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Book Review: Admission

The novel that tells the tales from behind-the-scenes at the workings of elite college admissions in the U.S.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   03-03-2014
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, published by Grand Central.

If you are struggling with a dry college admissions guide, put it down. Instead, pick up Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel ‘Admission’ - a real page turner. The author spent years reading applications at Princeton University, and her novel, replete with a complicated heroine, circles around the admissions process at Princeton.

Princeton University is a place so discriminating we are told that it can afford to turn down applicants who are “excellent in all of the ordinary ways” in favor of the utterly extraordinary — “Olympic athletes, authors of legitimately published books, Siemens prize winners, working film or Broadway actors, International Tchaikovsky Competition violinists.

The novel follows 38-year-old Princeton University admission officer, Portia Nathan, whose life revolves around admissions season, school visits, and the process that winnows out the ordinary mortals with their 4.2 GPAs, from the real academic stars. Portia embarks on a fall recruiting trip to Deerfield, a traditional Princeton feeder-school, where she fields questions from a roomful of eager overachievers. Later at the alternative Quest high school in the New Hampshire woods, she meets a brilliant 17-year-old boy named Jeremiah, from a working-class family, who was largely self-taught until he joined Quest because his public school couldn’t help him further.

Portia connects instantly with the unconventional college-bound applicant - Jeremiah has become a self-taught autodidact whose brain bubbles with interesting ideas about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kérouac, American civil rights history, and everything inbetween. Back at Princeton, Portia updates her boss saying Jeremiah is, “Very gifted, and a little bit odd.” The boss exhales and infers, “One for the faculty, then.”

A twist in the plot includes romantic sparks  flying between Portia and Jeremiah’s teacher John Halsey. It turns out that nearly 20 years earlier, she and John were both students at Dartmouth, but our heroine hardly knew he existed then.

Saying more would ruin the rich surprises this book holds but a hint includes there’s a plot-turn with the possible discovery that Jeremiah may be Portia’s long-lost son, who she gave up for adoption many years ago. A major theme in the novel is the grief that accompanies losing a child - even just to the process of growing up and leaving home for college.

This book has built-in appeal for students and parents seeking a behind-the-scenes look at the esoteric workings of elite-college admissions. We learn beleaguered admission officers often receive specific requests for talent. Portia’s boss tells his harried troops “bring me saxophone players” as he tries to appease the music department. Emotions typically run high at final admit/reject crunch meetings as admission officers get surprisingly invested in kids after reading their applications.

Readers will have a great deal of fun reading the excerpts from imaginary admissions essays which appear at the beginning of each chapter. The author, who has seen her fair share of essays while reading applications at the Admissions Office at Princeton, is brilliant at channeling a variety of voices in the fragments of funny, wry and often dazzling essays she has created for this book. Korelitz’s friend, Princeton Professor of Philosophy, Gideon Rosen drafted the two philosophical essays that appear in the novel.

Korelitz’s fourth novel ‘Admission’ has recently been adapted into a film starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin.

 

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.

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