The Ivy Coach Daily

March 3, 2021

Book Review: Who Gets In And Why

We happened to like Jeffrey Selingo’s latest book, Who Gets In And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (photo credit: Namkota).

★★★★☆

✔️ An Ivy Coach Selection

Bottom Line: Who Gets In And Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo offers little insight to would-be college applicants on how they can markedly improve their cases for admission, but it’s chock full of fantastic data and history on how the admissions process evolved as it did. A worthwhile read for any parent of a college applicant navigating the churning waters of admissions.

We know. We’re late to the game. The book, published in September 2020, is already available in paperback. But can you blame us? While we’re avid readers of fiction and non-fiction alike, we read to escape and to learn. Another book on college admissions? It’s not exactly how we envision spending our weekends and evenings. Yet Selingo’s book managed to enter the zeitgeist, if only for a little while. So we figured we’d give it a read. And our consensus? Well, consider us pleasantly surprised. And, no, it’s not because Selingo referenced in his book a quote we gave to Dana Goldstein of The New York Times on the type of donation to elite colleges that actually moves the needle for development cases. Rather, it’s because Selingo manages to write about elite college admissions in a digestible, dare we say even engaging way. Heck, in many instances, we couldn’t help but think he’s a regular reader of this college admissions blog. In a style indeed reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, Selingo paints a detailed portrait of the outsized, often overlooked characters who have shaped the elite college admissions process into the totally imperfect system that exists today.

One such outsized character Selingo invites into our living rooms is Northeastern University’s former president, Richard M. Freeland. Freeland inherited a university back in the mid-1990s that accepted approximately 90% of applicants. Yet he understood the laws of supply and demand. And he understood the importance of the US News & World Report rankings, which had debuted in 1983. Where a school fell in US News’ pecking order translated into what kinds of students would apply and ultimately enroll at that school. So he knew if he hoped to turn around the school’s reputation, to compete with the nation’s brand name institutions, he had to reverse-engineer Northeastern’s ranking. And during his decade in office, that is precisely what Freeland would do.

As Selingo tells it, “The rankings finally gave him and the Northeasterns of the world a fighting chance.” And why? Because these statistical measures were discernible. To bring up the school’s ranking from 162, Freeland would do all sorts of things that any good business leader — and colleges are a business — would do to compete. As Selingo writes, “The university signed up with the Common Application to boost application numbers. Because the number of applications increased but enrollment remained steady, Northeastern improved its selectivity almost overnight. He also capped class sizes at 20 so the school would perform favorably in the metric on the number of classes offered under 20 students. And so on. Selingo wraps up the tale of Freeland’s turnaround of Northeastern with a gold nugget about how a mother in Hong Kong, where the rankings are especially prized, was agonizing whether her child should choose Columbia, where the young woman was waitlisted, or Northeastern. As Selingo writes, “Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine a bunch of American parents would mention Northeastern and Columbia in the same sentence, he told me. And in Hong Kong of all places. ’We arrived,’ he said.”

Another such outsized character Selingo introduces in his book is Bill Royall, the man behind the machine that is college marketing. Before Royall, colleges were not deploying the same techniques as businesses in other sectors to attract new customers. Maybe they didn’t see themselves as businesses. Royall would help change their mindsets. You know all those glossy brochures that pile up in your mailbox? Before Royall, many colleges relied on high school students reaching out to them before they sent them further material. Royall would bring direct mail and email to college recruitment. As Selingo writes, “What Royall perfected was making the colorful college ’viewbook’ as it’s known, as commonplace in the mailboxes of American teenage homes as an L.L. Bean catalog — and then ensuring the colleges he represented were on the top of the pile. Whether you call it junk mail, spam, or propaganda, generations of high school students and their parents have been inundated with images of perfectly manicured campuses and poetic promises of supportive professors because Royall and those who followed his lead persuaded impressionable seventeen-year-olds that a college actually wanted them.” Of course, receiving a college brochure is no indication that a college wants to admit a student. Rather, it’s an indication the college wants the student to apply. Because, yes, you got it: the more students that apply, the lower the admission rate will be, and the higher the school will be ranked in US News & World Report.

Freeland and Royall are but two of the fascinating characters who have shaped college admissions through the years that Selingo chooses to include in his storytelling. But there are other fascinating characters along the way in the book who Selingo rightly spotlights, too. No book detailing the history of American elite college admissions would be complete without mentions of admissions leaders like the late Fred Hargadon of Stanford and Lee Stetson of UPenn as well as the dynamic duo of William “Fitz” Fitzsimons and Charlie Deacon, the good friends and longtime leaders of Harvard’s and Georgetown’s admissions offices, respectively. And, yes, elite college admissions has been overwhelmingly shaped by men, though the times they are a-changin’.

And while these stories are a delight to read and Selingo’s research is impeccable, particularly with respect to the studies he cites, if we had to offer one criticism of the book, it’s that it’s billed as “a year inside college admissions.” Now, don’t get us wrong: it’s entirely accurate. Selingo spent a year as a fly-on-the-wall inside the admissions offices of Emory University, Davidson College, and the University of Washington. And he does make a number of observations throughout the book on what he observes from his vantage point — from eight minute reads of applications to admissions officers liking people who remind them of themselves to how applicants to elite schools do themselves quite the disservice by not taking calculus. But knowing the game and knowing how to ethically beat the game are two very different things. Selingo devotes little real estate in his book to how students can improve their odds of admission. In fact, he seems to believe or at least imply that a “hook” and a “spike” are two different things, that a hook — which he essentially defines as being a recruited athlete or the child of a major donor — so often does the trick whereas a spike — like an interest in one particular area — isn’t typically enough. He’s not wrong that being a recruited athlete and/or the child of a major donor gives students a huge leg up, but we’ve been helping students at Ivy Coach win in admissions for 28 years and only a very small percentage of our students are recruited athletes or the children of major donors. If a middle-income parent grabbed Selingo’s book at Barnes & Noble hoping her child — who is not a recruited athlete or a development case — could beat the system at its own game fairly and ethically, Selingo’s words left a little something to be desired.

All that being said, Jeffrey Selingo’s Who Gets In And Why is the best book we’ve read on elite college admissions in years. So that’s something.

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