Five terrific campus novels

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about college. Specifically these two questions: Why did Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original, people) get so dreadfully dull when the gang went to college? And why are there so many novels about academics but so few about college students? 

While I’m still contemplating the 90210 question, I’m happy to report that this has been a banner year of reading for me, with my two favorite novels of the year (The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot) having campus settings. And not the standard run-of-the-mill publish-or-perish or associate-professor-denied-tenure set up; but real college novels, with undergraduates and roommates and dining halls, as well as professors. If you’re looking for a grown-up novel that takes you back to school, try one of these:

Books for the college-obsessed parent

Last summer I texted my son to tell him I was bringing home a copy of  Colleges That Changes Lives. His reply, via text: “Shouldn’t all colleges change lives?”

I should end this post right here, because that says it all.

Nope. I can’t leave it alone, no matter how hard I try to not be one of Those Kinds of Parents. I can talk up a storm about SAT versus ACT, and I’ve been known to slip the phrase “reach school” into what you might think was a fairly normal conversation about your alma mater. Clearly book intervention is needed.

To help me keep things in perspective I checked out I’m Going to College … Not You, edited by Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College.  (Please note that I am resisting the urge to look up fields of study, professor to student ratio, tuition and acceptance rates at Kenyon.) Essays by parents – including authors Anna Quindlen, Jane Hamilton and Joe Queenan –  are giving me the perfect mix of insight, humor and heartbreak, with occasional commiseration and a big dose of why it’s good to let go. Continue reading “Books for the college-obsessed parent”

Book review: ‘Admission’ brings novel insight to college admission process

Admission book coverMichelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, Brooke Shields, activist Ralph Nader, Meg Whitman (CEO of E-Bay) and novelist Jodi Picoult — what do they all have in common? They all went to Princeton University. There’s something of a mystique surrounding the old Ivy League schools of the east coast, but now there’s a novel that gives some delicious behind-the-scenes dish about Princeton and its elite world.

The novel is Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, an author who has worked as a reader for the Princeton University admissions office and is married to a Princeton professor. She tells the story of Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at the university who takes her job very seriously, and who has some difficult secrets in her past. As Portia navigates another year in the college admissions cycle, her private world is falling apart and everything she thought she knew about herself and others is questioned in the deepest ways. She is not always the most likeable character, but she is open and honest, and we want to know what happens to her. 

What makes the novel unusual, however, is that woven with the strands of Portia’s story is a passionate portrayal of the mission of the college staff whose responsibility it is to make (what seem to some high school seniors) a life and death decision: Does this applicant get admitted or not? Princeton, specifically, is notoriously difficult to get into, and the machinations of applicants and their parents are fully portrayed in all their gutsy and sometimes pathetic glory. Also revealed is the cut-throat world of academia, and what it can do to people and relationships. If the applicants knew, would they apply?

If this world and the process of gaining entry to its doors is not interesting to you, you may not like the book. But if you find some appeal in the idea of getting into the minds and hearts of those who, like it or not, sit in judgment of college applicants, as well as gaining access to their back room discussions and decision processes, you will be amply rewarded. The nature and details of Portia’s work, and the pride and investment she has in it, are as central to the book as the story of her year of transitions. And this book will make you think of every high school kid you know who is interested in college as they navigate their own journey towards higher education.

Okay, where is all the ‘free money’ for college?

I’ve always heard that there’s money for college—if you know where to look. My son still has three years until college, but recent headlines about tuition going up as the economy goes down (Cost of higher education heading up, Washington Post) and indentured college grads (Graduates drowning in debt from high cost of college, Seattle Times)  have me freaked out. I’m hoping to attend a free presentation, Scholarships and College Admissions, at the Central Library this Wednesday, November 19, at 6 p.m., featuring admission experts from Kaplan Test Prep. I’m most excited to hear Sam Lim, founder of Scholarship Junkies, an honors student at the University of Washington who received 18 (!) scholarships.  

I’m also keeping an eye on the College Prep articles and tips on Push to Talk, the Library’s blog for teens (and the people who like/love them). And I’m trying to not freak out.