Here is part two of our interview with Lacy Crawford (@lacy_crawford), author of Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy. In this fictional account of the college admissions process, Lacy takes a long hard look at five very different families and how they endure the pressure-filled fall of senior year. For many parents of high school kids, this book may be either a window or a mirror on a world that fills them with horror. But perhaps it best serves as a cautionary tale, asking parents to acknowledge that this is the end of a road, a time when your child needs to be very much themselves, a moment when they begin to lead. If Lacy’s characters cannot make that unmistakable fact clear, then reread her wonderful book.
G&F: What do you hope that parents reading this book will walk away with?
Lacy: Levity, confidence, and a sense of perspective. Also there are some honest tips, and if they help, great.
G&F: Helicopter parenting, of the type you feature, is quickly falling out of favor. Doing too much for our kids is no longer a badge of honor among parents. The number of high school seniors has peaked and the rise in applications at some schools has stalled. Do you see any of these factors altering the pressure that you describe?
Lacy: I do think that the conversation is shifting—that at a certain level of the national discourse about parenting, there is a dawning awareness that competing at all costs does not produce a healthy human being. I credit really wonderful thinkers and writers for leading the dialogue here (among them Madeline Levine, Wendy Mogel, Andrew Solomon with the astonishing Far From The Tree, and most recently Jennifer Senior with All Joy and No Fun and Debbie Stier with the sparkling Perfect Score Project). I still have inquiries almost daily from parents and students looking for help with applications, and the industry, from what I can tell, continues to shuttle right along. But I do hope that a sense of perspective is spreading, and that children who are very young now may benefit down the line.
G&F: In your book you show us the lives of five families enduring senior year of high school and your protagonist Anne, is a young, well-educated, private college counselor who both observes and endures this process with them. These are college-educated parents, familiar with applications yet they are both desperate for and repelled by their need for Anne’s help. Why don’t they think they can manage this themselves?
Lacy: In the book, parents come to hire Anne for different reasons. One couple is desperate to increase their son’s chances. Another thinks it’s the right thing to do, even though their daughter is already a shoo-in most everywhere. A third couple is using Anne to create the illusion that their daughter will have to earn admission to the school where her father is a trustee. A fourth has outsourced the entire process because they’re uncomfortable about a dawning realization they have about their son. The fifth student attends a failing high school in an underserved community, and comes under Anne’s wing on a purely pro-bono basis.
I think many parents familiar with the college admissions process in their own lives will recognize one or more families they know from the above profiles.
To speak more broadly, though, and answer your question for parents in real life, I think the current state of college admissions inspires a kind of uniform shock in parents coming to it for the first time, who marvel at how different things have become. I reject the contention that parents hire outside counselors because they’re desperately competitive and elitist. Certainly there is a lot of that, but for the most part, I think parents are looking to be thoughtful and supportive during a very challenging time. We share a collective memory of the golden age of college applications, when you didn’t feel that you had to compete with every other seventeen-year-old in the land. To a large extent, this is not just nostalgia. For the top schools, college admissions are demonstrably more competitive than they were even a decade ago. Logically, therefore, it’s important for even the strongest students to approach the process with care and plenty of planning.
The logistical challenges to doing this are huge even before you’ve considered the enormous hurdle of financial aid—finding it, securing it, and matching up financial support with the best college fit. For one or two working parents, it’s a terrifically time-consuming project.
Emotionally, of course, the stakes couldn’t feel higher. Students feel that they are under an enormous amount of pressure, but they often feel they have very little control over the outcome, and to some extent they’re right: this is not a purely meritocratic process. Admissions decisions can feel arbitrary and cruel.
Culturally, we conceive of college as the doorway to the future, and we imagine that the college that says Yes will determine the shape of a young person’s life. By the time we reach middle age, we may have learned from our own lives that character and luck play a significant (and I would argue greater) role in building a life than the name on one’s college diploma, but when it comes to our kids, who’s going to take that chance? It’s a bit of Pascal’s wager—you might not believe that Harvard will make your kid happy, but why not be unhappy with a Harvard degree?
It’s funny—I think the parents believe that hiring Anne is exactly how one “manages” the process. Witness the professionalization of everything—the invasion of the service industry into the home, with tutors at every level, life coaches, dog coaches, consultants of every stripe. If we’re stumped, and we can afford it, we hire someone else. To some extent this is a result of being very busy, and it can also be a mark of resourcefulness; but in the book my intention is to demonstrate a certain turning away at the moment of college applications. Parents believe the stakes couldn’t be higher, so in some cases they throw everything at the problem. On the subject of the college essay itself, I don’t think parents are wrong to seek a third party—it is almost impossible to offer an objective eye when you’re reading your own child’s work, and every teenager in her right mind will draft differently if she’s anticipating her parents will be reading her work. I wrote about this for The New York Times Motherlode blog. But what interested me in writing the novel is the combination of obsession with outcome that leads parents to pay enormous sums for help with a near-total lack of interest in what one’s own children have to say, either on the page or in person. Over and over again, I’ve seen a breakdown in conversation that reaches its nadir in college applications, and that’s a real shame, because it’s the last year before a young person leaves home.
G&F: Once these Common App essays have been carefully massaged by counselors, like Anne, school teachers and parents, what is left of the kid’s voice and how valuable is the final product for an admissions committee in really gaining insight into a student?
Lacy: The work Anne does with essays is different, I would argue, from the work performed by a lot of college counselors, which is to say she’s busy thinking about the students’ interests and listening for their own voices, rather than grooming sentences, directing topics, and adding sophistication. The very best college essay advisors can function the way excellent secondary school English teachers do, really teaching students how to use language to understand and express their own ideas. This doesn’t make the writing itself in any way inauthentic.
