At this point in the summer, most high school juniors are already acquainted with the horrible agony that is the college admissions process. They’ve taken the expensive SAT prep courses, visited at least a dozen campuses, and spent weeks agonizing over their personal essays.
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Indeed, the personal essay in particular causes students and parents to tear their hair out, knowing it could make or break their application. For 15 years, Lacy Crawford worked with high school students to hone these essays, a torturous but rewarding experience that she chronicles in her forthcoming book, Early Decision.
The book tells the story of Anne, a 27-year-old application guru who coaches five high school seniors through the harrowing application process. From the privileged daughter of a Duke University trustee to the inner-city kid who taught herself about immigration reform, their admissions journeys take them through endless rewrites of Common App essays, counseling sessions at their sprawling suburban homes, and after-hours phone conversations with sniveling mothers and passive aggressive fathers desperate to secure their children slots at Ivy League schools.
We talked to Crawford about dealing with overbearing parents, how the admissions process has changed over the years—and how to get into the school of your choice without getting trampled in the college rat race.
When did you decide to chronicle this part of your life?
My work with students tapered off dramatically in 2010, after I had my first child. And then friends told me I was already too late to apply for preschool for my son and needed to hurry up and get on the list. So I panicked and called some schools and sent over applications. I remember one morning I was working on an application that had essay questions about my son. I looked over and he was lying on the carpet on his back and I thought, “Oh my god, this is how it happens. This is how it begins.” I’d been secretly judging these parents for ten years 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. So I started writing the book as a private investigation.
“The gift that I could give to these students who had terrible writer’s block was telling them: ‘We need 11 essays and we’re going to do 10 drafts of each of them.’”
You were so entrenched in these kids’ lives—more life coach than college essay counselor.
That may be a mark of how young and naïve I was when I started. I didn’t have a degree in education or counseling or anything, but I had grown up an overachiever in a family and a community that put a lot of pressure on the same type of thing. I felt like I could relate to the experiences these kids were having. I wanted to help shift the frame a little bit away from their parents and under them so they could take control of the process. So yes, I was deeply involved. And the anxiety these mothers face during this process—there are few people they can vent to. I think some of them hired me quite simply so the mothers would have someone to call when they were freaking out after their glass of wine at dinner.
The wealthier families and micromanaging parents really stick out in the book.
There were billionaires who flew me all over the place. That was eye-opening and foreign to me. But there were also plenty of normal parents whose kids were in public high schools and who felt overwhelmed because their college counselors had 100 kids and they had no idea where to begin. I also had students that I took on pro bono from underserved schools who were the first in their family to go to college. We talk about the college application crisis. But the crisis has nothing to do with rich kids not getting in; it has everything to do with everyone else not even knowing where to begin.
Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy By Lacy Crawford 304 pages. William Morrow. $25.99
Is most of Early Decision based on your first few years working with these kids?
When I first started doing this work I had 15 or 20 students a year, and I focused much more on helping them with the nuts and bolts, helping them to establish deadlines, that sort of thing. As I got older, and I did this more and more, I started to feel that if the student couldn’t work out the deadlines on his own, he didn’t deserve to go to that school and I wasn’t going to do the work for him. What I did instead was help him figure out what it was he loved to study and what he might wish to pursue. I got more involved in their lives as the years went on.