Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Early Decision: The terror of the college essay process becomes a gripping novel from former college admissions counselor, Lacy Crawford

Sigh. The Boy is in the midst of writing his college essays, applying to theater schools and taking his SATS and ACT for the last time. And we, his parents, are fried, frenzied, scared, lost. Living in the NYC area, we hear of kids being sent to Thailand to build houses, in order to ramp up their community service angle. We know of would-be-thespians taking acting classes in London, and there is always the $700-an-hour college consultant some families are fighting over because the price tag comes with a supposed guarantee the consultant can get their kid into Yale.

Sigh is right.

So when Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, popped through my door, I was nervous. Until I began to read. Crawford's taken one of the most terrifying and pressure-cooker times in a family's life--applying to college-- and turned it into art, along the way exploring how the stress to succeed often has nothing to do with happiness. I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Lacy.

So what made you want to put your experiences into a novel rather than into a memoir? is any part of the process fictionalized? (I ask this with a heavy heart...)          

A memoir would have violated the privacy the families I worked with, and in many cases the students whose stories I remembered had already been hurt enough; they didn’t need a book to publicize the wound.  And on the liability front, it would have been crazy to report the true stories of some of the enormously powerful and prominent families I worked for.  Finally, I wasn’t interested in telling my own story as memoir.  I was interested in the students, in redeeming their experiences and in—I hope—helping other families to avoid the same pitfalls.  
            The nuts and bolts of the process as depicted in the book are absolutely true, as any student or parent going through it will know—the labyrinth of forms and scores and essays, the bizarre experience of completing the Common Application.  But the characters in my book are characters, and while they were born of my experience in real life, they very much took over their own fates in the book’s pages.
            The anxiety, too, is real.  But one of the reasons I wrote a satire is to try to lift the scrim a bit, to reveal how this process is causing so much upset—how we can become so convinced that destiny hangs on a college acceptance that we forget that life is so much bigger than this.  And that raising a child through young adulthood means giving perspective to this process, not overwhelming a child with it.

 Are you familiar with the great documentary Nursery University? It's about what NYC parents do to get their 3 year olds into pre-school, including hiring a woman at $750 an hour to help them.  Do you see any signs that this trend and all this pressure is ever going to end?

Children have always borne the weight of their parents’ ambitions, in one way or another.  I think, broadly speaking, that it is the case in the United States at least that the expectations parents have for their children have become more specific: that is, it’s no longer to marry a suitable partner and have a family, or to find a career and support your family, but to have a very specific sort of life, involving one kind of partner and one kind of career, and the gateway to those things is often perceived to be one of about twenty-five colleges (and nowhere else).  Excepting the most status-hungry parents out there, I think that most parents are motivated by a healthy fear: fear of shifting economies, a battered job market, the pressures of globalization; all of these macroeconomic and social trends make it difficult for parents to imagine the world their children will inherit, and that is terrifying.  In the face of that, you want to give your child the best, most bullet-proof background you can.  Unfortunately, instead of defining that as self-reliance, authenticity, the confidence of one’s convictions, human compassion, they define that as Harvard / Yale / finance / law
            It is fascinating to me that some parents, particularly those featured in films such as Nursery University, believe that a child’s success in life can be secured by acceptance to the right preschool.  It is true that certain schools are “feeders” for other schools, and so on and so on, so if you get your child into, say, First Presbyterian Nursery School in the Village, you have a better shot at Brearley, and from there a better shot at Yale.  But those calculations aren’t at the heart of these parents’ quests.  Emotionally, they are looking to exempt their children from competition by competing for them; they’re looking to win them a place right from the beginning, so everything will be lined up for the rest of their lives.  This is a dream, of course.  To me, it signals a failure of imagination, and a reflexive, and very fear-based, response to parenting in our day.
            Is this going to end?  I couldn’t say.  There are strong, lucid voices arguing for sanity—Madeline Levine in The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well, Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, and others—as well as the sparkling examples of kids who took non-traditional paths to prominence.  I don’t much esteem Mark Zuckerberg, but I like that dropping out of Harvard has now become about as cool as getting in.  There are a million ways to make a life, and the world is astonishingly large and various.  The dream, I think, has to be to raise a child who has some sense of the possibility in the hands of the young, and who has enough quiet and faith to learn her own desires and go after them.

