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.
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.
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.
Have any former students or parents contacted you recently?
I know some parents got their hands on early copies of the book. They all want to know if they’re in it. The students I’ve been in touch with are having a great time reading it, but there’s a bit of a selection bias involved. I wouldn’t reach out to the people whose stories are directly told, but I’m not sure they would recognize themselves.
But I have to say I’m getting many requests for help. I don’t do this for money anymore, but there are people who are important to me asking for help because they’re applying to law school or business school or Fulbright or Rhodes.
What changed about the admissions process over the 15 years that you did this?
Application rates have soared and admissions rates have plummeted. Some of that is just demographics and more kids applying to these schools. Some of it is the common application—the fact that it’s easier to send an application to a school than it was when I was applying 20 years ago or more. Suddenly Harvard can brag about its 5.6 percent—or whatever it is—acceptance rate and parents get hysterical. That wasn’t happening when I first started out. Suddenly there were all these standardized tests online. There were achievement tests, there were multiple essays. It seems logistically challenging but not yet philosophically challenging. By the time I finished doing this it had become a flat-out race. College admissions is the culmination of every parent’s ambition and anxiety. It’s a last hurrah for a parent—the last thing they feel they can mastermind before they lose their child to independence.
And as you said, people now apply to 20 schools, if they don’t go the early decision route. When I was in school, that’s what everyone did, and I graduated from college in 2009.
What’s going on now is that some of the schools are early action so they let you apply to other schools “early action” as well. I have students who are applying to six or seven places early action. It’s the same rate, just shifted two months earlier. Everyone wants to stand out and everyone wants to have a yes in their pocket going into the regular season. If you’re a parent or a kid who has never done this before, it’s like figuring out in March that you have to learn how to file your taxes by April 15. It’s awful and terrifying. And it’s gotten awfully complex.
What did you learn as a writer from your work with these kids?
It’s not terribly dissimilar to journalism. If you have to turn around a lot of pieces on a deadline, you do learn something of efficiency, how to just get over yourself and get it done. I think it made writing less precious. 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. I’m not your English teacher. I’m not grading you. Shut up and write something.”
Are you anxious about people contacting you once the book comes out?
There are plenty of people contacting me already, asking for advice about college. That’s kind of heartbreaking because if I were able to sit down with them for two hours I might be helpful, but that’s not my job anymore.
You can figure out how to get into a school if you read this book, but I think you can also figure out how to get out of the whole craziness in the first place. My fantasy is that it will be empowering—as much as I think “empower” is a terrible word.