Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process

Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process

by Rachel Toor

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There are hundreds of books available that coach kids on writing college application essays, improving SAT scores and trying to beat the admissions system. Admissions Confidential is a definitive look at why those books don't work. Toor lifts the veil on a process that anxious parents and high school students have never had decoded before. And they may be shocked to find out:

—that elite colleges spend thousands of dollars recruiting students they will never admit

—why some students at the bottom of their high school classes are admitted to top schools when the valedictorians are rejected

—how pricey independent college counselors can hurt an applicant's chances

—why admission to a top school depends on who reads your application

—why the top of the class at a high-performing high school may end up at their second and third choice

Written in engaging first-person and covering the entire admissions process—from recruiting to enrollment—Admissions Confidential is a year in the life of a college admissions officer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312302351
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/17/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 436,100
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Rachel Toor was an admissions officer at Duke University for three years. She currently writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and various running magazines.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Space May Create New Worlds: Settling In

One of the least attractive features of life in the Academy is the emphasis on credentials and the constant comparisons that go on: between the degreed and the nondegreed, between the elitely educated and the products of lesser institutions, between those who teach and those who publish. It's easy to measure productivity by the number of ball bearings produced or the number of burgers flipped; when it comes to evaluating qualities of mind, it's a murkier business.

"Smart" becomes a kind of essential signifier. "It's a smart book" means it's a book that will win the biggest prize in the field. "A smart critique" means someone has savaged someone. "He's really smart," whispered in hushed reverence, tells you he's up for a Nobel. You almost never hear the term "brilliant" in conversation, unless it's deployed in that favored phrase, "Brilliant but flawed." Like poor Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, who sees thought as an alphabet, everyone is trying to figure out the letter they've landed on. Or gotten stuck on.

The university is naturally a hierarchical place, but the hierarchies can be confusing. Sometimes it seems that those at the top are not necessarily those whose minds are farthest along on the alphabet—how many administrators have written Really Important Books? A few, to be sure. But the job takes a different skill set. That's not to say that academic administration isn't challenging intellectual work. Budgeting and strategic planning and figuring out where to put a new art museum are nothing to sneeze at in terms of brainpower. How much easier it must be to do such tasks in the context of the Real World, rather than in a university, where being powerful is about having powerful ideas, where individuals (OK, only a few) can effect paradigm shifts in ways of looking at the world. The big dogs in Academe are the thinkers, not the managers.

But between administrators and scholars are a host of people who choose to live tied to academic life, but not as academics. Sometimes it's because of the people they love. Their spouses or partners are academics. Sometimes it's because the Real World seems less interesting or because most college towns are, let's face it, nice places to live. Or sometimes they came to a place when they were eighteen years old and never managed to leave.

Some of the smartest people I know have no Ph.D., because they either never finished graduate school or never started. ABD's (all but Dissertation) and NWD's (never wanted dissertation) are abundant in academic life. They are directors of university presses, public-relations gurus, teachers of freshman composition, editors of alumni magazines, vice presidents for student affairs, speechwriters, directors of development, and deans of undergraduate admissions. They are also people with terminal degrees—social workers and librarians. All are essential to running academic institutions—yet, unfortunately, they don't get much respect.

In the slash between faculty/staff lies a world of difference. Or as an ABD I know says, there are two categories in the university: faculty and not.

Not much money, prestige, or power comes with being an academic, but even less comes with not being an academic and hanging around an academic setting. I don't think I suffer from Ph.D. envy. I never wanted to go to graduate school. After falling into scholarly publishing right out of college, I didn't want to limit myself, to narrow my focus the way one must in order to get a doctorate. I liked being able to flit around different disciplines; I embraced my status as a dilettante.

