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"Admissions. Admission. Aren't there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It's what we let in, but it's also what we let out."
For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation's brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.
Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman's life to its core.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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When I think of Princeton I think of many images: ivy-covered buildings, students arguing philosophy in the dining hall, shadows in the Yard. It is truly a great privilege to attend a school like Princeton.
THE GOOD NEWS OF PRINCETON
The flight from Newark to Hartford took no more than fifty-eight minutes, but she still managed to get her heart broken three times. This was a feat at once pathetic and, bizarrely, something of an underachievement, Portia thought, making a painful note on the reader's card of an academically unadmittable Rhode Island girl and shoving the folder back into her bag. Any of her colleagues, she thought ruefully, might have had their hearts broken by twice as many applicants in the same amount of time.
In the real world, of course, Portia was no slower a reader than anyone else. She could fully scan The New York Times while waiting in line for her habitual (and necessary) Americano at Small World Coffee, half a block from the FitzRandolph Gate of Princeton University. She had even, once, completed Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy during a weeklong visit to her mother in Vermont (when, admittedly, the whole point had been to evade Susannah, especially when she wanted to talk). Fifteen hundred pages in seven days—not too shabby. But she was well aware of her reputation as the slowest reader in Princeton's Office of Admission (singular, nota bene—not plural), and she probably deserved it. With an application open before her, Portia could almost feel herself decelerate, parsing the sentences and correcting the grammar, fixing the spelling, rereading to make sure she at least knew what they'd managed to say, if not what they'd meant to say, even as she took the temperature of her anxiety at falling behind, because she couldn't stop herself from lingering, lingering, lingering… on the kids.
She wasn't supposed to think of them as kids, she knew that. Few of them sounded like kids, they were trying so hard not to be young. They were ventriloquizing the attorneys they thought they wanted to be, or the neuroscientists, or the statesmen. They were trying to sound as though they already worked at Morgan Stanley, or toiled at a feeding station in Darfur, or were due in surgery. But so often the newness of them, the flux of their emerging selves, would poke through the essays or the recommendations, stray references to how Jimmy had grown since his difficult freshman year or Jimmy's own regrettable use of the word awesome. Their confidence was sometimes so hollow, it practically echoed off the page. They were all so young, even the ones who had already seen so much.
In this batch, on this brief flight, already there had been a wizened seventeen-year-old who lived with her younger brother in an apartment in South Boston, their parents back home in Taiwan. She wrote of the microwavable meals she prepared for her bisected family and the bureaucracy she had learned to manipulate for herself, the weekly phone calls from Mom, who had never been able to attend a parent-teacher conference, being unable to speak English and, incidentally, on the other side of the planet, but wasn't it worth it? Because she had six AP scores of 5 and four more exams still to be taken? Because she was first in her class of four hundred, with a very realistic chance of getting into a first-tier college and achieving her dream of becoming a doctor? And the boy from Holyoke whose mother had left her two oldest children to cross the border for her day job in a medical supply factory and her night job at Wendy's, whose father was described as "Unknown/No Information," who was a physics whiz and captain of the soccer team and All-State, who was applying not just for admission to Princeton, but for admission to America. And this last, from a girl in Greenwich, Connecticut, who was smart enough to know that she wasn't smart enough, only just very, very smart, and wrote with preemptive defeat about her hospital internship and the inspiration of her older brother, who had survived childhood cancer to attend law school. Smart enough to know about, or at least imagine, the ones she would be compared with, who had been handed so much less than she, and done so much more with what they had, while the children of privilege were penalized for having been fortunately born, comfortably raised, and excellent in all of the ordinary ways. Sometimes those were the ones who got to Portia most of all.
It was a sparsely occupied flight, of course; if it hadn't been, if there were, for example, a businessman or grandmother or—worst of all—high school–age kid within sight of her seat, she would never have extracted from her bag and opened, and then studied, the contents of these very private, very freighted files. Instinctively, Portia closed the folders whenever the single, tight-lipped attendant cruised the aisle, glancing at people's laps. She dropped her white plastic cup of tepid coffee into the attendant's proffered garbage bag or made the appropriate noises when he said they were ten minutes from Bradley, holding her place with a finger as she held the folders shut. This was the unwritten code of her profession and Portia's own inclination for secrecy, neither one more than the other, really, as if the numbers, letters, declarations, and aspirations within each file outweighed the secrets of governments or espionage cells—which, to the teenagers they represented, they surely did. Outside the window, beyond the ridge of the descending wing, the autumn trees of New England sharpened: electric red-and-yellow branches and spiky green pines divided by the highway. This trip, late in the season for its kind, would be her final airing before the approaching cataclysm of paperwork. In this post–Early Decision era, there were no longer any foothills in Princeton's admissions calendar; there was only flat land, then Everest, and the twenty orange folders in her bag were merely the first-from-the-gate forerunners of the onslaught to come. When that bell curve hit its apex in a month's time, she and her co-workers would simply disappear into their offices or their homes, emerging only sporadically until midwinter, before finally crawling out the other side, pale and gasping from beneath all that aspiration, all that desperation, in April.