You were a college admissions counselor to children of privilege. Do you think it's the same way among those who aren't so privileged?

While I was working with wealthy clients, I volunteered at local public schools and, later, for individuals who were sent my way who could not afford anything like the sort of help I provided.  The hothouse climate of trophy schools and pressure does not exist for students who fall outside of a very narrow band of income and aspiration.  It is, quite simply, a luxury to sweat Harvard’s 5-percent admit rate; and I wish more parents had this perspective.  One of the characters in Early Decision, Cristina, is based on a real student, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who graduated from a huge and embattled urban high school and ended up at an Ivy League school.  Students as talented as she was have nothing to fear in the application process; their challenges far precede competition in the applicant pool.  Elite colleges and universities are keen to find and admit students like Cristina, and the top schools have plenty of funding for them; but the public education system fails them year after year.  These young people don’t know that college is a possibility.  They don’t know about the top schools, they have no idea of the fellowships and grants on offer, and they don’t have anyone to shepherd them through the maze of forms, test scores, and deadlines.  Often their parents are immigrants, documented or not, and this adds another layer of inscrutability to the application process.  It’s a problem that transcends racial and ethnic lines, and it really does enrage me to think that after clearing so many hurdles, posting consistent academic achievement in an underperforming school environment and with heaven knows what responsibilities and disadvantages at home, a student could fail to reach a top college because of what are essentially logistical requirements.  I hoped to help sound the drum for outreach and service to students in settings such as these. 
            In the middle, of course, is the wide band of young people who have to worry not only about where they’re accepted, but also about where they’ll receive aid (and how much they’ll be offered).  This is a grappling with real life that their more privileged peers are spared at great psychological expense.  It’s a rude awakening when, in their twenties or later, young people whose parents paid their way through college realize that things like rent and car insurance are not also free.  Also, in my experience, having to face the realities of college costs makes for more focused students.  We value things we have to work for.  Rich kids go, they drink, they network, they read some, they graduate.  But do they take advantage of as many opportunities as they could?  I’d argue that many of them never do.

Let's talk about the writing. What was the whole process like for you? Did you outline? Just fly by the seat of your pen? Was there anything that surprised you in the writing?

After my first child was born, I found myself thinking about my decade-plus of former students more than I had in all the years before.  I remembered the interactions with their parents, the long, late, miserable October and November nights with crying kids who felt they were going to let their parents down, who were convinced that their lives were over before they had even begun.  And I remembered with a fresh horror some of the things the parents had said and done.  I looked at my baby and thought, will I be possessed by the same madness?  I refuse to visit this on him. 
            I dreamed up some student characters first, and wrote their essay drafts, just for fun.  But I was home alone with my baby, and my husband’s job took him out of town every single week, so for the most part I just took notes for about nine months.  My son was colicky and would only nap in his car seat, so I’d drive around foggy San Francisco until he fell asleep, and then go park in a parking garage (I had a few favorites, usually the free ones attached to grocery stores) and take notes on the book.  I didn’t say a word about it to anyone—it was just a private folly, something I did to entertain myself while working out those first months with a first baby.  Finally I read a few pages to my husband, and he told me it was time to get serious about the book.  We hired part-time childcare to buy me a few hours during the week, and my husband took our baby on Saturdays so I could write.  I never outlined, but when a sequence of events came clear to me, or a particular character’s arc, I would scribble it down as quickly as I could, so as not to lose it.  By the time I started writing, I had been collecting ideas and intentions for so long that it was like unfurling a sail—it just billowed out ahead of me, and the experience was of chasing it, always trying to keep up.  I worked on it whenever I could—in the middle of the night, early mornings, whenever.
            Then there was revision, of course, sentence by sentence, constantly—I work with an entire manuscript, nothing is firm until it’s all done—but the drafting came to me with great pleasure.  I had waited so long to be able to work on it that it was a treat to finally be able to do so.

I found it fascinating that you wrote that in teaching these kids, you were able to sort out your own life. Could you talk about that please?

