Lacy Crawford spent 15 years privately tutoring high school teenagers in the art of perfecting the college essay. Since the 1960s, college application rates have skyrocketed, competition has become fiercer, and parents now stop at nothing to get their children into their top choices for college. Many of these students hailed from privileged, affluent households. Crawford has the unique perspective needed to capture the mania associated with the process in her debut novel, Early Decision. Anne—the intelligent, Diet Coke guzzling 27-year-old protagonist —is the one to help these students accomplish this. At times, she seems just as lost as her student clientele.
The novel is filled with characters similar to the kids in the The Nanny Diaries and to overbearing parents like the prototype described in The Tiger Mother. But the book is as much about a young woman looking for direction and purpose after her own education at Princeton as it is about the students’ ability to find their own voice in a 500 word college essay .Crawford’s student characters feel intimately real; they act, speak, and navigate the process of applying to school like the naïve teenagers they are. Essay drafts are included in the book. As the novel progresses, we watch the revisions evolve with the characters themselves. Anne successfully convinces the kids to ignore expectations that were drilled into them since nursery school and to instead write passionately on a topic of their interest.
The seventeen-year-olds that Anne works with have exciting lives ahead of them filled with many opportunities. But their parents, bordering on middle age, are unwilling to pass the torch onto their children. One father refused to let his son William apply to Vassar because he thought it was “a girls’ school,” used to be “WASPy when he was a kid,” and could potentially be “anti-Semitic.” The father ignores William’s passion for theater and instead pushes him to go to Penn—which he does—only later to follow his dreams of working in the New York City theater scene after receiving his degree.
Anne works with five students: four whose parents can afford her fee and one, Cristina Castello, whom she volunteers to help. Cristina, the naturally gifted student, is easily the book’s underdog we’re rooting for. A student like Cristina makes wealthy mothers concerned. She is what they label an “extreme ethnic,” which they believe gives her a competitive edge. In a society where money opens doors, Cristina needs help from well-connected board members to fundraise and facilitate her admission to Duke.
Sadie, another of Anne’s students, comes from the upper echelons of society. Her father is a powerful attorney and her mother, a famous life coach. Sadie seems to struggle most with writing her essay. It doesn’t take long for Anne to realize Sadie’s parents hired her as a formality. Her father’s friends are on the board at Duke and his daughter is already guaranteed a spot in freshman class. Instead of trusting Sadie to write her own essay, her father asks Anne to write it for her or he won’t help Cristina. It’s been established from the outset that Anne won’t write essays so it comes as no surprise when she refuses. In a dramatic twist of defiance against her parents, Sadie submits her own essay to Duke and gains admission. Cristina does too.
Early Decision makes a larger social commentary on the American higher education system and the nature of college admissions. To gain access to an institution, students no longer envision the sprawling campus grounds or the library nook where they will study on late weeknights. The personal component is stripped from the very process of applying. Anyone with a credit card can submit the standardized common application to multiple schools. Crawford notes this change with a powerful analogy. Applying to college used to be like asking someone special out on a date. Now, it’s the equivalent of posting an advertisement. Essays are used as tools to package, market and brand the student. By the last chapter, though, its clear that the greatest obstacle for most of these kids is their parents. In one line, Crawford captures the negative aspects of applying to contemporary higher education in the United States. “A high school senior and her parents and the young woman they had hired, all party to a process that claimed to elevate young people and offer them the world, but which instead taught them to commodify their gifts, bury their struggles, deny curiosity, and murder whimsy.”
In this novel, Crawford seamlessly inhabits both Anne and her students’ sensibilities. The narrative exposes power struggles between a faulty system and parents’ sometimes unrealistic dreams for their child. It’s clear that some important decisions should be left in the hands of the younger generation. Teenagers often think they know exactly what they want and what environment works best for them. Whether they are right or wrong in their assessments, perhaps, like Crawford suggests, it is best to allow high school seniors the freedom to choose the direction of their own lives.