Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Get Your Kid Into Princeton

On another occasion..she would have smugly, sharply, explained that the system--the much maligned system that so perplexed and offended the woman beside her--did not exist to validate [this woman's] child's life, let alone her parents' lives.  It 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 certainly did not exist to congratulate those parents who had done the best parenting, pureed the most organic baby foods, wielded the most flash cards, hired the most tutors, or driven the greatest distances to the greatest number of field hockey games.  The system, as far as she was concerned, was not about the applicant at all.  It was about the institution.

--Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Portia Nathan is a Princeton admissions officer, and her fictional character is an apologist for the Ivy League system throughout the novel Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a brilliant storyteller. At the outset of the novel, she is visiting schools across New England, a post she was awarded only after a long, dues-paying stint on the West Coast, of all indignities.  Korelitz does Yankee snobbery in subtle yet unmistakable way. Portia lives in Princeton with a British professor of English literature.  Their relationship is comfortable, or so she thinks.  Its placidity serves as a balm to a painful relationship she had as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. (Yes, as legacy parents point out, she couldn't have gotten into Princeton.)  As in all good stories, people make mistakes, and things change in Portia's life rather quickly in the first chapters of this book. 

Portia's personal story weaves its way through what's known as reading season in admissions offices.  Her thoughts on her job, however, are the theme of the book. Like Jacques Steinberg's The Gatekeepers, a non-fiction chronicle of the admissions office at Wesleyan University, it is sympathetic to the people who determine what feels for high school seniors like the most important thing that will ever happen to them.  And then there are the parents:  Korelitz writes satirically about those who call to make sure their child's application hasn't been lost and then must make certain she is aware of the lead flute playing or the volunteer work at the women's shelter. 

In a scene that makes clear how siblings can be as different as night and day, the man she is dating takes her to a family gathering.  His sister, who turns out not to be a caricature thanks to deft prose, is grilling Portia about just how students can go about getting into their school of choice.  "These kids just need to know what you want," she says.

These kids, Portia tells us, suffer from a lifetime of being packaged for admission. Many of them, she learns anecdotally, suffer from imposter's syndrome:  they've done everything to get into these schools, but it's not been their own voice speaking, so they all silently assume they are the only frauds in their class.

In the end, there is message from this book of fiction that rings so true: an authentic life leads to success, even when we are children and barely more.  As Portia says near the end of the novel, when she confronts an ethical crisis that may help her resolve a major personal dilemma but puts her job in jeopardy: "Oh yes, now I understand.  These impressive, compelling kids, enormously likeable kids--they're the ones we don't take.  This amazing, extraordinary kid, that's the kid we take.

What Portia tells us is that, in order to help our kids succeed, we need to let them become extraordinary in their own way.  That might mean Princeton, or for the other 99 percent of them, it means being true to oneself, not easy at any age.  Better to learn it young, if one can.

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