College admission and American culture discussion

The Admissions
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Meg Mitchell Moore's The Admissions

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Parke | 8 comments Has anyone read this novel? If so is it entertaining, or is it accurate in a way that a non-fiction book can't be or simply not worth reading?


Will (wmd1935) | 26 comments Mod
I've just finished it. I enjoyed the intertwined stories as well as Angela's experiences with the application process. I was puzzled about the title at first, but as the book progressed, I got how "admissions" can really cover a lot of ground. The cover blurb makes it seem like a book about the craziness of college admission, but it's really about family pressures and the secrets we call carry. Here, everything comes to a head toward the end, with even some extra twists. A very satisfying read. Moore gets the admission anxiety right, I think, and Angela's parents' own "admissions" lead to a very solid ending. A good read in general, whether you're in college admission or not.


Steve Peifer | 3 comments My review: It really captured the angst of modern admissions, but where it really shines is as an indictment of a society that is so busy it has lost sight of its soul. The pressures and fatigue of contemporary families is really captured here, and it is as sad as it should be. The ending is a bit too pat, but this is a gripping, important book.


Parke | 8 comments In the midst of Meg Mitchell Moore’s novel The Admissions, Angela, a senior in a high-pressure high school in a high-income neighborhood just outside San Francisco, runs a cross-country race. We hear her labored breathing as she, whose life has been shaped by her father, her school, her peer group, and the culture of Marin country, CA runs beyond her limits to attempt to win the ultimate prize: no, it isn’t a gold medal at the end of the race; instead, it’s a spot at Harvard.

Angela’s labored breathing gets worse with each step. She struggles to keep up with the runners around her. This tortured sound serves as a metaphor for those students now applying to the most selective colleges and universities in the world. The race --one long exercise in pain and lack of oxygen-- is just one of the recurring metaphors for the way the upper middle class culture has embraced what Freud called “the death drive” as a response to keeping up with the Stepfordesque neighbors in terms of schools, houses, jobs etc. Which college one goes to what business one works for what neighborhood one lives in all have life and death consequences. Or so some think.

This cross-country race, in addition to being a metaphor, comes to us with specific details--the shape of a hair braid of the runner in front of Angelica-- bounces in front of her and the readers' eyes in close up. The way teens talk just before the gun goes off has the glibly bland flatness of real dialogue. For those who like details, carefully chosen and woven into the tapestry of each chapter, they will not be disappointed by the descriptions throughout the book. The author is, to be sure, talented in crafting a plot and giving us the details that make the multiple storylines move along. We are drawn in and care about the fates of Angelica, her family and friends.

Overall, there are very few flat characters. One intern who will resort to almost anything to gain a job is an exception, but almost all the others are, at some level, civil, urbane, and generous and far more ethically rooted than the family whose unraveling we get to peek in on and then get to enjoy the often excruciatingly detailed self-flagellations that come afterward. One “character” that has, if not a starring role, then at least a best supporting one, is The Golden Gate Bridge. I won’t spoil why the bridge shows up throughout the book except to say it is also a symbol of something that has great beauty but also has a dark side too.

Ms. Moore has talent, no doubt about it. The plot is tightly woven, a bit like the hair braid that Angela sees as she runs her race. Each chapter has an arc and each of the plot lines unfolds logically but also with some useful misdirection so that we as readers are surprised by some of the things that happen by the end. The book has the edges and shadows of a tragedy—how kids’ lives are in danger given all that they go through to get into top colleges, but ultimately the book is a comedy of manners.




As the book unfolds we gradually begin to understand that the title refers not simply to the admission process that Angela must endure as she and some of her friends apply to Harvard. The subtitle could well have been Crimes and Misdemeanors. Ultimately, the admissions refers to confessions that characters must make for transgressing the bounds of what is ethical or at times legal. The book has a moral arc that fiction must have if it is to appeal to its targeted audience—those hyper stressed students applying to elite schools, the moms and dads pushing the kids to go to these schools and all the educators and others who have been keeping up with stories coming out almost weekly on how bad these kids have it who hope to get in to schools that turn down 95% of those who apply.

I hope I have made it clear that the book is a good read. Several people who have read the novel have posed the question to me that I want to answer here. How accurate is the portrayal of the stress that kids are under who attend secondary schools in communities composed of successful professionals? In other words, does the author get it right when talking about what these kids and families are going through?

Ms. Moore does underscore the stress in ways that many would say are accurate. To give just one example, Julie Lithcott Haimes’ book, How To Raise an Adult, has, as its thesis, the critique of the unhealthy approach that parents in these kinds of communities take to raising children: I understand that the systemic problem of overparenting is rooted in our worries about the world and about how our children will be successful in it without us. Still, we’re doing harm. For our kids’ sakes, and also for our own, we need to stop parenting from fear and bring a more healthy— a more wisely loving— approach back into our communities, schools, and homes.