As an acquisitions editor, I did enjoy a certain kind of organizational respect. At least to the authors I worked with, I was Oxford University Press and then Duke University Press. Switching to admissions, it's been a whole new thing. Any trace of respect for my organizational affiliation has dried up. Admissions folks are generally well-dressed, shiny, happy people, who don't tend to be regarded as intellectual heavyweights by the professoriate. My academic friends seemed to have some vague understanding that someone in the university was bringing in students; who those people were and how they did it were a bit of a mystery.

Many admissions officers don't really know how to deal with faculty members. Some treat professors with the same fawning admiration they had for them as students. It's hard enough for graduate students to make the transition from ephebe to colleague; it's even harder for those in, but not of, the academy. Other folks in admissions—often at the management level—work hard to keep faculty members at arm's length. "They don't understand how we do our jobs," the argument goes. "The more they know, the more trouble they'll make."

There are wonderful things about being in, but not of, the academy. It is darn nice to have an office on a campus. I like being able to take short walks in the middle of the day or to have coffee with a zoologist. Or a political scientist. Or a speechwriter. I like being able to use a research library, not to mention the convenience of being able to work out in the gym during lunch.

Ultimately, though, when you ask people why they choose to live among academics, you tend to hear the same answer: You get to hang around with really smart people. I used to respond the same way but was caught up short when I recently asked a friend, a well-established San Francisco money manager, what he liked about his job. His answer: You get to hang around with really smart people.

I love coming to work on this beautiful Gothic campus. In late summer the grounds are green and lush, wisteria dripping from above. I'm settling into my new office. The admissions building was formerly the home of the university president, so it has a very unofficey feel to it. Lots of differently shaped rooms, leaded windows. Not a Dilbert kind of space at all. And it's only a five-minute walk to the center of campus—not far to go for an intellectual fix and a latte with academic friends.

    Since there are six of us starting out, being the new person is very easy. We're all deposited into our offices and given stacks of materials. We are instructed to spend the next few days reading. There's a new-staff manual that goes over some basic information: the general duties of an admissions officer and what is expected. There are lists of frequently asked questions. There are statistics.

    We're told that we will be sitting in on various activities, primarily group information sessions, interviews, and on-call duty. There are ten admissions officers (four returning and the six new people) and four associates. These are the people responsible for reading the fourteen thousand applications submitted each year. We all have regional responsibilities. While interviewing I had stated my preference for recruiting in northern California. As it turns out, that region was available.

    But they also wanted me to read Massachusetts, the state with the greatest number of elite private secondary schools. It's a hard sell, getting those boarding-school and private-day-school kids to think beyond the Northeast, beyond the Ivy League. A school like Duke, although the top choice for many kids from the South, just doesn't hold the same appeal to the snobbier Northeastern kids. That I was from New York, had lived in Manhattan, and perhaps most important, had gone to Yale, were reasons I was asked to handle Massachusetts.

    The backgrounds of the other admissions officers are different from mine. Most of them are in their mid-to late twenties, a full decade and more younger than I. Of the returning staff, only one had gone to Duke. That's partly why three of the newly hired folks are alumni. The others have gone to far less selective schools. Two have had experience in admissions, again, at less selective schools. One of the Dukies, Victoria, recently dropped out of a Ph.D. program. Another, Chuck, graduated from the university only a year before but spent the intervening time doing research in a lab. The last seems to have some kind of vague teaching credential.

    Of the four veteran officers, one is charged with doing African American recruiting, another with paying special attention to the Latino applicants. There is Missy, the career admissions person who had interviewed me ("How can you argue with them—they wrote the textbook!"), and Audrey, who went to a small but good liberal arts school and had fallen into a job in admissions a few years before. None of the associates had gone to elite schools.

    The group information sessions are offered twice daily in the summer. An admissions officer, randomly assigned by the person who makes up the weekly schedule, leads them. The way new people are trained to do the "group" is by sending them off to listen to others. My first two weeks I listened to about five people do the group. I heard five distinctly different versions of Duke. Who gives the information session determines, to a large extent, what and how visitors think of the school.

