Bill Paul on Getting Into Colleges

Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon is one of the major characters in Bill Paul's Getting In.

We’re on Book Three of the College Admissions/Payment Tour, and today’s selection is Bill Paul’s Getting In.

In the book, Paul, a former Wall Street Journal Reporter and Princeton alumnus, goes back and forth between then-Dean Fred Hargadon and his admissions staff at Princeton-in an interesting side note, Hargadon served one of the last of his 16 years in the same position at Stanford the spring that I gained admission there-and five students as they go through their senior years in search of their coveted spot at one of the nation’s elite colleges.

The result is an uneven but generally informative read.

Paul makes certain points about how Hargadon and others in similar institutions around the country pick superstars first-this includes published authors, founders of Habitat for Humanity chapters, young people living under viaducts while maintaining a killer G.P.A., Everest climbers and so on-and then work their way through the rest of the ever-increasing applicant pool.  Paul also discusses the importance of the student essay and interview, the attempt to create a coherent whole, and the stress that guidance counselors try to alleviate on the young applicants and their families.

Hargadon is one of the major characters.  Paul creates a sympathetic portrait of an enormously dedicated and humanistically oriented head of a top-level ship.  Dear friend Dan Middleton just called on Skype and shared an anecdote about Hargadon visiting, then sending an application to, him after meeting him at an information session at St. Paul’s in the early part of his senior year.  In addition to seeking the students with obvious ‘hooks’ mentioned above, Hargadon and the other admissions staffers also look to take other students with less visible hooks who will also add to the class’ fabric and diversity.

And speaking of diversity, Getting In has a somewhat tortured and uncritical section on legacy admissions, which, arguably, are the purest form of affirmative action.  Paul writes first about legacies, then about Hargadon’s “noble” take on affirmative action without a shred of irony or reflection other than to accept without question Hargadon’s statement that seeking institutional loyalty by taking the children of alumni is a worthy goal.

The students in the book go through the ups and downs of the admissions process, feeling deflated at having been deferred from early action-this is another part of the information sharing that Paul provides-being unimpressed with full rides at less prestigious institutions, and then hearing the final verdict in April.

Getting In has the briefest of language about college being a time to think about what you want from those four years and then finding a college that will maximize your chances of having that type of experience, but ultimately affirms the value that many find in seeking and praying, often vainly, for the coveted admission.

The bad news for the students in Getting In is that many of them do not.  To Princeton, that is.  The good news is that they do land at other fine schools like Duke and Johns Hopkins and Amherst.

I hope that during the next year we can help Aidan hold at least somewhat close to the idea of matching what he wants with the best, rather than most prestigious. In the meantime, I am glad that I read this book, if only to be reminded both of the challenges he faces and the somewhat arbitrary way the process plays out.

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