But today, this brilliant New England day, would be calm seas before the storm. Today, Portia would preach the good news of Princeton to the preemptively converted, and with a glad heart, because at long last she was here in New England and shot of the West Coast, in whose intense, teeming schools she had toiled for the past five years. She had been waiting for the New England district to open up, waiting for her colleague Rand (actually Randolph) Cumming to vacate the helm, something he had shown no inclination to do. Rand had never once set foot beyond the charmed circle of venerated and wealthy educational institutions, not since the day his parents dropped him off at a certain tradition-draped boarding school (as, Portia liked to imagine, a howling babe, "untimely ripped" from his mother's breast). In due course, he had swanned off to Princeton (BA) and Yale (JD) and then, as if the whole notion of practicing law had been merely a whim, straight back to the (literally) ivy-covered walls of his alma mater's Office of Admission, where he spent the next two decades tending the very prep school garden from which he had sprung and becoming, more or less, the very personification of what most people imagined an Ivy League admissions officer to be: bow-tied, well groomed, class ringed, and always ready to be of service to an old classmate or a classmate's chum, whose fine young son was a rising senior with a letter in squash and a winning way with a sailboat.
Rand was, in fact, one of those boulders around which the waters of Ivy League admissions had parted, leaving him in a wake of soaring academic standards and dizzying diversity. He had bristled through every clank of progress, every painful adjustment in policy that aimed to transform the university from its dunderheaded Jazz Age uniformity to its rightful place as the best of all possible universities for the best of all possible students. The new Princeton, so wondrous and varied, so… multicolored, was not his Princeton, and his suffering was evident. He was an angry man, a furious man, beneath his veneer of irreproachable manners.
He had been waiting himself, Portia supposed, for the retirement of Martin Quilty, his chief antagonist in the struggle of tradition versus merit and the dean who had brought coeducation and surging minority enrollment, so that he could begin the slow but necessary work of turning back the clock; but when that blessed event finally arrived, Rand had found himself passed over in the most offensive way possible. He soldiered on for a year or two, making his opinion on just about everything known to the new dean whenever possible, and then, quite suddenly, the previous May, he had left—completing the circle of his unadventurous journey by taking the post of college counselor at his very own prep school.
And there, Portia knew, he was destined to prove as irritating a voice in her ear as when he'd occupied the office just down the hall from her.
But it was worth it to have New England. She had wanted New England for years, coveting the post as she'd watched Rand Cumming glad-hand his cronies at Groton and Concord and Taft. She had considered asking for it whenever there was a district reshuffle (Rand had seemed oddly immune to these.) And she had made sure she was the first one in Clarence Porter's office to ask for it—Clarence being the new dean in question—when the opportunity finally arose. Not only (she explained) because she herself was a product of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont—in roughly that order—and not only because her mother, now a Vermonter, was getting on in years (hint, hint) and she would be personally grateful for the opportunity to drop in on her more often, but also because the New England district featured the kind of boarding school interaction she hadn't much experienced in the California-Oregon-Hawaii-Washington-Alaska applicant pool. That in particular was a deficit in her experience, a deficit unbecoming an admissions officer, and that embarrassed her. Serving Princeton to her utmost ability called for fluency with its traditional feeder schools: the Grotons and Choates and Andovers, whose top students the university had been cherry-picking for centuries. She had reminded Clarence of the miles she had logged for Princeton, not only along the coasts and valleys of California, but, before that, along the empty highways of the Midwest, plucking genius 4-H'ers and ambitious dreamers from the Great Plains. She had personally recruited the Inuit girl from Sitka, Alaska, who'd won Princeton's sole Rhodes scholarship last year. She had found Brian Jack, homeschooled (self-schooled) in some barely existent Oregon town, and made sure he chose them over Yale. (His senior thesis, a novel, had just been published by Knopf, showering Princeton with the fairy dust of reflected literary glory.) She'd been about to start in on the fact that her West Coast region had boasted the highest percentage of female engineer admits for all five years she'd had it when he stopped her and offered her the job. And a good thing, too. She couldn't have supported any claim of credit for those last admits, not really. There were simply more female engineers in the heavily immigrant population she'd overseen.