    There seemed to be two main goals. The first was to describe the school in a way that made it seem appealing and exciting. The second half of the program was to explain the admissions process in a way that was true and yet didn't discourage anyone from applying. If you gave the actual statistics about who, when all is said and done, gets into highly selective schools, people would walk away not only discouraged, but disgusted.

    Each person's group was, not surprisingly, a reflection of her personality. The associate who had interviewed me—who had come from the college counseling side of the desk—tended to be very school-teachery. Her group was full of information, and a little short on enthusiasm. Audrey's group focused on things she thought were cool, such as the study-abroard programs in which one could go on archaeological digs, and the Sky Devils, the school's skydiving team. She took pleasure in giving certain statistics: because there was a 7,700-acre research forest at the school that gave it a ratio of 1.5 acres per student. While she gave the group, she smiled the whole time. She hating giving the group, I learned later. She'd be willing to swap a whole day of on-call duty just to get out of a one-hour group.

    I had to come up with my own take on how to sell the school. Out of each group I listened to I found things that I could crib; I would make them my own later. We started giving the groups before going through the process of reading applications, so when I talked about admissions, I had very little idea of what I was talking about. I'd be asked questions that I could not answer. For the first few weeks, a seasoned admissions officer was sent along to help out the rookies; after that, we were on our own.

    The information sessions in the summer are huge—more than a hundred warm bodies. In addition to making the group feel impersonal and performative, this is difficult because within the office there is no space large enough to accommodate all the visitors. So we have to move the group to a bigger room on campus. People show up early and settle into the living room of the admissions office, a comfortable space with a few sofas and overstuffed chairs and a lot of straight-backed less comfortable stacking chairs. And then the admissions officer announces to all those comfortably ensconced (and to the others standing anxiously in the lobby, seatless) that they will have to follow her for a "quick" walk up to campus to a more accommodating space. The walk takes about ten minutes. If it is extremely hot, or worse, raining, by the time you get them all into the larger room they hate you. I dreaded doing the group when it was raining. No matter how lively or enthusiastic you are, they hate you.

    You learn quickly that each group somehow manages to take on its own personality. There were days when I was on: funny, smart, warm, and welcoming. And I played to an audience of sullen faces. Then there were the days when I stumbled. I'd forget things. My jokes would bomb. And yet, at the end, they would applaud wildly, coming up afterward to tell me what a good job I'd done, that mine was the best presentation they'd seen at any college. I found that it was easier and more fun to do the 10:00 A.M. group rather than the 2:00 P.M. one.

    These families would spend weeks traveling around from college to college. On Tuesday afternoon they'd come to Duke having spent the morning at Chapel Hill. The day before they'd looked at Wake Forest, and Wednesday they'd go to the University of Virginia. By the afternoons, people were bushed. Sometimes they would have taken the campus tour before the group. At many schools there is a substantial content overlap between the admissions officer's information session and the student-led tour; students who work for the admissions office as tour guides (unpaid, at Duke) tend to see themselves as part of the admissions staff and like to volunteer answers to all sorts of questions, regardless of whether they actually know the answers.

    The tour guides in the summer tended to be less-stellar students. They are around because they are taking the courses they couldn't fit in during the rest of the school year. Perhaps they are premeds, worried about lowering their GPAs and want to take organic chemistry in the summer as a stand-alone course. Or they are varsity athletes who didn't take a full course load during the semester because of practice. Or they are local kids, who'd rather hang out at Duke than with their families. The kids who choose to become tour guides are the ones who love the school, who feel lucky to be there. Often, they are lucky to be there, having been admitted for reasons other than their academic prowess.

    Usually it was parents, rather than applicants, who raised their hands to ask questions at the end of information sessions. Once, after three long weeks of travel, deciding to experiment, I told an audience in northern California that we pay attention to who asks the questions, to whether it's the applicant who calls us, or their parent. The parents won't, after all, be the ones taking the calculus tests or writing the term papers on Paradise Lost. That evening only one parent came up at the end of the session to talk to me. I wished I'd figured out that little trick earlier in my admissions career.