Immediately after graduation I tried my hand at a few things that I thought I would love to do, only to discover that I was in the wrong place.  I taught high school English, but I wasn’t a very good instructor.  I interned in public radio, but I wasn’t hungry for leads and I wasn’t really that turned on by narratives of sound.  I started a PhD program in English Literature, but I didn’t really want to be an academic.  After a time, this experimentation began to feel like floundering, and soon thereafter like drowning.  I can see now that I was trying things because I loved them, not because I loved doing them.  Not a bad way to experiment, and I was very lucky to have the opportunity to do this, but loving your English Literature studies does not translate to loving a classroom full of teenagers on a Monday morning, and listening to a lot of NPR does not mean that you’ll find your groove in a newsroom.  In a sense, I was performing a version of adulthood rather than working my way toward it; I wanted to be something before figuring out how to do something.  As I aged through my twenties, I began to panic.  I worried there was no place for me, that I would never hit upon the run of steady, small, cumulative successes that leads to a career, that allows someone to move from apprentice to practitioner in a given field.
            All of this time, I was working with high school seniors.  So many of them had been trained to present themselves in a certain way, particularly in writing, that it could take quite a lot of conversation for me to come to understand the things that mattered to them most.  Sometimes, without even knowing it, these kids were voicing their parents’ dreams rather than their own.  My job was to listen to them intently, to infer their interests based on how those things were expressed or hidden.  Terrific essays and a clear academic direction would always follow.  They’d say, But I can’t DO (biology / calculus / Latin).  There’s no WAY I can become a (dolphin trainer / video game designer / classicist).  And I’d reply, let’s just put one foot in that direction, let’s just knock on a few doors, and see what happens.  And they’d be off and running.
            It took a very, very long time for me to figure out how to apply this to my own life—how to admit what I really wanted to do and have the courage to go after it.  Some of my kids were emotionally savvy enough to detect this, and they’d provoke me a bit—So, are you loving this tutoring gig?—and it used to infuriate me.  Of course it did; they were holding up the mirror.
            But really I discovered that I needed to calm down, make some clear choices, and let the gods handle the rest.  It was a lesson in both resilience and conviction.

So what's obsessing you now?

You might have read about, or seen, the new documentary Blackfish about the keeping in captivity of killer whales.  My family relocated to San Diego last year, so Sea World is a regular day’s outing for us.  I’ve long been ambivalent about wild animals in captivity, and I usually find zoos to be terribly depressing, but I found that my resistance lessened when I saw the way my children reacted to the orcas and other animals at Sea World (and the San Diego Zoo, the aquarium, and so on).  I regretted that these magnificent animals weren’t roaming the open oceans, but I was able to imagine the thousands upon thousands of children who come to see them, and hope that if just one in every ten thousand children discovers his dream thereby, is overwhelmed by passion for these animals and set on a path toward oceanography, environmental research and preservation, even philosophy and the ethics of our association to the natural world, then there is a net positive here.  This film has thrown my precarious acceptance back into question, and I’m wondering if instead of offering my children a path to stewardship of the natural world, I’m instead modeling for them that humanity always has dominion over that world, even (and especially) the most powerful, exceptional animals, the ones who, in many ways, are most like us.  Which opinion most accurately reflects the truth?  I don’t know, but it seems to me that between the well-being of these animals and the preservation of the natural world (which task soon falls to my children’s generation), the stakes are very high.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

So should the parent of a college-bound senior hire someone like you?  Can my child compete without such a tutor? 

            There is absolutely a place for independent college applications counseling.  In-house (high school) college counselors can be overwhelmed, with far too many students to know everyone well and help them make good choices, much less be in useful dialogue about essay topics and other ideas.  There are wonderful college advisors out there who really know the schools and can offer support with the deadlines, forms, financial aid processes, search for grants and scholarships, and so on—all really critical logistical help for busy parents who may feel horrified by the anxiety and manic energy that attends every aspect of this process.
            That said, as with any profession, there are splendid practitioners and there are lesser ones.  Any applications advisor who is packaging a student instead of listening to him will insult a young person just as independence beckons.  It’s a tender time.  Choose wisely, lest your son or daughter be dropped into an applicant-molding process that will take care of everything except for taking responsibility if it doesn’t work out.  In other words: find your friends and stay above the fray, and it will all end up fine.  Really, it does.          

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