"I was going to give it to you anyway," Clarence had said, barely looking up from the call log on his desk. "I thought you needed a little shaking up."
A little shaking up. She hadn't quite engaged with that at the time—it had seemed more advisable not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A hearty thank-you, a formally written letter of delighted acceptance later that day, and some unsolicited advice with regard to her replacement—she had done what was expected without ever returning to this nagging, vaguely shameful moment. The exchange had not been very satisfying, in any case. There was a kind of detachment to it, given that Clarence's mind had been more consumed by the call sheet on his desktop than by the very sincere and well-phrased request of his very present employee. His very competent employee, who had never asked for anything before or indicated in any way that she was in need of anything, required any concession or support, and was generally not in the habit of calling attention to herself. Portia had never, not ever, thought of herself as someone who needed shaking up, and it appalled her to realize that he, apparently, had.
Clarence had come from the Yale Admissions Office, a fact more than a few Princeton alumni were still—rather comically—grumbling about. Before he had been an admissions officer he had been a professor of African-American history at Yale, in fact the head of that fractious department, where he had taught the music, culture, literature, and lore of the Delta, an immaculate gentleman in full Savile Row regalia holding forth on Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, and Blind Willie McTell. He had an ever present silken handkerchief in the breast pocket of his beautifully cut jackets and a silken voice that rumbled an accent north of the islands and west of the United Kingdom. Before an audience he was magic, his beautiful voice equally calming to the jittery freshmen at orientation and the alternately fawning and preemptively furious parent groups he addressed. He could, better than any admissions officer Portia had ever worked with, soothe an irate alumni parent whose child Princeton had turned down, and unlike every other admissions officer Portia had ever known, he was never seen hauling around great sacks of folders but seemed to be able to retrieve an astounding range of data from memory. His office, too, was always serenely uncluttered, with a perennial vase of calla lilies on the corner of his desk and a rather nice Asher Durand on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum on the wall behind him. It was a far cry from the mixed-up-files cacophony the room had been when it belonged to Martin Quilty. (Back then, only Martin's assistant could guess in which pile or holding bin something might be stashed.) Portia, who was nothing if not supremely well organized herself, could only aspire to the minimalist mastery of her new boss. Theirs was not a warm relationship, obviously. But she did appreciate the calm. And she did appreciate that Asher Durand.
After they landed, Portia made her way into the terminal, pulling her small suitcase behind her. There was a real chill in the building, and she held the lapels of her tweed coat together at the throat. She wore one of the outfits she now rotated for these visits: a synchronicity of tweed and cashmere and brown leather boots, überschoolgirl, Sylvia Plath minus the pearls and plus the sunglasses, but comfortably of the world she was about to enter. The previous May, on her first visits to New England prep schools, she'd learned that they had rituals of their own, with more graces and ceremony than she'd been used to in, for example, a Bay Area public school. Typically, some sort of tea-and-cookies affair followed her presentation, which took place in a slightly shabby, generations-old salon, under the watchful portraits of (white, male) alumni. The first time she'd been ushered into one of these receptions—at Andover, as it happened—she'd experienced a discomforting moment, a kind of self-detected fraudulence—clad as she was in her basic black jeans and careless sweater. No one had ever discussed wardrobe with her or suggested she might be letting down the institution with her evident sartorial imperviousness, but the plain surprise in the eyes of the college adviser, the teachers, and even a couple of the students had sent the message home effectively enough. Later that day she'd dropped nearly a thousand dollars at an Ann Taylor outlet on the way to Milton Academy.
Portia picked up her car in the rental lot and took off directly, heading north on 91 to familiar lands. When she had learned to drive as a teenager, Bradley Airport had been at the outer edge of her home range, which extended this far south and as far as the Vermont border in the other direction. The highway was a spine supporting the breadth of New England. It was a part of the world that held firmly to its past, and how could it do otherwise? Indian attacks and iconic American furniture. Austere family portraits and most of the earliest groves of academe, Shakers and Quakers and colonial unrest, the place where the essential idea of American-ness was forged, its very filaments dug deep into the rocky earth. Growing up here, she had sometimes had the sense of walking over bones.
