What College Admissions Offices Really Want

Paul Tough:

In the fall of 2014, Angel Pérez was hired to oversee enrollment at Trinity College, a small liberal-arts school that occupies a picturesque 100-acre hillside campus overlooking Hartford. Trinity is in many ways a typical private northeastern college. It was founded by a group of Episcopalians in the early 19th century, and its student body has been dominated ever since by white, wealthy graduates of New England prep schools. Its architecture is Gothic, its squash teams are nationally ranked and despite its small size (about 2,200 undergraduates), it manages to support five separate student a cappella groups. Two of Trinity’s most famous graduates are George Will and Tucker Carlson, meaning that the college has pretty much cornered the market on conservative TV personalities known for wearing bow ties.

Pérez grew up in very different circumstances, born in Puerto Rico in 1976 to a teenage mother and a father who delivered milk door to door. When Pérez was 5, his family moved to New York to find better opportunities, but they landed instead in a public housing development in the South Bronx during the worst years of the borough’s disintegration. Pérez’s memories of childhood are mostly of a pervasive fear, both at home and on the streets. His father drank too much and was sometimes violent with Pérez’s mother, and Pérez, a pale, nerdy kid who loved books, was easy prey for the gangs that controlled his neighborhood. Twice he was attacked on the street and beaten so badly that he ended up in the hospital.

In high school, Pérez joined every club, pursued summer internships, ran for student government — anything to stay out of the apartment, anything to improve his chances for a better future. A guidance counselor persuaded him to apply to Skidmore College, a selective private institution in upstate New York that Pérez had never heard of. He took the SAT just once, and he scored poorly. But miraculously, someone in Skidmore’s admissions office decided to ignore his lousy test score in favor of his excellent grades and admit him with full financial aid. It was a decision that changed Pérez’s life.

Pérez got his first job in admissions straight out of college, motivated by the opportunity to do for young people what that admissions officer did for him: spot hidden potential in students with unconventional academic records and transform young lives. He rose through the profession, working first at Skidmore and then at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. along the way.