Home » Blog » The Madness of College Admissions Revealed: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford


The Madness of College Admissions Revealed: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford


Here’s my review of the book and see below to enter a giveaway to win a copy of book!

It’s rare that a book touches me from so many angles, evokes so many memories of the young person that I once was, the career paths that I have chosen, and the experiences that made me pause along the way to change course.

I’ve just finished Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy by Lacy Crawford. It’s narrated by Anne, a 27 year old college application essay coach and tells the story of her journey with five of her students/clients, the children of some of the wealthiest and influential Chicago families. It’s about her students’ growth as they reflect upon their goals, their perceptions of what others (namely, their parents) expect from them, and many of life’s bigger questions through their essays. The book takes us through their innumerable rewrites of their essays. (I loved that the students’ drafts are integrated into the rest of the book.) It introduces us to aggressive (and passive aggressive) parents, whose worries about their children’s future may be more about their own personal frustrations and anxieties. But it’s also about Anne’s own journey, not all that dissimilar from her students’, as she struggles to figure out what she wants and who she really is.

First, it touched me as a former private school teacher, who navigated a similar world as Anne of private schools and privilege during my teaching career. Crawford herself worked for more than a decade as a college admissions counselor, and it shows. During my life as a private school teacher, I was offered keys to summer houses on Nantucket, dined in the finest homes in Boston’s Back Bay, and given holiday gifts of designer bags, gift certificates of several hundred dollars to clothing stores and restaurants. I understand Anne’s ambivalence about knowing that you are a visitor to this world of class privilege — you’ve gone to one of the “right” colleges yourself, you understand the anxieties and worries of this world, you understand the cultural and intellectual references — but you are not truly living within it. You inhabit some sort of nebulous position between “expert,” hired help, and caretaker.

Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy also touched me in my former self as a former high school student, soon to be a first-generation college student. I had no understanding of the role of what scholars call “social capital,” or the resources and advantages gained from valuable social networks and connections. I applied to boarding school on my own, having grown up in a rural town in the Adirondacks, but when my scholarship didn’t cover my entire tuition, I asked for help from the only “rich person” I knew: a hedge fund millionaire in New York City, who was the father of a friend that had moved onto our road with her divorced mother. (I had never really been to New York City and had only a vague idea of what “Wall Street” was.) When I was applying years later to colleges, I still somehow thought the admissions process was a completely meritocratic one, determined exclusively by grades, test scores, and the recognition of your potential to contribute as a student. When I was rejected from my first choice college and a prep school classmate — with lower test scores and grades — was accepted, I remember vividly when that classmate told me candidly (and sheepishly) that her entire family — generations — had gone to that college and contributed a great deal of time and money to the school. I felt betrayed, but I wasn’t sure why, how, or by whom.

West College Princeton University, Princeton, ...

The book also touched me as a scholar who has researched these issues relating to college access for several years. My dissertation is about the experiences of urban graduates of a nonprofit that prepares high-achieving low-income students for elite New England prep schools and — later on — for college. I spent a year visiting this full-time program, sitting in on classes, attending events, speaking to staff, and interviewing students. I thought that I would find that these students were primarily given academic and logistical assistance (transportation to visit colleges, application fees) in being admitted to prep schools and to college. But I was wrong: they were being taught how to live in this new, utterly foreign world. They were shown how to speak in front of groups, how to row crew, how to dine in fine restaurants, and how to be engaged and participate in a world very different from their own. They went to museums, Martha’s Vineyard, plays, fundraisers, and had a team of advisors — admissions coaches, tutors, teachers, mentors — to guide them through the admissions process and to show them how the world of the powerful functions.

Finally, the book touched me as a writer and as a parent. Anne’s coaching of her students shows that she understands what children should know about good writing and what the best personal essayists also get. Good essays are about understanding and reflecting upon your own memories, choices, and identity; they’re about revising your writing until it’s a mirror of something true about yourself and your own personal voice, not merely lists your accomplishments or actions.

And now as the parent of a toddler who has to make some big decisions about where her son will go — public school in a failing, urban system, charter school, magnet school, private school that we can’t afford — I’m further reminded about how deeply broken our country’s educational system is. It is, most of all, as this novel cleverly elucidates, a system that is simply not fair for those who are not born of privilege. It’s a system that reproduces inequality. The lucky few are not simply given a helpful push; the process privileges them from beginning to end, from cradle to thick envelope from an ivy-covered admissions building.

If our country wants to return to when upward mobility was a possibility for more than a lucky few — those exceptional cases of those who make it out of poverty through a fortunate combination of determination, luck, and sheer force of will — we need to recognize that success at admission to college, at entering the ranks of the successful and accomplished, is about more than hard work. Yes, hard work is necessary but it’s not enough. We needs thousands and thousands of Annes, who are dedicated only to assisting those kids as they enter a very different world. And the difficult, baffling, often soul-crushing experience of getting into college is a critical aspect of that help.

