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Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College




Excerpted from
The Gatekeepers; Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
By Jacques Steinberg

Ralph Figueroa and Sharon Merrow were sitting next to each other toward the back of the auditorium of the Harvard-Wesdake Upper School, where Sharon was now dean of the junior and senior classes. On the stage of the theater, with its Broadway-quality lighting and acoustics, Tony and Maria gazed longingly into each other's eyes. But Sharon wanted Ralph to notice another member of the cast of the school's production of West Side Story. Nudging him gently in his plush blue seat, she directed his attention to one of the dancers at the edge of the stage. She was five feet four inches tall, with mocha skin, long curly brown hair and a poise that Sharon considered remarkable for a girl just fourteen years old.

"You're going to want to know this kid," Sharon whispered in Ralph's left ear.

As Ralph and Sharon watched Julianna Bentes dance in the chorus that night in 1997, almost two years after Ralph had become an admissions officer at Wesleyan, the ninth-grader was still a student at Harvard-Westlake's middle school campus, eight miles away in Bel Air. Not until the following school year would she reach die rarefied upper school campus, a cluster of stucco-covered buildings that had been terraced into a sixteen-acre hillside that once belonged to the Hollywood Country Club. With its purple jacarandas and man-made waterfalls, the campus still looked like an exclusive resort. It was a running joke that the cars in the student parking lot, which resembled an imported car dealership, were far better than those in the faculty lot. There was even a page of the yearbook called "Wheels," which featured portraits of students' cars shot as if they were swimsuit models. Julianna was already considered such an exceptional talent-she had just choreographed and starred in her own jazz dance show-that she had received a rare invitation from the upper school to perform in its spring musical production.

Sharon's comment to Ralph that night was more of an informed hunch than anything else. Julianna had yet to test her mettle by taking the SATs, or even the PSATs. And she certainly hadn't taken any of the twenty-eight college-level Advanced Placement classes that Harvard-Westlake offered-more than almost any other high school in the country. But word had already reached Sharon's office at the upper school, where her primary responsibility was academic counseling, that Julianna was a gifted writer with a sharply focused mind. Though Julianna was one of the few students on scholarship at the academy, she had not shied from the spotlight. She was active in a new campus organization called Black Leadership and Culture Club, and she had already represented Harvard-Westlake at a diversity conference in Baltimore.

As Ralph watched her performance that night, he figured she was a Latina, and his assessment was partially right. Her father was Brazilian, and after being born in Los Angeles, Julianna had spent the first four years of her life in the Amazon, near where he had been raised. Her first language was Portuguese. But Julianna also considered herself black, for her father was a descendant of African slaves. Her mother, who grew up in Pasadena, was white and traced her lineage to a family that had moved to America from Holland during colonial times.

Whenever Julianna was asked to check a box identifying her race or ethnicity on some official form, she, like an increasing number of Americans, felt justified in marking more than one. In fact, she checked three. "When I check one box," Julianna explained, "I feel like I am denying part of myself." At a time when the nation's best colleges were placing a premium on admitting students of color-and were being chastised in some circles for holding minorities to watered-down standards-Julianna Bentes had the potential to compete with any student, minority or white, Sharon believed. Time would tell, of course, but Sharon wanted Ralph to write himself a note about Julianna, even if he only put it in some tickler file. Julianna wouldn't be applying to college for another two and a half years.

Just as Barbara-Jan Wilson had hoped, Sharon had been encouraging many of the students she counseled at Harvard-Westlake to consider Wesleyan. In the 1995-1996 school year, Ralph's first at Wesleyan, thirty-three Harvard-Westlake seniors had applied there. Fourteen of them had been admitted; four had decided to attend. As Ralph and Sharon sat in the auditorium in April 1997, at the end of Ralph's second year, Wesleyan had just finished processing the applications of forty-nine Harvard-Westlake students. That represented an increase of 50 percent, and it meant that a fifth of the graduating class at Harvard-Westlake had applied to Wesleyan-as many as had applied to Harvard University (which was unaffiliated with the California prep school, despite its name). Twenty-two of Harvard-Westlake's seniors had just been admitted to Wesleyan, and six would later decide to attend. With Sharon and Ralph joining forces, Wesleyan was proving that it could hold its own in the competitive West Coast market.

The relationship between Harvard-Westlake and the nation's best colleges was mutually beneficial, one reminiscent of the age-old, informal partnerships that existed between northeastern prep schools and the colleges that they served as feeders, including Harvard and Yale. Those informal arrangements still existed, of course, but more colleges were entering into them, and spreading them over greater distances, than was the case in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, northeastern prep schools like Andover and Exeter, as well as selective public high schools like Stuyvesant in New York City, now faced stiffer competition from schools like Harvard-Westlake. Harvard-Westlake's students' average score on the SAT-nearly 1400 each year-eclipsed that of the freshman class at nearly any American college. While an average of 25 students from Harvard-Westlake usually ended up at Harvard, Yale and Princeton each year, there were plenty of other academic all-stars among the 225 who were left-many of whom were only too happy to be snatched up by the admissions officer who made the best sales pitch, academic or financial. That was the group on whom Ralph usually set his sights.



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