Jul 24, 2009

Snake Oil Salesmen

It appears that either Jacques Steinberg or Penn’s President Amy Gutmann may have been doing a little light summer reading. In an oddly coincidental turn of phrase quoted by Steinberg in his controversial New York Times article, Dr. Gutmann employs the term “snake oil salesman” when referring to the role of independent counselors in the college admissions process. “I guess there are snake oil salesman [sic] in every field…and they are preying on vulnerable and anxious people.” Insulting, but not original it seems.

In her newly released novel entitled Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz makes a similar reference:

“He had a horror of the so-called new rules of admission, the outsmarting and end runs and decoding now rampant out there, the snake-oil salesmen promising to package and sell your kid to his or her school of choice.” (p. 211)

A graduate of Dartmouth University, Ms. Korelitz worked as a part time reader for Princeton’s Office of Admission during the 2006-07 school year. This experience becomes the backdrop for a fictional examination of the life and loves of a perimenopausal admissions reader who symbolically carts folders containing applications to Princeton up and down the east coast. Recommended by Oprah as one of “25 books you can’t put down,” Admission was reviewed in Steinberg’s column The Choice by a high school senior who concludes after reading the fictional account of a typical college admissions cycle, “High school seniors may also take comfort in thinking that they weren’t rejected on their merits, but because the admissions officer was off her rocker.”

In her acknowledgments, Ms. Korelitz extravagantly praises The Gatekeepers, Steinberg’s insider account of the college admissions process at Wesleyan University, as “…the best depiction of how the [admissions] process currently works.” While Dr. Gutmann can be excused for a little annoyance at former Admissions Dean Lee Stetson’s decision to spend his retirement profiteering from his experience at Penn, I can’t help but wonder if her quote might have had roots elsewhere. I just wish she would publicly explain, apologize, or retract.

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