In his new book, “The Battle for Room 314,” Ed Boland chronicles his year as a teacher in a low-income New York City school. It was the polar opposite of his previous experience — assistant director of admissions for Yale University. As the class of 2016 eagerly awaits letters from colleges, Boland reveals what really goes on behind the scenes in this excerpt.
Working as a gatekeeper at Yale gave me lasting insight into the formation of the American elite.
My colleagues and I were sent to scour the country looking for the best and the brightest young minds. In the fall, I went everywhere, from Charleston, W.Va., to Kokomo, Ind., to Montreal, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I was welcomed with varying degrees of energy and enthusiasm. In Ohio, an eager headmaster at a boarding school took me to a nice lunch and toured me around the campus in his convertible with the top down. At a large public school outside Detroit, I sat outside the cafeteria at a sticky table chatting with a representative from a local cosmetology school. Largely ignored by the students, we passed the time talking about the challenges of having very fine hair.
Brilliance and stunts
After the recruitment season wrapped up, the admissions staff returned in the late fall to New Haven and started the early-decision process. We would spend hour after hour poring over huge stacks of applications and green-bar computer reports.
We parsed transcripts and called guidance counselors with questions like: “So far, there seem to be three students ranked number one in your school who have applied to Yale. How do you account for that?” As a first step, two staff members read each application and assigned it an overall ranking of 1 (TAKE THIS KID!) to 4 (NO WAY!).
The applicants were an impressive lot. A girl wrote a brilliant feminist essay — worthy of Harper’s, really — about gender and socialization, revealing that she was a phantom serial farter in public and yet no one ever suspected because of her gender.
An aspiring art major sent in a dazzling, poster-size pen-and-ink drawing of himself suspended high over the campus on a pair of gymnastic rings, his body forming a perfect Y for Yale. A Vietnamese refugee wrote about finding solace in a school in Nebraska after a near-death experience as a “boat person” when she was
6 years old. They all waltzed into the freshman class.
Being too clever could backfire.
A self-saboteur from Chicago wrote her essay about her fear of going to the dentist — in backward letters, colored pen, and a spiral “Yellow Brick Road” pattern; not the kind of thing you want to tackle in a mirror at midnight.
‘An overeager Eagle Scout on the wait list pitched a tent on the lawn of the Admissions Office to show how ardently he was interested. I am sure he enjoyed Haverford.’- Ed Boland
A few years before, an overeager Eagle Scout from Pennsylvania on the wait list had pitched a tent on the lawn of the Admissions Office to show how ardently he was interested. I am sure he enjoyed Haverford.
Having the president of Stanford write you a letter of recommendation to Yale might seem like a good idea, but it resulted in a note from the dean that said, “If he’s so enamored of the kid, let Stanford use a spot on him.”
It was the kiss of death when the daughter of a prominent alum from Columbus, Ohio, “discovered” she was one-sixteenth American Indian and checked the box for Native American.
And then there were the athletes. After fierce pressure from the athletic department, I had to admit a highly sought-after French Canadian hockey recruit. He had crappy grades, dismal scores, and his essay consisted of one sentence scribbled hastily in pencil: “I want to bée a great hockey player.” To add insult to injury, he decided to go to Boston University.
‘Reject the state!’
After the preliminary votes were cast, the Admissions Committee was convened. Composed of faculty members, deans, and the most senior admissions representatives, they served as judge, jury and executioner for the nearly 14,000 applicants.
Because competition was fierce and time short, you had to make your notes about the kids you were advocating for pithy and almost Zagat-guide-esque:
“Another hothouse flower with a perfect GPA, pass!”
“Virtuoso bassoonist and published poet at 17, an Eli to the core.”
“Milquetoast, yes, but brilliant milquetoast.”
“AP English teacher (Yale Class of ’79) says she is the most original thinker she ever taught, not just a ‘rara avis’ but ‘rarisima avis.’ ”
Any member of the committee could challenge you to back up your recommendation on any candidate in your region. After you made your case and answered their questions, the committee of eight or so would decide a candidate’s fate on a wacky voting machine, rumored to have been specially designed by some nerdy electrical-engineering major. It had small electric consoles from which members would anonymously flip a switch to light up either a thumbs-up green light, thumbs-down red light, or wait list white light. Any applicant with more than a total of two reject and/or wait-list votes was automatically denied.
Because we had to get through about 300 applications in each two-hour committee session, we developed shortcuts.
You could look down at the names of four or five kids from one school who were terribly smart but not exceptional and say, “Reject the entire high school”; sometimes you could go further and say, “Reject the page,” and send 20 kids on a single page of computer paper packing; or, most famously, “Reject the state,” when it came to sparsely populated places like North Dakota or Wyoming.
Deciding which 14 percent of the applicants would get the golden ticket was really tough work. Once the children of alumni, recruited athletes, underrepresented minorities or regions and students interested in underenrolled majors were considered, there wasn’t much room for your generic genius. (By today’s standards, 14 percent doesn’t seem so brutal. In 2014, Yale got nearly 31,000 applicants and accepted a mere 6.3 percent of them.)
Fingerprints of privilege
The great majority of students we admitted were truly brilliant and had busted their tails to get there. But the fingerprints of privilege were still present. You had to look a little harder to see them and resolve not to let them unfairly influence you.
It was immediately obvious that kids from elite feeder schools had been coached for years on their interviews, essays, and every conceivable form of standardized testing. Many of their college counselors had worked in elite admissions offices; their tutors had Ph.D.s. They knew prominent alums who would write recommendations on thick, creamy bond paper.