    In my first few weeks I sat in on interviews with the experienced admissions officers. Doing interviews was straightforward. What wasn't straightforward was how they figured into the process. The kids all seemed to think they needed them. So did their parents. In the summer, there would be two admissions officers each doing four interviews a day.

    I realized soon why there was so much confusion about them: different schools use them differently. At Duke they are neither required nor evaluative. They are mostly there for public-relations purposes. Of the fourteen thousand or so students who apply each year, we are able to interview only about one thousand of them on campus. They tend to be those who can afford to make the trip. They tend to be, on the whole, the weaker portions of the applicant pool. For everybody else, if they send in part 1 of their application by December first (part 1 is their name, address, and sixty-dollar application fee—even if they don't bother to send in the rest of the application by the January second deadline, even if they never send it in at all, if we have their part 1 we get to count them in our applicant numbers) they will be offered an alumni interview. Someone who lives in their area who went to Duke—maybe three years ago, maybe thirty—will interview them.

    Some kids interview on campus and then also request an alumni interview. They seem to think this will help them. There is good reason to feel this way. At some places, interviews—and other contacts with the school—are important. If you want to get into a small, elite liberal arts college, the best thing you can do is to make friends with your admissions officer. From what I understand, these schools do pay attention to the interviews and even track the number and kinds of contact that each applicant has with the school: if they've visited, if they've interviewed, and so on. Nobody wants to be a safety school. When you're admitting such a small class you want to be sure that each student who applies will come if accepted.

    At Duke, however, it simply doesn't matter: there's no tracking. From a veteran admissions officer I learned to interview a kid and not bother to write up the conversation. We were supposed to write a brief description of what took place, note strengths and weaknesses, and then give a rating. Only in the rare cases in which I thought a student was fabulous would I bother to write it up. Or when a kid behaved in a particularly loathsome manner. Victoria interviewed a young man whose family name appeared on one of Duke's buildings. He came into her office for the interview, stretched out on the couch with his feet extended in front of him, and laced his fingers behind his head. He was, Victoria wrote, "the most arrogant young man I have ever encountered." She made sure that the interview report got into his file.

I sit in on my first interview. Alexis has come to campus having been home only four days from a trip to Paris. She is exquisitely and expensively dressed in a pearl-pink linen sheath. Her shiny WASP-straight hair is pulled into an elegant bun, her makeup simple, emphasizing her natural beauty. She talks at length about the art she had seen in Paris and displays a sophisticated nonchalance about her travels. The associate who is doing the interview asks Alexis about the trip, focusing in on the sponsorship. Was this school related? Did she go to France to study? Was she staying with a family? No. It seems that her family had taken this trip together. Every summer they rent a house in some European city and "get to know the culture." Alexis was, it turned out, a child of privilege. We ask about her family. "We're very involved in philanthropy" she says, the "we" echoing through the room. What about your relationship to your family, we ask. "I've been off at boarding school for most of my life, so summers are the times that we spend together," she answers. When we inquire about her academic interests, they don't seem to extend beyond art history. "My board scores aren't very high," she volunteers. "We're working on getting them up. I have a private tutor. I have a hard time with math. I haven't been able to get much above a six hundred on the SAT, even though I've taken it four times already. Do you think that will be a problem?"

    After she leaves we discuss her candidacy. I think, no way. Wrong. I am told she'll likely be a development admit. I don't yet understand.

    They come dressed in suits and ties, in khakis and torn T-shirts. Young women, especially in the summer, will wear spaghetti-strap tank tops and teeny tiny miniskirts. Some students have had a lot of experience talking to grown-ups, and about themselves, and it's a pleasure to converse with them. When I met Anna, from Los Angeles, we actually had a spirited exchange about the differences between the book and movie versions of Catch-22. Then there are shy farm girls from Iowa who won't make eye contact and look as if they are about to burst into tears at any moment because of sheer nervousness.

