Lacy Crawford is the author of the wonderful new book, Early Decision: A Novel(William Morrow.) For fifteen years she served as a discreet college admissions counselor to the super rich, shepherding their children through the maze of applications and essays. From August until acceptance, two or three times a week, she worked with students helping them research schools and draft, rewrite and polish their essays. While Lacy was employed by parents to guide their children, it is clear that those who hired her were in great need of her help as well. (BTW, Lacy can be reached via twitter at @Lacy_Crawford)
After years of working with high school seniors Lacy faced an even more daunting task, filling out applications for nursery school for her own baby. “I’d been secretly judging these parents for ten years,” Lacy recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But there I was, ready to step on the same moving walkway, and I thought, ‘I know how this ends.’ This ends with me hiring someone like me to get my kid into college.” It was then that she began to take the notes that would turn her very real experiences into a superb work of fiction.
Mary Dell and I met Lacy at the book salon of the incomparable Aidan Donnelley Rowley and, while I politely bought the book as I love to support authors, I had no intention of opening its cover, or even taking it out of the bag.
As the parent of a high school senior, I feared Lacy’s book would be like touching the third rail, an act so foolish and painful that I would instantly regret it. Yet one night I mustered up the courage to peek inside and then could not set her volume down. I grabbed it as I left for a flight to London and read my way right through the night and across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong, there was more than one moment of painful, excruciating recognition, as I saw my parenting self in the beautiful fictional narrative of five sets of parents tangoing through the harrowing college process with their beloved 17 year olds. But still I turned the pages.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to ask Lacy some questions about her experiences in college admissions, working with teens, and becoming a highly successful novelist.
G&F: Is it possible for parents to face the fall semester of senior year without losing your mind? You ask, it may be rhetorical, but for parents out there staring into the jaws of high school, how do you do it?
Lacy: Short answer: no, not really. You’re going to feel a little bit crazy, but that’s good: your child’s future matters to you, and the stakes are high, and you care. Good for you. And wonderful—truly, wonderful—that you’ve raised a child to the point of considering excellent four-year colleges, that you’ve made that possibility a reality. As the mom of toddlers, I salute and admire every single parent facing down that college cannon.
However, there are good choices and bad choices, and when a student reaches senior fall, her parents have one year left before they’re packing her up and dropping her off in a dorm somewhere, and for heaven’s sake, one wants it to be a good year. How to do that?
Play the long game.
When your child is 30, 35, 40, you aren’t going to care what diploma’s on her wall. You’re going to want her to be deep into a vibrant career she loves, devoted to a partner, healthy and strong, with or without a family, whatever—but really engaged in her life. Not slogging away at a job she took because it seemed like the next “right” thing to do, or having a nervous breakdown in her custody battle with the wrong person who seemed like the “right” one. If you’re already in the position to be sweating which four-year college your child will attend, you’ve already secured for her a certain set of privileges that will translate in the job market. What matters now, and will matter forever, is that your child has the courage of her own conviction: the ability to imagine her own future and take concrete steps toward building it. Honor this, and let the chips fall where they may. She will remember that you supported her, and it will make her stronger.
Day by day, in practice, during that most difficult season, a parent must get out of the comparative register. Because someone’s kid will commit to an Ivy for soccer or badminton or whatever, and someone else’s kid will have a godmother who’s a trustee, and someone else’s kid will have been born on Mars, and it will seem, some days, that there is no way to make your wonderful, exceptional child stand out, and that is crazy-making. But it is only crazy-making if you consider a certain college or set of colleges the end game. That way lies madness, whether the child is admitted or not. Trust me on this; it does. The real prize is your child’s developing character: courage, confidence, resilience, curiosity, the willingness to dream, the willingness to work. You’re in it for the long haul, here; you are present at the beginning of a long and rich life. So work on the application, yes, but then let it go. Luck has a very heavy hand in this process. Your child’s folder may come up for discussion at just the wrong time in the admissions office. Someone has the stomach flu, someone else with your child’s name was just admitted or not admitted, Mercury is retrograde, who knows? When the numbers are so steep, fate is fickle. We can’t control these things. But if you pile on, and believe that the decision handed down is the end (or the beginning) of the world, then you’re giving your child a value proposition that is really dangerous. Because then your child’s future is out of her hands, has already been determined, in one direction or another. And this is ludicrous. The world is just opening up.
The people I most admire in life, the ones who are, to me, most successful and most worthy of respect, are the ones who figured out early on that institutions can be terrifically powerful in society, but that they are imperfect systems, and for the individual they cannot confer success. You get a diploma and you still have to go make a life. Is it helpful to have the Harvard network at your fingertips, the Harvard name? Sure it is; use it all you can. But you’re going to be up against kids who have less entitlement and more willingness to fail, kids who have distinguished themselves in other, more varied pools, kids with different experiences to bring to bear. Competition is a fact of life. There is no getting around that; there is no safe perch, no way to coast. We make a good life by determining what we love and what we need, and trying to build in that direction.