Portia pulled into the school parking lot and left her car. She reported first to the well-marked Admissions Office and was directed to college counseling in a brick building on the quadrangle. She had known many Deerfield students as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where they had seemed to flow seamlessly into the culture of the college, retaining their friends, their rustic athleticism, even their prep school sweats (which were, handily, identical in color to Dartmouth's). Looking around at the fit and good-looking kids on the walkways, she was struck by the stasis of this vision, a self-replenishing gene pool bubbling up to fill these grand and lovely buildings. These kids were interchangeable with her own college classmates of two decades earlier: the same hale complexions and down jackets and laden backpacks, the same voices of greeting. They were sons of Deerfield, identical to the smooth-faced footballers in the sepia photographs she passed in the entryway of the administration building. Oddly, even the Asian or African-American faces did not overly thwart the general vision of blondness and fair skin.
At the college-counseling office, Portia introduced herself. The secretary, a pale woman with a noticeable blink, jolted to her feet. "Princeton! Mr. Roden's expecting you."
She had spoken with William Roden on the phone earlier in the week, mainly to assure him that she had directions, needed no overnight accommodation, had no special requirements—museum tickets? a room at the Deerfield Inn?—that might make her visit to Deerfield complete. He seemed surprised to learn that she had grown up not terribly far away, and almost distressed—as if her local status, her presumed education outside the prep school bubble, might predispose her, and by extension Princeton, against his kids; but he didn't quite articulate this. Now, bounding from his office, he looked entirely as she'd imagined him: a decade her senior, with a growing middle and fleeing hair, cheeks disarmingly pink.
"Ms. Nathan," he crowed, hand outstretched. "So glad to see you."
"It's so nice to be back," she told him, shaking his hand. "It all looks exactly the same."
"Yes," he said. "You grew up nearby."
"Northampton High School," she told him, anticipating his next question. "I used to play soccer here. I'm afraid we didn't stand a chance against Deerfield," she said indulgently, though her team—she remembered perfectly well—had in fact more than held its own.
"Yes, we're very proud of our athletics. Our students train very hard. And I don't know if we still used the old gym at that time." He was too polite to ask her age. "The new gym opened in '95. You should have a look while you're here."
She didn't need much, she told him as he took her back outside. They were going to a meeting room in the library, a modern building designed to harmonize with the older structures around the quadrangle. Inside, he led her into the librarians' lounge and brought her some coffee in a Styrofoam cup. "Starbucks hasn't come to Deerfield yet," he told her apologetically. "We do our best to carry on."
"I totally understand," she said, smiling. "I'd like to show a DVD, if I may. And I've brought some applications. If they're on the fence about applying, sometimes it makes a difference if we get the application into their hands."
"I don't think you'll have very many on the fence," Roden said. "You had, what, twenty-five? twenty-six? from us last year. I expect you'll get about the same this year."
"That's wonderful," said Portia. "We love Deerfield students."
"They are remarkable," he agreed. "Now, let's see about the DVD."
The DVD, in fact, was identical to the version on the Web site, but Portia had found that showing it to a group had an interesting effect. It made some students dreamy, others morose and uncomfortable, as if all those iron tigers and grand neo-Gothic buildings fringed by rippling ivy were a taunting Shangri-la. Kids got withdrawn or determined, she found, and while it nearly always came down to what was actually contained in the applications, there had also been times when a student had made such an impression, in just this kind of setting, that she had followed up and pushed things along. Just as Portia retained that little trill of excitement every time she opened a folder, so she still relished taking the temperature of a group like this. Undoubtedly, there were going to be future admits here. It was always intriguing to try to pick them out.
He took her DVD to the meeting room and left her with her terrible coffee, and Portia used the moment to review the numbers: in five years, 124 applications, 15 admits, 11 attends. Without doubt, Deerfield was a serious player in the construction of any Princeton class, and at a great school like this she wouldn't need to muster much of a sales pitch. On the contrary, she could walk into a room full of Deerfield seniors and tell them the university was a hole, the entire state of New Jersey sucked, and a Princeton degree was a poor return for the roughly $128,000 in tuition they'd have to come up with, and she probably wouldn't lose a single applicant (though she would undoubtedly lose her job).
"Is this a class period?" asked Portia when Roden came back for her.