The letters arrived daily from white-shoe law firms, governors’ mansions, and — in yet another shock to my blue-collar brain — vacation homes with proper names on engraved stationery: “The Manse, Little Compton, Rhode Island” or “Coral House, Hamilton, Bermuda.”
As I tried to sort out fair from foul, Suzie, a perennial champion of the underdog, gave me advice I will never forget: “It’s very easy to throw the prize at the kids who finish the race first, but always look at the incline they faced. That will tell you much more.”
Once the more clear-cut cases had been decided, things got fuzzy, political, and sometimes unfair. It wasn’t news to me that the process wasn’t entirely meritocratic. It wasn’t news to me that people were willing to use any and every angle to game the process.
But it was a revelation about exactly what forms those advantages would take and how they were displayed: sometimes furtively, sometimes brazenly.
Old and new
One trip took me to an overstuffed wing chair in the august lounge of the Yale Club of New York. The school’s motto, “Lux et Veritas,” was stitched into the carpet, embossed on my coaster, and emblazoned on the jacket of the old waiter who had grudgingly brought me iced tea.
I was waiting for Hal Buckley and Francis Alcock, the two Old Blues who headed the local volunteer alumni group that conducted the alumni interviews required of all applicants. I had been forewarned by the dean of admissions that the New York group was chafing at the recent difficulty many of the Manhattan prep schools had had in getting students accepted to Yale, many of them children of alumni. Most of the schools had been feeders to Yale for nearly a century; one even predated the university’s founding in 1701 by 70 years.
I had talked to them by phone but had never met them in person.
Retired Wall Streeters, they were both old, smart, white and pedigreed. With matching sets of wiry gray eyebrows, they could have been twins. We exchanged some initial pleasantries, and then I braced myself for the onslaught.
“We used to hold our receptions for admitted students here, but your Admissions Office says it’s too stuffy and we’d scare off kids who aren’t from typical Yale backgrounds. Have you ever heard such twaddle in your life?” said Hal, the crankier of the two.
I scanned the room — a gorgeous mausoleum, majestic but imposing as hell, filled with mean-looking old men who appeared ready to lower their Wall Street Journals and scream, “Get off my lawn!” in raspy unison.
“Why, it’s such a striking space. Who wouldn’t like it here?” I was trying to get on their good side.
“I just hope we have a better record in getting some kids in, because last year was, quite frankly, a debacle. A travesty, really,” said Hal.
“I assure you I’ll do my best to advocate for New York,” I said with conviction, at the same time trying to suppress the images in my head of Statler and Waldorf, the pair of grumpy-old-men Muppets in the balcony.
Francis, who was somewhat friendlier, added, “We have a great crop of kids from Manhattan this year. Let’s see. We’ve already discussed that Westinghouse Science Competition finalist from Stuyvesant, the Latvian fencer from the Trinity School, and the daughter of the dean at Columbia Law School whose father is a close friend of the president of the university.”
‘Once the children of alumni, recruited athletes, underrepresented minorities or regions and students interested in underenrolled majors were considered, there wasn’t much room for your generic genius.’- Ed Boland
“Yes, I saw your write-ups on all of them in the office. Very thorough. Thank you.”
Francis leaned in and peered at me over the tops of his tortoiseshell glasses. “Over the weekend, we interviewed an extraordinary young woman from Miss Bartlett’s School. She has real Yale polish. Great intellectual curiosity.”
I checked the rumblings of a groan in my throat.
He continued. “But she lives in the South Bronx. From a very poor Puerto Rican family. Raised by a single, unemployed mother with three other children. She would be the first in her family to college.
“Her name is” — here he slowed down as if he were ordering a difficult-to-pronounce dish in a foreign restaurant — “E-mman-u-el-a Gut-i-err-ez.” It was sweet how respectful of her name he was trying to be.
“Really?” I perked up. I knew from my experience at Fordham how rare a profile like hers was.
I realized that I had judged these guys wrong. They weren’t just trying to safeguard spots for the kids of their alumni buddies.
They ran through some more names, handed over a new stack of interview reports, and slapped me on the back as I got in the elevator.
Francis smiled. “Good luck in committee, Ed. Keep your shirts starched and your powder dry.”
“And get our kids in,” I heard from Hal as the door clanked shut.
A hard miss
I returned to New Haven a few days later and pulled Emmanuela’s application out of a teetering pile. Her grades were strong and her Latin teacher had written a glowing recommendation, but she wasn’t at the very top of her class. She was a first-rate debater, though, and had founded the school’s Afro-Latina Alliance.
When I presented her in committee, there was a long debate about her merits and careful consideration of the dozen or so other applicants from her school, each of whom could likely excel at Yale.
In the end, Emmanuela was muscled out of the running by some superstars in her class and put on the wait list. The alums were furious. I got a testy voice mail from Hal the day after the decision letters went out. “For Pete’s sake, your office is sending us mixed messages. You tell us to find gems like Emmanuela with atypical backgrounds, but then you don’t accept them. What gives?”
Years later, I learned that Emmanuela graduated from Columbia, where she did impressive work organizing Harlem tenants against a local slumlord.
After graduation, she wanted to improve the lot of low-wage earners like her mother, and she became a widely respected union organizer and leader for health-care workers. In 2013, she ran for lieutenant governor of New Jersey on the Democratic ticket. We had missed a true gem.
Excerpted from “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School” by Ed Boland, out this week from Grand Central Publishing.
In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.