Busman’s Holiday Reading

This entry also appears on the NACAC blog, Admitted.

Heading for the hills at last, speeding to the shore or dashing to your dacha for a few blissful weeks away from the office? Feeling guilty that you haven’t begun writing recommendations or finished your fall travel planning? Worried about not answering your BlackBerry or iPhone or being away from your laptop? (You are going to be away from your laptop, aren’t you?) Have no fear—here are some books about college and the college admission process you can take with you so you won’t suffer too much withdrawal. The best thing—you can read them when you want to.

First off is Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, Admission, which has Portia Nathan, a Princeton admission officer, dealing with the double helix of university admissions and admissions about her own past. It’s a well-written and sympathetic book that gets to the heart of the dilemmas admission officers face while also getting to the heart of its main character. And you’ll wonder about her final decision for a long time.

Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons is breezy and archly critical as he tends to be, but it’s a sharp, funny novel about a girl from the other side of the tracks and her experiences at a Duke-like university down south. On the pre-college side, try Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Its premise is similar—a girl from Indiana receives a scholarship to attend a prestigious East Coast boarding school, with all the transitions and awkward moments that entails. Both have some funny and poignant moments, with great characters all around.

For a nonfiction look at being odd man out, try Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams, a memoir by Alfred Lubrano, a kid from Bensonhurst who ends up attending Columbia University, where his bricklayer father had helped build some of its buildings.

Some hefty but eye-opening reading comes with Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. This exhaustively researched and well-written book weighs in at 711 pages but its revelations about how these universities conducted admission in the late 19th and early 20th centuries will curl your hair if sun and surf haven’t done that already. It’s less an indictment than a reality check: “golden age” of college admission? Not so fast! Who knew that the Ivies once tried very hard not to have too many smart kids?

It’s been out for a while but it’s worth reading Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, if you haven’t already. Reportorial but empathetic (Steinberg writes about college admission topics for the New York Times), it provides a behind-the-scenes look at the admission process by focusing on one admission dean, Ralph Figueroa, at Wesleyan as he goes through an admission year.

Thomas Hine’s The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the American Adolescent Experience helps answer the question, Where the heck did all these kids we work with come from? Hine provides a fascinating contextual narrative that illustrates the evolution of the creature we now call a “teenager.” While teens once were expected to take on adult roles very quickly, they are today both courted and feared as a group, and, as Hine puts it, “School and university are simply a convenient place [sic] to store them until their talents are required.” Discuss! His final chapters ask us to perhaps redefine what being a teen means in our changing culture, and you may wonder a bit less about why they behave the way they do now. Or not—the book was written before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

So have fun wherever you go (or stay) and leave the guilt behind. Reading at least one of these books should inoculate you against out-of-office queasiness. See you in the fall!