"Yes, but we let seniors out. It's important."
Portia suppressed a smile and followed him into the meeting room: midcentury portraits of steely masters overlooking Williamsburg sofas and wing chairs. She didn't doubt that Princeton's admissions office was of vital importance to Deerfield. In spite of the laudable philosophy of the institution—the education of young minds or something of that nature—college placement was the raison d'être of every prep school, and the annual dispersal of students to the Ivy League and other selective colleges functioned like a stock market within their world; a prep school that found itself unable to place its students well would find itself unable to attract students in the first place. Indeed, these economically symbiotic relationships were so long-standing that they had attained the filmy gleam of tradition, Portia thought, allowing Roden to take her leather bag. But it was far, far more complicated now. And though there would undoubtedly always be Princeton students who hailed from Deerfield and Andover and Harvard-Westlake and Lawrenceville, it had also become harder and harder for those applicants to get in, a fact known to every single student waiting for her to begin her presentation.
The kids sat on the couches and on the floor, some perched on the window seats or leaning against the walls. They seemed to avoid the wing chairs, as if these were consecrated to adults. They smiled nervously at her or did not smile (in case it was a bad thing to smile, in case it made them seem too eager or insecure); then, thinking better of that, thinking that it might make more sense to seem friendly and affable, the ones who had resolutely not smiled began to grin. One bold boy in a green Deerfield Crew sweatshirt stepped into her path and introduced himself.
"I'm almost finished with my application," he said, squeezing her hand a little too tightly. "Just waiting on my physics teacher. I wish you still had Early Decision. I'm totally committed."
"This is Matt Boyce," Roden said helpfully. "Both his parents went to Princeton."
"Yeah, we're total Princeton," Matt Boyce said eagerly. "I was, like, wrapped in an orange blanket."
"I'll look forward to reading your application," said Portia with practiced warmth, noting the scowls of displeasure around the room as this exchange was observed.
Roden was deflecting other students who'd been emboldened by their classmate and held up his hand as they stood to catch her eye. "Later," she heard him say quietly. "Wait till later."
Later meant the inevitable reception, she thought. More bad coffee, but this time with Oreos. And full-throttle adolescent anxiety.
"Okay, settle down," Roden said. "Everyone…" He trailed off, eyeing a too-cool-to-care-about-college-admissions trio on one of the sofas. "Hunter, is there someplace else you need to be?"
"Absolutely no, Mr. Roden," the boy said, not giving an inch.
"Then let's please quiet down and give Ms. Nathan our attention. She's come a long way to be here with us today, so let's give her a warm Deerfield welcome."
Energetic applause. Portia stepped to the front of the room and gave her audience a swift appraisal. At least sixty of them. It was going to be a tough year for these kids.
"Hello," she told them. "I'm really pleased to be here, because I grew up nearby and I love coming back. Especially this time of year. Actually, any time of year except for mud season." This got a laugh. The tension slipped in the room, just slightly. "I'm a great believer in visual aids," she said, "so I'm going to show you a little film about Princeton. Takes about sixteen minutes. Some of you might already have seen it on our Web site, so you can just amuse yourselves. Work on your college essays or something."
Nervous laughter in the room, but they settled in. No one worked on their college essays. They watched, instead, the parade of bright kids through the bright courtyards and leafy glens of the campus and listened to the newly minted Princetonians on the screen speak about their freshman seminars, their adventures of the mind and spirit. "Each of you," intoned Clarence in an address to the freshman class, filmed a couple of years ago in Richardson Auditorium, "is the kind of person your classmates came here to meet." The students were admonished to play with their fancies, to step beyond their comfort zones and take the chance of learning something truly unsuspected about themselves. They were fantastic, articulate, adorable. And when it was over, Portia was not really surprised to see two girls wiping away tears.
"Okay," she said as the lights flicked on. "Lots of great schools out there. Lots of places to get a first-rate education. So why Princeton? What's so great about us?"
"You've got Toni Morrison," said a girl with a long red braid, seated on the floor in front of the foremost couch.
"Okay. And twelve other Nobel laureates. Thirteen, if you count Woodrow Wilson." She smiled. "But who's counting? We're not the only university with an outstanding faculty."
"What about Albert Einstein?"
"Alas," she said, "we no longer have Einstein."
"No," the boy said, chagrined, "I mean… he was there."
- On Sale
- Apr 13, 2009
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Grand Central Publishing