Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Early Decision

My son recently recommended a novel to me. I am going to go ahead and pass that recommendation along to anyone who has ever applied to college, gone to college, taught in high school or college, or had any kind of personal connection to anyone in any of the first three groups. It's called Early Decision by Lacy Crawford and is the story of one fall in the life of an "independent college admissions counselor" working with students to help them learn how to write the essays that will get them into the college of their choice. Clearly based on Crawford's own experience as an icaa, it's a very smart and funny and at times painfully honest book.

What I am about to say here does not do justice to the strengths of the book as a story. I can testify that it is indeed a good read: I blew through it in about two and half days, and enjoyed every minute of it.  But my primary focus here is going to be on some of what the book manages to convey about the college admissions process and the role of writing—and writing instruction—in that process.

As readers we are first introduced to Anne, the counselor, and then to several of the students she is working with — both through the drafts of the essays they write and through her interactions with them as she works to help them find what they might truly have to say —and then, inevitably their parents, whose emotional stake in these decisions too often turns out to be even more complicated and conflicted than their children's, and who often fail to understand how much the college admissions process has changed since they themselves were applying:

Anne had come to her work at a fortuitous time. A combination of social and economic factors had sent application rates soaring. The sixties had opened the college gates to nonwhites and women, and all of those kids—the baby boomers—had grown up and created more college-bound seventeen-year-olds than the country had ever seen. Growing wage disparity between blue- and white-collar jobs made a degree necessary for a middle-class existence; shifting industries made it impossible to land even some blue-collar gigs without the advanced diploma. Add to that the fetishization of certain schools and the institution of the Common Application, the online form that students could submit to a hundred colleges simply by giving each a credit-card number, and you had a mad scramble for a handful of trophy campuses, a blood race buffeted by corporate hangers-on, some of them standardized testing toughs and some of them media companies producing annual publications ranking schools from one to fifty on dubious metrics pulled together from SAT scores, graduates’ tax returns, and the occasional interview with a hungover senior. And to hear of it, there seemed nothing but the darkness of outer space for everyone who fell short of the bar.  (Kindle location 294)
Given the circumstances, Anne's job is to help students find they way to write with enough authority and self-assurance to get the attention of the admissions officers. Here is a scene from midway through the novel where where she is explaining to a skeptical parent what it is that she is really trying to do on behalf of her charges:

“Okay...So, take a boy who, say, loves sharks...He goes scuba diving in St. Barths and decides all he wants to do is live in shark cages. So over the summer he goes and gets his diving certification, and now he can be trusted to take his tank off and put it back on in the water. Standard stuff. He writes his college essay about great whites, and for good measure he’ll mention that everything is endangered, and he’ll lean on the scuba certification as proof of his dedication. And then he won’t understand why he doesn’t get in anywhere. Worse, he won’t understand why he ends up ten years later in a job he hates and he’s browsing tropical hotel Web sites every spare moment he’s got. But that kid...if I get a chance . . . Let’s say he’ll let slip to me that he happens to have memorized all the Latinate names of the animals. Suddenly he knows genus and species for a zillion critters in St. Barths. This kid who can’t conjugate ĂȘtre and avoir. There’s ability there, because he cares. Because it’s his and his alone and he loves it. If I can help him to understand that he can take that feeling he had underwater and apply it to his life—that there is a whole field of approach to such things, populated by people who treasure them—maybe then he realizes that he’s fascinated by marine biology because it actually means devising smarter and finer ways to understand these creatures and what they do and what they need. Now, he could also be interested in maritime law or conservation ethics or underwater photography, I don’t know, but you get my point. So this kid will go home and, usually without telling anyone, research marine biology departments, and discover several universities with killer programs that allow him to spend entire semesters in flippers. Suddenly college is there for him, not for anyone else—his parents, the annoying college counselor, even me. So that fall he steps it up in his AP bio class and the teacher takes a shine to him, because the teacher is flattered, and that teacher wants to write him his recommendation. And the boy’s essay is focused and clear, and the school college counselor, who has sixty kids assigned to her and doesn’t know a thing about him, realizes that he’s a marine-biologist-in-training and that he’s a great science student, which is a good handle, so she writes him a stronger school recommendation. And his list of schools is whittled to the ones where he really wants to go, and in his supplemental essays he’s able to write intelligently about what each school offers and why it’s a good fit for him. Now think of the admissions office: if they’re assembling a class of people, not just grades, and they can hear this boy’s voice and think, Hey, this kid tells a good story, I’d like to bump into him on the cobbled path out there on his way to the lab, then maybe he’ll get in instead of the other kid whose transcript looks exactly the same, whose grades and scores are equivalent, but who wrote about something dull as dirt. Do you see? I mean, who knows?" 2063

One of the things I loved about this book is how it honors the act of writing in exactly this way: not as a vehicle of compliance (writing what you think you want someone to hear and only when they have requested it) but as an act of self-exploration and self-definition and, potentially, self-transcendance. It's a way of thinking about writing that has been at the heart of what I have been trying to do as an educator throughout my career. Writing practice, in this sense, is precisely what our schools so often manage to squash completely out of our students. Here Anne diagnoses the problem of "voice" in a way that is completely consistent with what I have seen every single year of my career as an educator:

When they’re asked to write in the first person...and for something this important, kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page—you can hear it when they read out loud—gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to. They choose a topic that bores them witless. Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’ They drop in semicolons everywhere because they think it looks stylized. They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative. They forget where they started and they forget where they were going, and when they start to feel really disoriented, they’ll use an em-dash. If they totally lose it, they add an exclamation point. Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major or ‘the future’ or ‘the rest of my life.’ If they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’ 2186

So given the diagnosis, what's the prescription?

If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful... you listen for the sound of their voice. Sometimes, it only comes up in actual conversation. They’re so guarded, especially in the first drafts. But something will slip through—an image, an idea, a memory, something that they talk about in a simpler, softer, lower tone...That’s the art of it, I guess. I have to help them to write about that thing, in that mode. And then it’s easy. From there it’s just Strunk and White.” 2203 
This is an excellent book at any number of levels. It's a compelling read, the characters are complex and believable, and the writing is terrific. But what resonated most with me was not just that it had smart things to say about kids and families and the college admissions process—and about writing—but that the stories of the particular lives of the students Anne works with are so engrossing and funny and ultimately encouraging. You could be reading it in five minutes if you download it from Amazon now. Go for it.


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