    They tend to answer our questions in the same way; in ways that are both true and do nothing to make them stand out. What's your defining quality? I'd ask. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the answer would be "I'm a perfectionist," or "I work really hard." Of course you do. You wouldn't be applying to a school like this if you didn't. But what makes you different from all of the other hard workers? They don't realize how similar to all the other applicants they sound, and if you try to push them, they struggle, feeling put on the spot and uncomfortable.

    I was interviewing a dull boy. It was one of those excruciating times when he kept giving long canned responses to my questions. He had clearly rehearsed this interview many times. It was mind numbing. Finally I asked him to tell me something quirky or unusual about himself, something that would help me to remember him. This dull boy thought for a moment and said, "My nickname is Snickers." "That I'll remember," I said. A month later, before the applications were due, a huge box was delivered to me. I didn't recognize the name on the return address. When I opened it, there was a gross of Snickers bars with a note: "I wanted to make sure you still remembered me." It was signed "Snickers."

    I did indeed remember him. It helped his application not in the slightest.

    Chuck interviewed a kid whom he began to refer to as the "kid from Alabama with orange hair." Initially put off by the clearly dyed carrot-topped Southerner, after a few minutes of conversation Chuck said that this was the most impressive kid he'd ever met. Their talk ranged from music to philosophy to race relations in the South. "The Kid with Orange Hair" became the standard, in the office, for a great interview.

My least favorite of the in-house duties turns out to be on call. Each day an admissions officer is assigned the task of answering all the random phone calls that come into the office. We learn by listening to our colleagues, to one side of the phone call. "No," Audrey says, "we don't give out a median SAT score. What I can tell you is that the middle fifty percent of students admitted last year scored between 1350 and 1520." She listens. "Well," she says, patiently, "you are below the middle fifty percent. But that shouldn't stop you from applying. Standardized test scores are just one of the things we look at in considering your application." She puts down the phone. It rings again. "No," she says, "we don't give out a median SAT score."

    The first time I was on call and I got an elementary school question I was horrified. "We have just moved to Durham," says the mom. "Which elementary school should we send our son to if we want to get him into Duke?" What became more horrifying to me was the frequency of this kind of question. "How can I best prepare my second grader for the SAT?" It's possible, I wanted to say, that by the time your second grader is ready to apply to college that class-biased test, which gives us little insight except perhaps into family income, will be abolished. We will have evolved to looking in more interesting, more complex ways, at seventeen-year-olds. My brother went to Bowdoin College because they didn't require the SAT. Mount Holyoke has just thrown it out. Will the Ivy League and other highly selective schools ever be so enlightened? Probably not. I don't say this but instead mutter some kind of vague answer about learning vocabulary.

    On call I fielded Dad calls. Dads tend to recite the list of achievements of their child first, before they get to any kind of question. "She's very impressive," he'll say. "Has 1410, is in the top ten percent of her class—and it's a very competitive high school—she's captain of field hockey and president of the debate club. You're going to want her," he'll say. And I'm already thinking, poor kid, she probably doesn't have a chance of getting in, and waiting for his question. Which turns out to be something like, should she take AP statistics, which he thinks would be useful, or music theory, which is what she wants to take? Let her take what she wants to take. Will that help her get in?


Excerpted from Admissions Confidential by Rachel Toor. Copyright © 2001 by Rachel Toor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Note to Readerix
Introduction: Farewell to an Idea1
1.Space May Create New Worlds: Settling In13
2.The Auroras of Autumn: On the Road33
3.Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: Describing Duke57
4.A Mind of Winter: Learning to Read79
5.Song of Myself: Applicants and Their Essays111
6.Much Madness Is Divinest Sense: Alumni Interviews and Counselor Interventions141
7.The Emperor of Ice Cream: Selection Committee Rounds163
8.Ivy Day in the Committee Room: More Rounds187
9.April Is the Cruelest Month: Decisions215
10.The Malady of the Quotidian: Perspective233

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