Julie Lythcott-Haims,.How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Henry Holt and Co.

This book, a Cri du Coeur, might well serve as the non-fiction bookend to The Admissions. Lythcott-Haims has children ienrolled n Gunn high school, the school that many of the Mountain View companies in California send their children too. It has a record for getting students in to great colleges but it also has a record for students falling apart or worse. The cover story in most recent issue of The Atlantic focuses on student suicides at Gunn High School.
"The Silicon Valley Suicides Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?" (Full disclosure: Julie and I are part of a podcast put out by Slate called Getting In. Julie hosts the show and I contribute commentary on the state of admission as it exists today. She and I agree that there is far too much emphasis on name rather than fit). The Admissions shows just how far certain people are willing to go to try to get into top schools. It also shows what some students think or do when their dreams of Ivy don’t work out. The intersection of fact and fiction of life imitating art and art imitating life underscores how parents around the US and the world as well, may be hurting the way their children navigate their way through the world. The Admissions does this without making it too much of a novel based on a moral although the center of the book's ethical core does ask us to judge parents who sell their souls for looking good to others need a personality and maybe even a geographical judgment.




While I laud Ms. Moore for writing a readable novel about the stress that pervades the tony neighborhoods around the country, I also have to point out that she really does not know how bad it is for kids who expect to get in to places like Harvard. I am not trying to be an alarmist or make things more stressful for those who read this but the author simply has the parents and students in this book miss stuff that no self-respecting Ivy fixated group would. I believe that Ms. Moore actually misleads readers about what students really need to do to get accepted at the most elite schools. It is not that she is hyperbolic about everything that Angela and her family should think and do; actually, she does not have a Angela doe the things virtually any student applying to Harvard from a community she is in would do.

I will give just a few examples. Angela seems unaware that her friends are paying big money for SAT prep until the topic comes up in the fall of her senior year. A kid with a Harvard obsessed dad and a school of Ivy hopefuls would all know the best prep programs for SAT,ACT, SAT 2 and AP course before 11th grade started. No matter how smart the students are parents will enroll students at these kids of prep programs if they think it will help their chances. The family is also clueless when it comes to college counseling. They do not obtain the services of an independent consultant , something many in these communities do, and they act as though it is a huge surprise that some of Angela’s friends are doing this. It also comes as a surprise to the parents that drug use is all too common at the school. The drug I am referring to is not weed, although I am sure there is a pretty fair amount of kids that get high in schools like this; instead it’s Adderall, the study drug of choice among high school and college students especially during exam periods.

To portray parents who are ivy obsessed but also clueless about many of these issues seems to fail my test of willing suspension of disbelief. It is also unfortunate that we do not see the whole list of schools Angela is applying to. In the book it appears she has applied to almost nowhere else except Harvard. No kid would do this today. The kids today see the previous group of seniors, the stars of the school, get dinged at top schools. Watching the top student not get in is one of the lessons kids learn from as they embark down the dark tunnel of admission. The college counselor in the book underscores the competitive landscape but the father simply dismisses it and the mother does not really seem to care all that much about it. This too strains credulity.

Finally, anyone who has been showing off his Harvard alum status for as long as the father does in the book would at least at some point play the name game once a week with someone who knew someone when he was a college student. The alum status would also get him an unending stream of mail from the schools asking for money and letting him know how his fellow student have done since leaving . In other words, the dad should be showing everyone his Harvard stuff in more ways than he does. Angela's talk with a Harvard admission Dean also stretches things a bit far, but I won't say much else about this as it it still a good scene within the scope of a fictional world.

The non-fiction world students live in, to sum up, is even more tightly wound than Ms Moore seems to know. In an interview Ms. Moore said the book came out of a year spent on the West Coast with her family. Her children are young and so she did not actually get to hear how obsessed everyone really is at a place like Gunn, except second hand. Her kids were not old enough to be in the mix. For those who have had students go through the process in recent years, I am not sure you will think that the author got it right when she tries to tell it like it is. And yet, despite all that, the moral of the book still dovetails with what Julie says in her book too. There is far too much pressure on kids and far too much parental involvement in making sure their children do not have negative outcomes of any sort. But challenges are endemic to living and some of the students, the real ones applying this year, are not well-prepared for the emotional turmoil from not having their dreams come true about the school they wish to attend. The Admissions takes us close to the edge of what is happening but it also gives us a chance to back away and see there are things far more important than Harvard.


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