Before the soon-to-be-released movie “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, there was the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Princeton faculty wife and sometime admissions reader
If you’ve always wanted to know what happens behind the doors of Ivy League college admissions offices—and prefer reading novels to non-fiction—this book’s for you. Author Jean Hanff Korelitz spent 2006 to 2007 working as an application reader at Princeton University to do her research for this fact-filled fiction. In her novel “Admission,” first published in 2009 and due to be reissued soon as a movie tie-in, she takes us inside the secretive process.
Like the author, the book’s protagonist Portia Nathan works in admissions at Princeton and is obsessed with her job. When the story opens, she’s headed to New England—her new territory—where she’ll be visiting the elite prep schools, some public high schools and one new progressive private school based on a farm. As she flies north, we look over Portia’s shoulder while she reads through students’ application folders and considers whether they are Princeton material. It is just the first of many such sessions.
Winnowing the remarkable
Portia’s job, as Korelitz describes it, is to winnow “the stupendously remarkable from a vast field of the only normally remarkable.” This is not an easy task. It breaks her heart to have to say no to kids who seem to be model students in every way, yet still don’t make the grade. But the sad fact is that being an excellent student is just not enough to get into Princeton or any of the top schools these days.
Through much of the novel, Portia slogs her way through stacks of orange file folders—hundreds of them—urging admission for the marvelous few, regretfully passing on the vast majority. Secretly, she wishes she could tell many of the wonderful teenagers she rejects that “anyone would be ecstatic to have their child turn out as great as you.” But, of course, she can’t.
As for those who will gain admission, Portia fervently believes they are, “absolutely going to make scientific discoveries, solve human problems, produce important works of art and scholarship, and generally… give back to their communities and make the world a better place.”
In the real world, this may be overly optimistic. It’s hard to say, since there aren’t many statistics available that measure the percentage of Ivy League graduates who make important contributions to society, compared to those who simply make tons of money or do nothing and fade quietly into obscurity. It would be interesting to know.
An angsty back-story
Beyond her job as admissions officer, Portia has her own angsty back-story, which includes being raised by a feminist, single mother; a disappointing love life and a long-buried secret. There are vivid descriptions of New England winters and gracious parties thrown by renowned faculty members.
Korelitz, who’s married to poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, gets the cultural trappings right. We hear lots about Small World Coffee, the popular hangout on Nassau Street that’s the closest thing to a cultural hub the town’s got. The novel is full of witty repartee and allusions to poets and poetry—all of which is carefully explained through context, due to the very real danger that mass-market readers may not recognize references to even the most well known literature. And the plot is carefully crafted with twists, turns and surprises. But mostly, this is a story about the stressful college application process and the thousands of hard-working, earnest teenagers and their families who are caught up in it.
Different from the rest
One particular boy captures Portia’s attention, simply because he’s so different from all the rest. Jeremiah Balakian, a recent transfer to the progressive Quest School, is a bit of a loner, who has three years of terrible report cards and zero extracurricular activities to his credit, unless you count his job working at Stop & Shop. He comes from a working class background, but he’s a serious reader, an offbeat thinker and he’s filled with curiosity and intellectual enthusiasm. In his personal essay he writes:
For the past two summers I have been employed full time at a supermarket in Keene, rotating among various positions, from stocker to warehouse to checkout, none of them particularly taxing. I wasn’t very optimistic about the job at the outset, but I came to discover that examining someone’s groceries is a strangely intimate and fascinating activity. When you know what people are putting in their mouths and on their bodies, you know a great deal about them: physically, emotionally, even politically. Sometimes I’d want to confront them about their choices: Don’t you know what this food is going to do to your blood pressure? Don’t you know this manufacturer has one of the worst environmental records in the world? Did you know that for the same price as this fake cheese you could get real cheese? But of course, a humble checker can’t say such things.
Who wouldn’t love a kid who writes like this? After reading Jeremiah’s essay, I for one, was ready to admit him to my imaginary university on full financial aid. But, after working in admissions for nine years, Portia is a realist. She knows Jeremiah will be a hard sell to her scrupulously careful colleagues. Therein lies much of the drama of the last part of the book.
Yet, it’s fair to point out that whether or not any particular teenager gets admitted to Princeton University is not—in itself—the stuff of high literary drama. “Admission” will be slow going for those not interested in the admissions policies of elite institutions. Although it may be a novel, “Anna Karenina” it’s not. Aside from her academic obsession, Portia is really not all that interesting a character. She’s more an accumulation of cultural references than a flesh and blood woman.