You describe a world in which rich parents disable their kids over decades with tutors and paid assistance at every step of the way. How, in the final stretches of their time at home, was Anne (your fictional college counselor) supposed undo a lifetime of damage and help her students stand on their own two feet?
That “learned passivity” that Anne cites, and that children can exhibit when they’ve been tutored and coached in every aspect of their lives, doesn’t usually come from ill will—it’s the long-term result of parents wanting to help raise their children up, to make them competitive and successful, to ensure them good lives. Things we all want for our children. The problem, I think, lies in sending the steady, implicit message that the results are more important than the child. We must help our children to be diligent, yes, and teach them discipline and focus, and often success will follow. But not always. I believe that the child who is never supported through failure will not learn to build his own life. For Anne, the first task with her students is to reverse the message they’ve been raised with: to say, I don’t care where you get in, I only care about you. If you’ve made an honest, authentic application, then you’ve succeeded, no matter what happens next. Does this mean that you stand back and let an unengaged child torpedo his future? No, of course not. But you engage a young person by accompanying them through their process, not leading them down the path. With Hunter, for example, a character who has significant motivation problems, it would be exactly the wrong approach for Anne to pile on and tell him how much she cares about his college career. Paradoxically, what he needs is for everyone else to stop being anxious on his behalf, so he has a chance to feel some anxiety of his own. So first thing, Anne tells him she doesn’t much care whether he goes to college at all. Hearing Anne’s lack of investment in his success gives him a chance to get a toehold on his own hopes and ambitions.
Over and over again, I found this successful in beginning work with a young person. Thereafter, I listened carefully and closely. And students began to talk. It’s not magic. We are all built this way, I think. If you care to help people grow, back off of your own desires for them, and listen well to their own desires for themselves.
For years you worked with kids as an independent college admissions counselor. In the New York Post you described yourself “as working under the radar, a hired gun who slipped in and out of penthouse apartments and jogged up the side steps of brownstones like someone’s mistress.” Why did the parents who hire you want so much secrecy?
To preserve the shared fantasy that college admissions is a meritocracy, of course. To the public, one says, “He did it all on his own!” And inside the home, one says, “Tutor’s coming at five.”
Your book contains full-blown college essays, what was your thinking in composing and including these in a book of fiction?
I love the way teenagers sound, and when I was working with high school students, I marveled at how they could write their way into a better understanding of their own desires—how, once they learned to understand what a dead sentence looked like (the ones they wrote by rote, the ones they imagined their English teachers would like) and ignored those for the sake of the real, live ideas, they could discover feelings and hopes that had gone largely unacknowledged in their days. A lot of the work I did with young people happened on the page, between drafts, and it wasn’t about punctuation, it was about helping a student to learn to hear her own voice. I don’t mean “voice” in sole terms of some written quality, a female or a male voice, etc., but in terms of the clear, authentic impulse to thought and logic that makes good writing possible. A student who is busy trying to impress someone, or who has been corrected at every turn by overbearing parents or endless tutors, won’t dare to reveal this true self. But anything else leads to hollow writing, however polished. I wanted to dramatize this process of coming-to-hear in the book. In order to do that, I needed to show the evolution of essay drafts. A significant part of the work of characterization was done in the essays themselves. Also I hoped they would provide a little variation in the prose, some modulation of form and tone that would add to the storytelling.
How did the students feel about their parents hiring Anne to work with them and do you think it has any lasting impact?
Each student in the book has a different response to Anne’s guidance. But it’s safe to say that no one is surprised; their parents’ bringing in outside help is further evidence of each parenting approach (over-involved, under-involved, whatever). Those are deliberate choices in the book, for the sake of the story.
In real life, what interests and upsets me is the very common phenomenon of a college counselor’s retention (often at exorbitant rates) reinforcing for a student that outcome is more important than process. In other words, parents seem to be saying, Where you go is exceptionally important, but how we get there doesn’t matter—we’ll do whatever it takes, no matter the price, to you or to us. This happens, and it can be very cruel. For a student, there’s a short emotional step to take from “my parents don’t care what it takes to get me in, as long as I’m in” to “my parents only care about where I go, and not who I am.”
Your book is set among the urban super wealthy, a group seemingly willing to spend almost anything to help their children gain entrance to the college of their choice. On the one hand you have said that over 10 years your success rate (as defined by a child gaining admission to the school of their choice) was 90%, on the other hand you implicitly recoil from a system that so tilts the playing field. Do private college counselors really make a difference and, if they do, isn’t that a problem?
Yes and yes.
Tomorrow look for Part 2 of our conversation with Lacy Crawford, author,Early Decision: A Novel (William Morrow.)