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Review: Admission by Jean Hanff Korlelitz

I was sitting in a very boring faculty meeting at the University of Tampa when my college advisor slid a file folder across the table.

I thought it might be a notes for an upcoming story (I was editor of the college newspaper, which is why I was at said very boring meeting) or something for my professor's Shakespeare class, but it was my college application. I don't remember why he had it, but I do remember being horrified by my essay. I think Tampa got the one about how I looked up to my older brother, which is a fine thing to write about, but that essay I'd labored over as a high school senior looked amateurish to a college junior.

"How did I even get accepted?" I whispered to my advisor.

"They were letting everyone in that year," he said, and laughed.

He wasn't exactly lying. Tampa did go on a big "recruitment" kick, which I took to mean letting in almost everyone with a pulse. I didn't want to go to Tampa. I wanted to go to Boston University, but my parents were divorcing the year I graduated high school and I was told they didn't have the money, so I was going to Tampa, which threw buckets of money in my direction (I'd guess more for my grades and SAT scores than my essay). Of course, 17 year old me was livid. How dare they squash my dreams of becoming a marine biologist and moving to Australia to work on the Great Barrier Reef?

It's okay to want to smack 17 year old me. I think I'd want to hit her too.

I'd forgotten about the faculty meeting incident until I started reading Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which is a novel about Portia Nathan, an admission officer for Princeton University. The book isn't so much about the inner workings of an admissions office (though there's plenty of that), but about Nathan, who is stuck in a rut until she's rudely pushed out and forced to find a new direction. Each chapter begins with the snippet of a fictional essay (Hanff Korelitz worked as a part-time reader for Princeton in 2006 and 2007) that looked very much like my essay about my brother.

The book is slow to start, and I almost gave up. I brought six books with me on vacation, and figured I might find something for apt for beach chair reading. But about half way through, I caught onto the story. It's beautifully written, too, so even in the slow parts, the rich language could be enough to pull you through.

I applied to Princeton for graduate school and didn't get in (nor was I admitted to 12 other English Liteature PhD programs). This I forgot, too, until I read Admission. That rejection might have been the best thing to happen to me. I'd be locked in a room somewhere preparing lesson plans for bored college students or writing some scholarly essay that three people would read. My life would have been a lot different if my parents did let me go to BU, too. Amazing how what seems awful at the time works out. Hopefully that's something high school seniors will keep that in mind when their admissions letters start rolling in.

One more note: this summer, I'm revising and updating a book I wrote three years ago. Gah. I feel like that college junior reading my high school essay all over again. I guess the good news is that the more I write, the better I get. Maybe I'll think the same thing if I look over this post three years from now.


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