Anne does a lot of growing up in this book, She is trying to help her kids figure out where their lives should go, without knowing the same thing about herself. At points she seems as adrift as the parents are directed, yet none of the adults are really happy.
Anne’s malaise is a deliberate choice in the novel (and not bits of my diary stitched in there, as some readers have surmised!). I wanted the book to comment on the way society holds up an Ivy League-type education as the golden ticket to a good life, when in fact it is anything but. Economists tell us about lifetime earnings, and certainly this is a significant data point, but when we’re comparing top colleges to almost-top colleges, that diploma is almost entirely irrelevant to things like happiness and successful relationships. In fact, in many cases I believe it has an inverse affect. Certain young people are raised to think that if they can just land the trophy admission, the world will open up for them. Not so. This way lies entitlement and heartbreak, and also reveals a dearth of imagination about the value and diversity of human experience. It was important to me that Anne not be a guru, that she be stumbling just as much as her students, in spite of having seized the trophy their parents so dearly wish for their kids.
So many young people I’ve met and worked with are frantic, more frantic even than their parents, and I wanted to offer a bit of perspective about this particular brass ring. Life is a longer game, a much, much longer game, than college. It will not all be decided in their senior year of high school.
G&F: College essays ask for introspection, a quality I do not see in abundance in teens. How revealing is this “forced introspection” when it is done for the purposes of the application alone? If this is such a forced exercise, are we asking teens the wrong question?
Lacy: My children are very young, so my window may be very narrow, but I disagree. I think teens are endlessly introspective. I think they’re awash in strong feelings, not all of them physical, and they’re trying to find words or music or clothing or some format, some media, that will help them give shape to their feelings, to bring their identity in line with their emotional experience. And the world, from their point of view, is endlessly dismissive of this project. Adults just don’t care. Teens push boundaries, and we either write it off as “typical” or come down hard and clip their freedom. Each adolescent revelation may sound clichéd to all of us, but that’s because we had all of those feelings, too. They possessed us and they left us exhausted.
The challenge for teens is how to have some perspective, how to understand how their individual experience fits into their community, society, history as a whole. A simple example of this is to pose the problem of the student who loves certain things passionately but figures he’s “not meant for school” because he hasn’t yet discovered an academic path that matches up to his interests. Can he come to understand which courses and schools offer tools that will help him on his way, that take seriously his passions? Can he imagine a career that suits, and understand how people land there? Another example is the young person who volunteers for a local charity but is frustrated that doing so doesn’t make her feel less ashamed of her own privilege, who feels stymied by the small amount of difference she seems able to make. Can she understand these feelings for what they are—an innate sense of social justice, and despair at the problem of scalability in public service—and recognize that there are entire fields of study and work aimed at addressing these issues? That law, public policy, philanthropy, even medicine are professions into which she could throw her heart and make things better?
In my opinion, and in my work, the challenge with young people is to show them that their feelings do count, and that their job is to decode the world, to understand that there is honor in work, that most industries, however attenuated, are based on fundamentally sound values and goals. It’s that decoding, that sense of understanding the systems of power and economy, that allows young people to determine the opportunities available to them. An excellent college application, in my experience, almost always displays this sense of perspective. And the good news is that it doesn’t require forced introspection to help a young person arrive at such clarity; rather, good, smart conversation about the world, and about the many places people assume in it, will do the trick.
G&F: You have come to being a novelist through a circuitous path, is this what you were trying to teach the kids you worked with that, we will get where we are meant to go?
Lacy: In fact my writing path wasn’t terribly circuitous. I have always wanted to write, and I was always writing. One great challenge for me was how to build a life that permitted me to earn a living and work toward something meaningful while I worked at my writing. In my twenties I spent three years on a novel that has a drawer for a coffin, and from the ashes of that heartbreak I began a career in nonprofit strategy and communications. Even when I reached an executive level in that field, I refused to work more than three days a week (they were long days, but still) so I could reserve time to write. And all along, I was working with high school seniors, for the most part because I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and it paid. But I never stopped writing, and prior to the novel I was working for a literary magazine for years, writing lots of nonfiction, and of course always, always reading. I don’t always believe that we get where we are meant to go, but I do believe that a great portion of building an adult life comes from negotiating the sometimes tricky relationship between the work we love to do and the work that pays.
I have friends who left college and went straight into lucrative careers, and now, as we’re turning 40, very few of them are still in those careers—and those who are, express ambivalence at best. I have other friends who looked and looked, and who finally found their truest work later in life, and they are full of energy, focused on the future and excited about their paths. Some of them are making a lot of money, and some of them are not. Parenting confounds this process, of course, which is all the more reason why I hope young people can graduate from college with some self-awareness and the willingness to go after the career they want. Those years in our twenties when many of us aren’t yet raising other people—when we can actually raise ourselves!—are long and so valuable, and they can be so easily squandered.
G&F: You have said that the book is true and that it is fiction, can you explain?
Lacy: I’ll borrow from Lorrie Moore here: the characters are almost entirely invented, a few of the circumstances are invented, and almost all of the feelings are true.
Just about everything that happens in the book, happened in the context of my work with a student. But I’ve not portrayed any real people here; only situations, odd choices, painful paradoxes.
If there is any doubt, however, that parents will go to these sorts of extremes in the application process, well, I can tell you: they do, and then some. I haven’t written some of the most egregious examples. Money is powerful in this game, I’m afraid. It really is.
G&F: What is the best thing about getting your first book published?
Lacy: The opportunity to join a conversation about this aspect of American life, and families, and how we are all better and more thoughtful than it would make us out to be.