Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy

  • Lacy Crawford
  • William Morrow
  • 294 pp.

Forget the cluelessness of 17-year-olds. It’s the parents who need coaching in this novel about the anxious world of college-essay preparation.

Ah, the affluent, anxious parent of a high-school senior. Is there any other sub-species of humanity more ripe for skewering?

The skewer that Lacy Crawford wields in her debut novel is particularly sharp. Drawing on her own experience as a college-essay coach to the offspring of the rich and powerful, Crawford gives us four high-school seniors, each saddled with a set of the aforementioned anxious parents. What these kids have in common, aside from affluence, is Anne, the “application whisperer,” who will snag them a seat at the college of their choice. Or rather, in this case, of their parents’ choice.

Crawford is at her best when writing in the voices of the students. The various iterations of the students’ college essays are brilliant, capturing their earnestness, their naiveté and their unerring instinct for writing “it’s” when it should be “its,” and vice versa.

The kids’ dialogue, as well, generally rings true. They could easily have been stereotypes: the inarticulate jock, the closeted gay conservative, the brilliant overachiever and the lost good girl who can’t separate her own yearnings from those of her hard-driving parents. But Crawford gives them enough individuality to make them fully human, and their angst about the college application process and their own identities seems more poignant than fatuous.

The parents, on the other hand, are almost unrelentingly awful, hell-bent on steering their children to colleges they deem appropriate with nary a thought as to what the kids themselves might prefer. (The only exceptions are the parents of the overachiever, who are so clueless that they can only focus on imagined infelicities in her perfect essay, like the solecism of ending a sentence with a preposition.)

I’m not unfamiliar with affluent, anxious parents, having shepherded my own two children through their senior years at an elite private school in Washington, D.C. But I felt no flash of recognition reading about the antics of the parents in Crawford’s book. Yes, the parents I knew were anxious, as I was myself. But Crawford’s parents are consumed with their own egos, whereas the parents I know were more concerned about the bruising effects of the college application process on their kids’ tender self-esteem.

Of course, there may well be parents who conform to the type Crawford describes — and Crawford would be in a position to know them. But because Crawford writes only from Coach Anne’s rather jaundiced point of view, we get no insight into how the parents themselves view their actions. As a result, they remain no more than evil cartoons.

Crawford seems to understand that the college quests of four privileged teenagers aren’t enough to sustain a novel, and so she has contrived a plot, of sorts. Some of that plot has to do with Anne’s own malaise, which stems partly from her ambivalence about the ethics of the work she’s stumbled into and partly from her suspicion that a long-term romantic relationship is going nowhere. Crawford strives to draw a parallel between Anne’s search for identity and the self-determination she’s urging on the students, but her ambivalence about the job gets old, and the denouement of her relationship is eminently predictable.

The other part of the plot is even less engaging. As a volunteer at a college-prep program for low-income students, Anne comes across a young Latina, Cristina, with near-perfect ACT scores and an essay that even Anne herself can’t improve on (and which manages skillfully to slip in the information that the girl has legal status). For some reason, everyone seems to assume that Cristina — a paragon who would set most college admissions officers to salivating — desperately needs the help of one of the well-connected parents to get into the college of her choice.

Cristina is the one teenager who fails to come to life on the page, perhaps because Crawford isn’t as familiar with her milieu. That’s a shame, because Crawford missed a chance to draw some parallels between Cristina and the wealthy kids she focuses on.

I recently volunteered as a kind of “application whisperer” myself for a group of low-income, minority kids from high schools that don’t send many kids to college. The kids I worked with didn’t have tightly wound parents breathing down their necks, but they were just as clueless as most of Crawford’s teenagers about where to begin with their essays. A 17-year-old is, to some extent, a 17-year-old.

I found myself employing many of the techniques that Anne, and presumably Crawford, uses. I didn’t try to dictate a topic or rewrite their prose. Instead, I asked questions, got them talking and tried to get them to tell a specific story about themselves rather than just spin out platitudes.

There were stories I thought my students should tell, and, again like Anne, I felt a little frustrated when they chose a different one. One quiet, dreamy-eyed boy wanted to write about how seeing a slide of the Sistine Chapel had inspired him to try to create art as powerful as Michelangelo’s. Not a bad subject, but when I found out that he’d attended 11 schools in 11 years and had been homeless for a while, I couldn’t help thinking that story might be more likely to sway an admissions officer’s heart.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s just as well Crawford left Cristina’s story alone. Stories like hers are unlikely to be fruitful terrain for the dishy, fizzy satire that Early Decision tries, and doesn’t quite manage, to be.

Natalie Wexler is editor of the blog Greater Greater Education. She is the author of two novels, The Mother Daughter Show and A More Obedient Wife.

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