Seemingly no single aspect of competitive college admissions, from sappy, tear-jerker essays to merit aid, escapes the author’s comic touch in a new novel satirizing the admissions process, from start to finish.
“I’ve got three kids, who all went through this process in a period of five years,” says Susan Coll, author of Acceptance ( Sarah Crichton Books), her third novel.
“Going through the experience of touring colleges [27 of them, some more than once] and sitting through info sessions, so many of them in such a short period of time. . .at some point the stress of that experience just turned to comedy for me.”
Coll’s novel tracks three high school students -- including a teen whose nickname, AP Harry, says it all -- at hyper-competitive Verona High School in the affluent Washington suburbs, and the corresponding year of the interim admissions dean at summer camp-y Yates University, described by Coll in a Tuesday interview as the woodsy amalgam of every upstate New York liberal arts school.
From the first chapter on, when obsessive parents batter a cagey admissions officer with pompous questions (“Specifically,” Coll writes, one mother wanted to know whether her son could “use Yates University as his safety school”), Coll establishes stifling parental interference (involvement?) as a main source for her satire. She pokes fun of the insincerity of résumé-boosting volunteer work ("working with lepers" from an air-conditioned office in India!), the pervasiveness and power of U.S. News rankings, $9,999 college admissions crash counseling services and Harvard envy.
Nor are those on the other side of the admissions process beyond Coll’s genial but still sharp scrutiny: A claim on Yates’ land by an American Indian tribe inspires the cause-hungry Anti-War Union and Pro-Peace Initiative student groups to unite, despite the fact that they were “famously at political odds." And the process of putting together the perfect class emerges as anything but pretty, a fact no better illustrated than when the Yates administration makes it clear to the admissions office that a girl named Brittany who is the granddaughter of a rich donor is always welcome there -- even if she does incorrectly assume in her essay that the school is named after Yeats the poet, and proceeds to misspell the university’s name as such. “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” the Yates president says in justification, “couldn’t spell, either.”
“I couldn’t walk the dog in the morning without having a conversation about college. . . Often they’ll begin an information session by saying, ‘It’s Tuesday and you are at Bard College.' They know that you have seen so many schools,” Coll says of the inundation that inspired the novel. "You start to feel like you’re on a comic adventure."
Coll wrote the book with parents in mind, but also hopes high school students would enjoy it and perhaps even absorb the “anti-snobbery message.” Her overriding message, she says, “is that everybody’s going to be fine.”
Coll readily concedes, however, that the book satirizes the experiences of just a privileged sliver of students. “I’m the first to agree, that this is both a very isolated problem and also that I personally don’t really think it’s a problem, a huge problem,” she says. “I thought that it was just ripe for comedy.”