Will: The Insanity of College Admissions

Ivies," "safeties," "AP prep courses," "legacy," "résumé-enhancing activity," "nonbinding early acceptance," "rolling admissions," "single-choice early action." If this argot is familiar to you, poor you: You have a child in high school, and these are the days that try your soul, the spring days when many college admissions are announced, often by e-mail, which is how AP Harry learned he was deferred by Harvard.

Harry is a character in Susan Coll's new novel "Acceptance," set in Verona County, Md., which is the real Montgomery County, Md., thinly disguised—rich, liberal, full of strivers and contiguous to strivers' paradise, Washington. Harry earned the nickname AP because beginning with his freshman year he took almost every Advanced Placement course offered at Verona High School, which is so serious about placing graduates in prestigious colleges that the principal stalks the halls quizzing students on vocabulary words. For Harry, only Harvard will do.

But Harry is a white male without a legacy at Harvard, and although he got a perfect 800 on his math SAT, even with the help of private SAT prep tutoring he could boost his critical reading score only to 720. And when he got a B in an AP English course, he worried that it was the beginning of a long slide that would terminate on some skid row or, worse, at a "safety" school not among the Ivies.

Harry, who wears starched shirts and a blazer and carries a briefcase, is a real rara avis in Verona County—a conservative whose heroes include Trent Lott. And he is a wee bit obsessive. He has his mother quiz him to confirm that he remembers the U.S. News & World Report's list—in order—of the top 50 liberal-arts colleges. He subscribes to a service that each day sends an SAT-type question to his cell phone. Harry taps his phone keyboard and reads:

" 'Their ideal was to combine individual liberty with material equality, a goal that has not yet been realized and that may be as [blank] as transmutation of lead into gold.' "

"Before Harry could continue, a small girl wearing orthodontic headgear blurted out the answer: 'A, chimerical'."

Also, Harry's sentences frequently trail off into lists of synonyms useful for the SAT vocabulary test:

" 'You look kind of pale, Mom ... pale, sallow, pallid, wan ... '

"Grace forced a smile ... 'Ashen?'' she asked.

"'Very good, Mom,' Harry said, smiling adorably."

Grace's neighbor, who walks her dog on a Burberry leash, began fretting about college admissions during the summer before their children entered eighth grade. That neighbor hired a private college counseling service at a two-year cost of $30,000, and she signed up her daughter—who she insists preferred NPR to television at age 4—for SAT prep courses three years ahead of the normal schedule.

Coll writes: "How had a test originally intended to give a smart kid stuck farming pigs in the Midwest a chance to compete with the children of the Northeastern elite morphed back into a tool to help the rich stay on top?" How? By what Coll calls the "snakepit of parental competition" among the kind of parents who send holiday letters like this:

"We are ringing in the New Year in Ireland at the behest of Bree, who was so taken with her reading of 'Ulysses' in her rapid learner reading class that we are taking a self-guided tour of Joyce's Dublin ... Sixth grade has proven a bit dull for Bree ... An aspiring novelist (as you may have guessed!), she plans to spend the summer honing her writing skills at a workshop at Johns Hopkins ... Conveniently, her little brother will also be attending Johns Hopkins this summer. Gordon has been accepted into the 'HeadsUp' program for preschoolers who show an innate predisposition for design and engineering ... "

Such parents produce children who, Coll writes, worry unhealthily as they were taught to worry in health class: "If exchanging flirty text messages was the first step toward contracting a sexually transmitted disease, a bad decision about where to apply to college would probably lead to a life of future unemployment, then homelessness, and finally exclusion from family gatherings at holidays."

"Acceptance" also examines the travails of the admissions official at fictional Yates College ("the Princeton of Upstate New York"), which has just had the deranging experience of cracking the U.S. News list at number 50. Imagine plowing through applicants' essays "about how Mahatma Gandhi was the single greatest inspiration in these kids' lives, or how the historical figure with whom they most closely identified was Harry Potter."

The mother with the Burberry leash suggests that her daughter's college application essay begin, "Family lore has it that my first words were 'Standard Oil'." What happens to that daughter, to Harry and other young victims of "the Verona madness"? Buy Coll's book and find out. It is hilarious and dismaying ... alarming, disturbing, disquieting, agitating, perturbing ...

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