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April 21, 2015

EARLY DECISION --- Putting College in a Different Perspective


There are few things that elicit more dread in a high school student's mind than the words "college applications." The agonizing decisions of where to apply, the endless streams of essays asking you to describe every last particle of your accomplishments and your character and confusing financial aid forms. 

Teen Board member (and high school junior) Alison S. can relate --- and for this reason, decided to read the adult satire EARLY DECISION for a little bit of light-hearted fare on a semi-daunting topic. However, the book turned out to be a bit different than she expected. Read her thoughts below --- and if you're just starting the college application process, you might decide to pick it up for yourself!

College essays rarely achieve any degree of literary brilliance, so I, quite logically, assumed any novel written about college essays would suffer from a similar superficiality. I picked up EARLY DECISION looking forward to a breezy satire of college admissions --- a rite of passage that, as a high school junior, I'm already dreading.

And by "dreading," I of course mean awaiting with the composed and bright-eyed confidence that every soon-to-be senior should embody.

As usual, my assumptions betrayed me. Sure, some of EARLY DECISION's characters --- the frazzled trophy wife, the bumbling Tiger Parents --- provide more comic relief than complexity, and protagonist (and self-proclaimed "application whisperer") Anne sometimes veers into Mary Sue-ism. Though Anne's day job (herding pampered teens into their top-choice colleges) raises some uncomfortable questions about privilege and the impossibility of true meritocracy, at times Crawford way overcompensates for Anne's less-than-noble career: not only does our protagonist not own a TV, she also tutors inner-city kids on the weekends, runs five miles every morning and stays runner-thin despite subsisting on a diet of popcorn, diet Coke, and fun-size Snickers bars.

But Anne's more than her enviable, almost-hipster existence as an ivy-educated, theater star's girlfriend --- she fantasizes about missed opportunities and preserves her deceased pet goldfish in her freezer. And, as college admissions ferments into a near-frenzy, she's torn between her own desire to help the kids and the immovable, oftentimes conflicting desires of their parents.

And though Anne's five undeniably privileged teenage clients evolve into surprisingly complex (and, even more surprisingly, sympathetic) characters, each pampered teen also reflects an aspect of Anne's tumultuous inner-life --- from overachieving Alexis Grant, who compares choosing a college to "freezing all of the [possible] me's except one" to Sadie Blanchard, the lovably mediocre heiress who suffers from "years of enforced gratitude" and strives to "[take] up as little space as possible." In one of her earlier, cringe-worthy essay drafts, Sadie compares her volunteerism to a five-pointed star, and, as clichéd as extended metaphors may be, I can't help but think of Anne's internal conflict as symbolized by each of her five points --- I mean students.

And that's what makes EARLY DECISION so remarkable: the final essays reflect not only the student's conflicting desires for independence and approval, but also Anne's own conflicting desires. Anne might dream of a career that isn't confined to 500 words or less, but she also fears the prospect of failure inherent in any job change. She might chafe at her boyfriend's self-absorption, but she also dreads the heartache inherent in any breakup.

If I'd wanted a book that made me think, I probably wouldn't have checked out a novel satirizing college admissions. But as the disappointing futures of some of Anne's tiger-parented students evidence, what we want isn't always what's best for us. Sure, Crawford's debut delivered on the over-the-top, halfway-to-lunacy humor I expected, but it also addressed America's obsession over top-drawer colleges with unexpected nuance and surprising humanity. I picked up this novel hoping to learn Crawford's trade secrets for acceptance at my top choice schools; more importantly, however, I learned the importance of differentiating your own hopes and dreams from the expectations of your parents --- I mean society.

And that's a lesson every college applicant could stand to learn.

Alison S. is a member of the Teen Board.