Horsetrading in the Ivy League

December 12, 1997

FOR THREE years Michelle Fernandez watched as her compatriots at one of the most selective private universities in the United States sat in judgement on its applicants in an admissions process shrouded in mystery.

Now Ms Fernandez, former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, has published a book exposing that secretive process, which begins in earnest on January 1.

A is for Admission: the Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League reveals that 40 per cent of students accepted to the best schools in America - where a degree is usually a ticket to a good career at a high salary - are admitted for reasons other than their academic talents.

Students who are athletes, from minorities, the children of alumni or the relatives of major donors are given preference over unconnected white non-athletes with superior academic credentials, Ms Fernandez wrote. "I don't really think of the book as being an expose. I think of it as describing a process that's not supposed to be secret," she said in an interview.

"What secrets are they trying to keep? I kept hearing, 'We want to make this process more understandable to the public.' The way to make it more understandable is to make it more public," she added.

That is not, it turns out, the view of the admissions establishment, which has condemned the book, although it has not refuted it.

Karl Furstenberg, director of admissions at Dartmouth, has called the disclosures "preposterous" and "a very glib, superficial view of what it is that goes on". He said the book is inaccurate.

Ms Hernandez said that privately admissions officers have commended her. "I wasn't trying to insult them," she said. "I was trying to demystify the process and debunk the myths."

The truth is that 40 per cent of alumni offspring, 50 per cent of blacks and 60 per cent of athletes are accepted, compared to 20 per cent of other applicants, she said.

Why athletes? "The money (from alumni) comes in when the football team wins," Ms Hernandez said.

Meanwhile college fund-raising officers send admissions offices lists of major donors whose children have applied. The bigger the financial contribution, Ms Hernandez writes, the greater the chance of admission. "Sending in your yearly donation of $1,000 to your alma mater will not give your child a greater chance," she said.

Moderately paid admissions officers often resent high-income applicants who, for example, describe an expensive trip they took in interviews or application essays.

"It may rub admissions people up the wrong way, since most do not have the money and resources to take such an exotic trip," she said.

Schools bolster the hopes of students by putting them on waiting lists, even if they have no chance of getting in, and continue to accept applications even after the purported deadline, since the more rejections are recorded, the more selective the admissions process seems, Ms Hernandez said.

Ms Hernandez left Dartmouth in April, after her husband, a professor, was denied tenure. College officials say the book was her revenge, though she says she was pregnant with her daughter and already planning to leave.

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