jordan Goldman, a New Yorker with a flare for writing and an obsession with Brown University. But it is admissions dean Ralph Figueroa who makes the most lingering impression.
After spending seven-day weeks and 12-hour days sequestered with mounds of applications at his home, a weary yet empathetic Figueroa comes to regard his candidates with parental affection, according to Steinberg. "They don't even realize we're agonizing about them and spending time really worried about their lives and what's going to happen to them," the admissions officer laments.
As winter reading, "The Gatekeepers" is a fitting denouement after the college applications are in the mail - for parent and student alike. Steinberg's research into the fierce competition for the few coveted spots at elite colleges will stagger the uninitiated, but his epilogue serves as a balm for all the anxiety. The students he profiles ultimately thrive and mature - regardless of where each was accepted and eventually enrolled.
That lesson alone makes bearable the long wait until the April envelopes arrive.
• John Budris is a freelance writer and contributor to many national publications. He has a son in college.