The Insiders Guide to Getting
Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges
Michele A. Hernández
New York: Warner Books, 1997, 266 pages
Reviewed by Scott Anderson
At the 1998 conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), amidst the perennial sessions on early decision and media rankings, stood one which generated more buzz than the rest. "College Admission Professionals: Who Are We Now" was as intriguing for its title as it was for its panelists, a cast which included admission deans from Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Ripon, the University of Southern California, and Wellesley. The moderator, a college counselor at a highly regarded private school in Oregon, opened the session with a pointed but genuine critique of current admission practices (among which numbered early decision and media rankings). He capped his remarks with a list of proposed modifications to these practices and firmly concluded that "the Ivy League is uniquely positioned to make a difference for our profession and for American Higher Education" (Thacker, 1998, p. 9).
This invocation of the Ivy League as change-agent is nothing new. For better or worse, these eight institutions wield tremendous power in admission circles, sometimes inadvertently. One need look no further than the recent string of Ivy financial aid initiatives to see the domino effect that decisions within these schools can elicit (Arenson, 1998). Even more pronounced than its clout within the higher education community, however, is the hold that the Ivy League has on the public consciousness. The current proliferation of guidebooks, test-prep courses, and independent counseling servicesall aimed to increase a students chances of attaining a brand name educationseems matched only by the hunger of their intended audiences.
Former Dartmouth College admission officer Michele Hernández deserves credit for satiating at least one segment of this market. In A is for Admission, Hernández has supplied a coveted "Rosetta Stone" to the mysteries of the Ivy League admission process, an inside look at how decisions are made by someone who used to make them. With the Dartmouth name as ballast, she embarks on a steady series of explanations, advice, observations, opinions, and homilies designed to familiarize the reader with every aspect of the selection process. Topics and targets include admission professionals, the reading period, standardized testing, course selection, class rank, essay writing, recommendations, extracurricular activities, athletics, special talents, and interviews26 chapters worth in all, some no longer than a page and a half.
As an admission professional who has worked at an Ivy League university, a liberal arts college, and a state university, I find it hard not to be amused by Hernández's furtive tone. What she depicts as disclosure of trade secrets, my colleagues and I would tend to view as a day at the office. In this vein, a good deal of what Hernández writes is helpful but not particularly novel: Take the toughest courses you can. Be concise. Think outside the box when writing your essay; do not catalog every award you have ever received. Do not nag or berate the people who will ultimately decide your case. All of these tips can be readily obtained gratis by calling or visiting any undergraduate admission office, Ivy or not. Some of her topics such as post-graduate work or independent counselors are not as commonly discussed and might prove useful, especially to the high-achieving, over-anxious readers at whom the book is directed. Occasionally, Hernández also anticipates how this angst may manifest itself and tries to pre-empt it, like when she advises (quite accurately) to forego FedEx since the application will probably sit unopened for a week anyway.
Buried beneath a mountain of seemingly invaluable advice, however, is a crucial point which the author seems quite content to obscure: A is for Admission is not actually the insiders guide to the Ivy League that it purports to be. Rather, it is the insiders guide to Dartmouth College. The processes she describes, the statistics she cites, and the lingo she employs is meaningless outside of the borders of Hanover, New Hampshire. Certainly, there are parallels between how decisions are made at Dartmouth and how they are made at other Ivies, but the author makes it the readers responsibility to distinguish one from the other. Occasionally, Hernández inserts caveats reminding the reader that she is writing about a single institution, but the text is so peppered with inclusive "wes" and "Ivy officers" that any Dartmouth specific references are lost.
Such generalization is a significant shortcoming of A is for Admission. Hernández is not at all shy with her assertion: "Many Ivy directors are big sports fans and would take almost any athlete [with minimum qualifications]" (p. 168); "Basically, at all the Ivies, legacies are accepted at twice the rate that everyone else is" (p. 175); "[Admission officers] would never sit down and read all the folders from one high school" (p. 99); "[In reading] applications . . . you try to find a weakness" (p. 170). At best, these are blanket statements, at worst, inaccuracies. Hernández even devotes a full chapter and appendix to what she calls "the secret formula" of the Ivy League, the Academic Index (AI), a common yardstick for measuring the academic performance of Ivy-bound athletes (p. xviii). While an AI is indeed calculated for all recruited athletes, Hernández would have the reader believe that all Ivies afford it the same significance in their overall selection processes as Dartmouth. They do not.
Hernándezs tendency to generalize does a great disservice to her readers, most of whom will be inclined to accept her authority without question. Even more troubling, however, is the authors inability and unwillingness to provide an appropriate context for her authority. Michele Hernández has worked professionally in only one admission office. Moreover, she depicts herself as a veteran of the field when she writes, "The content of this book is based entirely upon my years as an admissions officer at Dartmouth College" (p. xi). In fact, those years total four (p. xviii). This limited tenure in no way invalidates Hernándezs experience, but it does make her claims of Ivy League omniscience somewhat suspect. For Hernández, however, such limited perspective seems irrelevant: an Ivy pedigree is the only license she needs. And apparently, it is the only one worth having. "The beauty of an Ivy League/highly selective education," she writes, "lies in the intellectual atmosphere and the collegial bonds formed among students interested in similar ideas and fields" (p. 18). To those who cannot commit to this cerebral bacchanal, Hernández admonishes, "You would be much better served at a more trade oriented school where you could major in something practical rather than theoretical" (p. 18).
Do high school students really need to hear this? Hernández knows full well that the overwhelming majority of all Ivy applicants will wind up somewhere else, many of them refused admission for no other reason than lack of space. College applicants are anxious enough without a self-appointed representative of the Ivy League single-handedly invalidating the other educational experiences which await them. But Hernández is hardly a sympathetic author. She seems much less concerned for her general audience than she does for those individual members who are talented (and savvy) enough to ultimately earn admission. Ironically, this tone contrasts with her introductory deconstruction of the Ivy League mystique in which she portrays admission to highly selective colleges as a realistic option for all bright students, not just those with an economic or educational pedigree. Apparently, Hernández's invitation to education is valid only if it is written on Ivy League letterhead.
Perhaps this view of A is for Admission is unduly critical. After all, Hernández's intent was not to challenge students’ motivations for applying to the Ivy League (Ivy for the sake of Ivy, one might say). Nor was it to affirm the outstanding educational opportunities which exist outside the League’s eight member schools. But the unfortunate reality is that Hernández could have done these things. Instead, she chose to divulge (by her definition, at least) the Ivy admission process, using Dartmouth as a model, so that her readers would know best how to exploit it. Maybe this explains why Hernández finds the notion of "a talented young graduate [spending] more than a year or two in an admissions office before moving on to other academic endeavors" so absurd (p. 2). It seems the personal satisfaction received through helping high school students and their parents understand what can often be a confusing and intimidating process was a reward that eluded the author while she was employed at Dartmouth. That is unfortunate. A is for Admission would have been a much richer book had Michele Hernándezs desire to educate been stronger than her drive to expose.
ReferencesArenson, K. W. (September 17, 1998). Harvard expands financial aid to undergraduates. The New York Times [On-line]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com
Thacker, L. (1998, October). College admission: Profession or industry. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Indianapolis, IN.
Scott Anderson is Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and is a 1997 graduate of the HESA program.