Arguments about admissions policies
In the end, it’s not the people but the arguments about Ivy League admissions policies that make up the heart of this book. In one memorable scene Portia attends a dinner party where she’s backed into the corner by Diana, the outraged mother of a potential applicant. Diana just can’t get her head around the idea that admission to elite universities may no longer be anyone’s birthright, no matter which colleges their parents have attended. “These kids are not getting into Dad’s alma mater. They’re not getting into Dad’s safety school…I think it’s just a catastrophe,” she fulminates.
Portia, an Ivy League insider who’s also an idealistic do-gooder at heart, is disgusted by the cluelessness of this mother—and of all the other parents from privileged families who believe their children are being robbed by an admissions system that has suddenly begun to favor minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Portia and—obviously—the novel’s author believe that admission to a university should be based on intellectual merit, not social class—at least as far as possible. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a gap between what we might wish for and what actually happens in the admissions process, an issue Korelitz tends to gloss over.
Despite some petty conflicts, Portia and every one of her colleagues in the Princeton admission office are portrayed as fighting the good fight. Though they may sometimes disagree on how to rank a particular student, they buy into the idea that the best and the brightest kids are the ones who should be admitted. And they’re all working to make it happen. When the football coach or the development office makes the occasional request to flag an applicant’s folder as “special interest,” it’s portrayed as a minor irritation and quickly forgotten.
What’s left unsaid by Korelitz is that somewhere between 10% and 15% of Princeton’s actual freshman class is still made up of the children of Princeton graduates—“legacies” in admissions parlance. (At Harvard, the number ranges from 12% to 13%; at Yale the official number is 10%.) These spots in each class are permanently reserved and off-limits to all underprivileged kids and even to brilliant students who don’t happen to be “second generation Princeton” applicants.
Another 13% of a typical Ivy League class—or thereabouts—is composed of recruited athletes, thereby further narrowing the statistical chances of admission for kids who may be intellectual stars but privileged by neither their social class nor physical prowess.
The bottom line is that, in the real world beyond this novel’s covers, the recent, supposedly more egalitarian, admissions policies at Princeton and the other Ivy League schools are still shaped in part by the same old, elitist framework. Despite the best intentions of Portia and her many non-fiction counterparts, large numbers of bright children from minority, poor and working class backgrounds are unlikely to grab the golden ring any time soon. There simply aren’t enough spaces allotted to them at schools with fat endowments, schools like Princeton, which can offer the all-important financial aid.
Perhaps because her connections to Princeton are ongoing, Korelitz doesn’t lay out the discouraging truth of the admission numbers. Yet her book contains plenty of revealing anecdotes and valuable insights that can help steer college applicants in the right direction. If you look, you’ll find them. One of the sharpest perceptions emerges from an inner monologue Portia indulges in. Trying to keep a lid on her temper, after Diana’s insufferable complaints, Portia imagines how she’d like to respond, if only she could.
It’s about the institution
The system, she would tell the offensive mother, “did not exist to crown the best and the brightest, reward the hardest workers, or cast judgment on those who had not fulfilled their potential by the ripe age of eighteen…it was not about the applicant at all. It was about the institution.”
Here Korelitz, in the guise of Portia, makes the one point that all parents, and—more importantly—students, as they are sweating over their applications and interviews, would do well to remember. Colleges and universities—from the greatest to the most humble—admit the students they believe will meet the needs of their institution at that particular moment. In any given year, a school may be looking for quarterbacks for the football team, tuba players for the orchestra, or potential Latin majors to beef up enrollment in the classics department.
Although admission to the selective schools is fiercely competitive, the precise terms of the competition vary from season to season and remain unknown to all but admissions insiders. This is the basic truth at the heart of every good admissions book, whether fact or fiction.
In the last dozen years, numerous writers have attempted to explain how selective colleges make their decisions. In the non-fiction category, New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg’s “The Gatekeepers,” which chronicles the inner workings of the admissions office at Wesleyan University, is one of the best of these books. Readers of “The Gatekeepers” will recognize certain similarities to “Admission,” particularly the scenes where staff members make their final decisions.
In her notes, Korelitz acknowledges her debt to Steinberg. When it comes to a detailed and nuanced view of the inner workings of the process, his book is the gold standard. But, by weaving a multitude of admissions facts into a work of fiction, Korelitz offers something different. Readers get the inside scoop plus the pleasures of beach blanket reading. It’s homework that slides down like ice cream. And, if it doesn’t offer as bold a critique of the system as it might, it certainly provides plenty of background. Read, contemplate and enjoy.
Then get set for the movie—which, if experience is any guide, may offer more humor and fewer usable insights. But, with a project that includes Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and the talented Paul Weitz, who directedAbout a Boy, who knows? Prepare to be, if not astonished, at least charmed. Stay tuned!
Admission a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central Publishing. 464 pp. Paper $14.99 – Mti edition, Jan. 15, 2013
– The College Strategist