I recommend this book as pure entertainment and comedy, but I further recommend it as education if you’re not familiar with this frightening alternate reality of Common Applications and the present admissions “frenzy.” It’s also a vivid examination of today’s parenting practices that digs deeper than the cliches of “helicopter parent” and “Tiger Mother” and will cause you to look more closely at your own motivations and behavior surrounding your child’s future.

Most of all, I love how richly drawn the high school characters were written. They’re everything that all teenagers are: confused, petulant, hopeful, determined, lazy, and desperate to please their parents but also to figure out how to be true to themselves. These kids — no matter how much privilege or poverty has impacted their lives — are just kids. It’s the system that’s terribly, terribly broken.

To enter the giveaway to win a copy of this book, become a subscriber of School of Smock or “like” School of Smock or The Brilliant Book Club on Facebook!


Related articles

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. This sounds fascinating! I have always been interested in college admissions {when I hit my “seven year itch” in teaching, I sought other jobs, and actually was offered a job as an admissions counselor at a selective liberal arts college…. but ultimately came to the decision that teaching was where I was meant to be.} But I still love reading about the admissions process. Have you read The Gatekeepers? It’s a journalist’s report from the year he spent shadowing the admissions officers at Wesleyan {your alma mater, no?} Thanks for yet another book recommendation!
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Mindfulness and Gratitude: It Takes a VillageMy Profile

  2. This is the second positive review I’ve read on this book—it’s going on my list! I love the reminder: “These kids — no matter how much privilege or poverty has impacted their lives — are just kids. It’s the system that’s terribly, terribly broken.” And I can’t wait to read the essays in the book…interesting premise.
    Jessica Vealitzek recently posted…Books I Push on OthersMy Profile

  3. I am so excited to keep reading. I have read Hunter’s essay so far and love how the book is set up. I always wanted to be a prep school teacher– Dead Poet’s Society style, but I was too immature for that so I went to law school. Ahem. Anyway, great post and I love that you’ve studied this. Great review.

  4. Lindsey says:

    I love that you loved the book! As you know (from my review) Lacy is an old and dear friend and I adore her writing. It is marvelous to read all the ways that you related to it also. xox

  5. Emily says:

    Great review – I’m definitely going to read this book because my son is a high school sophomore and I do worry about projecting my own anxieties on to him as he conducts the college admission process, which will be here before we know it. I’ve seen many friends get so caught up in the process, spend thousands of dollars on college coaches, and generally suffer along with their kids through the process. I don’t want that to be my experience.. !
    Emily recently posted…Oh Boy Mom Is Going On A HiatusMy Profile

  6. I think it’s fascinating and really really sad in so many ways how our education system is set up. We’re looking at what to do in a year from now with my son. He’s currently in a wonderful (public) program but he’s got some issues and we’ve heard some less-than-perfect things about the kindergarden that he’ll transition to. We’ve got some options (if they don’t offer the services he needs, we can go to a school that does but we’re not far enough along in the process to know what options we’ll have there yet). So then we have to decide whether to spend a ton of money on a private school. For kindergarden. And he’s delayed. Does that make sense? I mean, in some ways I’m like “of course!” but in others, I think “this doesn’t make sense at all.”
    It’s sad that our system is so terribly broken. You did an excellent job on this review though – love how you were able to personalize it.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Our Land – The Water LilyMy Profile

  7. This book sounds really interesting. I love a book that is entertaining and that has characters that really come to life like the teens, but if it can also open my eye and educate me, that’s a winner! I can’t wait to check this book out. Fantastic review!! –Lisa

  8. Ruth says:

    I definitely want to read this book after reading your review!

    Having worked as a teacher, and being the parent of two “neurotypical” kids who went to college right after high school, and one “issues kid” who is working out a different path, I have a lot of opinions about college in general …. especially the push from high schools to send all kids directly to college, whether they’re read or not right after high school …. mainly (in my opinion) because their high school rankings depend largely on the percentage of kids who go straight into college after graduation. They don’t really care if those kids crash and burn in their first semester or first year. And many of them do (I’ve seen it with friend of all three of my kids). I am writing about some alternatives I would like to see put in place for all kids, and especially for kids with issues … that’s planned as a future post for my blog, but if you want a guest post, let me know! 🙂
    Ruth recently posted…Lean In, Opt Out, What the F*ck?My Profile

  9. Rachel says:

    Your own personal perspective on this issue is as interesting as the review. It’s not a world that I know that much about, although my husband went to prep school and has some incredibly fond memories, as well as some jaded views about them too. Thank you for linking up with The Sunday Parenting Party. I appreciate your support.
    Rachel recently posted…The Water LilyMy Profile

  10. Dana says:

    I’d love to read this book. I was both a college admissions counselor and a high school guidance counselor, so I have seen both sides of the coin. It’s been years though, and I don’t feel any less anxious about beginning the process with my high school sophomore. And that’s not even considering how we’re going to pay for this!
    Dana recently posted…A little funny for youMy Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge