This book sets off a psycho-physiological phenomenon called “reassurance-induced terror,” which can be defined roughly as the feeling you get when the pilot of the plane you’re riding in comes on the public address system to say that there’s nothing to worry about. Both the author, Bill Paul, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and his main character, Fred Hargadon, the dean of admissions at Princeton, are obviously kind-hearted, decent, dedicated men who want only the best for America’s adolescents. But Getting In inexorably knots the stomach and fevers the brow. Although the college application process is 20 years in the past for me and 10 years in the future for my children, perhaps it’s like military combat: Once experienced, the terror can return in full force at any time with the right stimulus, which Getting In definitely is. It made me so overwhelmingly anxious that I had to put it down every few pages and take a few deep breaths.

The reason is that the message the book sends out to its intended audience of college applicants and their parents can be boiled down to the following syllogism:

1) Nothing is more determinant of the life-course than being admitted (or not!) to an elite college during the senior year of high school. However:

2) No individual who is not a nationally acclaimed genius has much meaningful chance of gaining this incalculable opportunity. But:

3) Don’t obsess about it just be yourself! 

For example, hook up the galvanic skin-response meter and then read this passage: “Here, then, is the Princeton candidate’s mission impossible: Take five or six solid courses a semester during sophomore and junior years, get A’s in all or nearly all of them, then back up that virtuoso classroom performance with half a dozen test scores over 700. Anything less, and the candidate will probably be graded no higher than a two, which, while very good, does not separate that candidate from the pack (About fifty-five per cent of applicants are either academic twos or threes).”

Not that being an “academic one” will get you into Princeton. You still have your “nonacademic achievement rating” to worry about:

“As for the nonacademic achievement rating, Hargadon says that to get a one, a candidate has to have done something truly exceptional, such as swimming in the Olympics, performing on the violin at Carnegie Hall, or selling a zillion Girl Scout cookies and speaking to major U.S. corporations about salesmanship. Asked for other kinds of accomplishments that would make a candidate a nonacademic one, [Hargadon] replies, ‘They hold a patent. That would be a one. They’ve published a book. That would be a one.'”

If you sold only a million Girl Scout cookies and then spoke to minor U.S. corporations, or performed merely at the Kennedy Center, then on that day in April when acceptances and rejections are mailed out you’re liable to suffer the kind of gruesome fate witnessed by Paul at an “affluent high school”: “Over in one corner a girl named Sue is rocking back and forth, crying uncontrollably. Three of her classmates are patting her on the back and telling her it will be all right. . . . You are a great kid, they all say. Keep your chin up. . . .

Sue’s day began so differently, so full of promise. Like many of her classmates, she had told the post office to hold her family’s mail so she could pick it up in person before school started. She was certain she was going to get a letter of acceptance from the Ivy League university that she had dreamed of attending since she was a little girl. Speaking out of earshot, [Mildred] Hayes [the school guidance counselor] tells me that Sue is going through something very much like a death in the family. ‘She will need time to mourn,’ she says without irony.”

Paul’s narrative device for conveying the world of Princeton admissions is to follow Hargadon and five of his applicants through one annual cycle. This heightens the aura of barely controlled panic because of the suspense over the outcome for each of the kids. (Either Paul or his publisher, in order to accentuate the mood, has decided to use SAT-style multiple-choice blocks as the section breaks in the book.) One could argue that the characters inhabit a bizarre subculture having no wider social relevance—but their drama does resonate, partly because it has become the basic rite of passage for a significant portion of the American elite.

Affirmative Action for Fencers

The great virtue of Getting In is that beneath its very thick veneer of anxiety lies a lot of good inside dope on how admissions works at an Ivy League college. What is clear inter alia, though Paul doesn’t say it directly, is that his five applicants all belong to the group for which the odds of acceptance are the longest: They’re “A” students from public high schools on the East and West Coasts who don’t fit into any of the categories that get you special treatment. The best-known of these is affirmative action, which, we learn here, has (in Princeton admissions at least) more white beneficiaries than black or Latino. Paul tells us that, as a spur to fundraising, Princeton accepts 43 percent of applicants who are alumni children (as against 15 percent for the pool as a whole). And because Princeton has 31 varsity sports teams, far more than any Big Ten powerhouse, fully a quarter of every entering class is made up of athletes, 80 percent of whom wouldn’t have been admitted on their academic merits; clearly the easiest way to beat the system is to become very good at an arcane Ivy League sport such as fencing or crew. (Only 6 percent of each class is black, and I’d guess that if you eliminated black athletes and got the percentage admitted due to pure racial advantage, it would be even smaller.)

Also, Paul is admirably forthright about the advantage coming from a rich family confers: It buys you into the kind of private school, or public-school district, where you can take advanced-placement courses and get intense, in-the-know college counseling. These schools push their students to get their applications in during the fall early decision/early action cycle, when, Paul tells us, the odds of admission are much higher than in the spring cycle. (Penn takes “roughly 65 to 70 percent” of alumni children who apply early.) These counselors can occasionally move beyond simple advice into the realm of direct negotiation with the colleges. One counselor described in Getting In calls an admissions office to ask for advice about a particular application and is told to change the student’s intended major. The application is revised and resubmitted, and the student goes from “deferred” to “admitted.”

Some of Paul’s student-characters are on the edge of this advantaged territory. For example, one has parents who hire a “counselor” whose job it is “to work hard to make him more appealing” to admissions officers, especially by advising on the personal essay component of the application. (Paul doesn’t say so, but some of these counselors actually write the essay, for a fee of up to $3,000.) On the whole, however, the characters are part of the large group in open competition for the half or less of the slots that aren’t reserved for members of some special category.

This would engender more sympathy for their plight if they were more appealing people. All of them are completely fixated on getting into Princeton, far past the point of wholesomeness, but none can give a good reason why. Here’s one girl’s rationale: “Look, for years now everyone has been telling me how smart I am. . . . I’ve always been in the highest reading group. I was valedictorian of my class in junior high school. I’ve got the highest grade-point average in my class going into senior year. The same people who have been telling me I’m smart tell me I should go either to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale because those are the best schools around. And so that’s what I want.”

The moment in the book when I most wanted to strangle these kids was when Paul describes them being romanced by colleges other than Princeton. Two are offered scholarships at their state universities. Another one gets a letter from a private college offering her a full four-year scholarship. A fourth is invited on an all-expense-paid visit to “a Midwestern college.” Do they find this gratifying? Of course not—it’s not Princeton: “[N]one of the kids had any interest in attending the colleges that were so eager to accept them. Nora simply crumpled up her letter and tossed it into a wastebasket. Mark, seeming to represent the group, explained that he had passed up the free plane ride because the Midwestern school just didn’t have the ‘shiny prestige’ he wanted. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘I could be just as well off and just as happy at a college without a big name. But I’ve bought into the idea that a big name school will give me security.'”

In a way the unkindest cut for these kids is that Princeton and schools like it, after setting the bar at the level of lifelong commitment to weeniedom, also expect applicants to be the kind of “genuine,” Thoreau-like people who have higher values than merely wanting constantly to get ahead in the success-distribution system. Like the surprisingly heavy commitment to student athletics, this is a cultural carryover from the schools’ early-20th-century past as institutions primarily devoted to turning out “gentlemen” whose most important quality was not academic performance but “character.”

There was something to the old code, so it’s understandable, but also maddening that what Hargadon and Princeton want applicants to do most is “be themselves; follow their own muse; get out on their own and develop maturity, perspective, a slightly different way of seeing the world,” since this likely will result in failure to be an academic and nonacademic “one.” The Princeton application asks its pool of overachievers to describe their biggest mistake; this sets off a comic quest for “the ‘right’ big mistake to have made.” To some extent the admissions office’s quest for the unusual student has the hollow quality of cocktail-party bragging, as when one alumni interviewer says, “A saber-fencing potter who summers in Spain? This is why I do interviews!” Hargadon once wrote in the introduction to a book, “In my most plaintive moments as an admissions dean, I could be heard stalking the office corridors shouting, ‘Where the hell are the Huckleberry Finns?'” The question is admirable, but it answers itself: Going through the elite college application process is essentially a gigantic version of being civilized by Aunt Sally, and no latter-day Huck would go anywhere near it.

Getting In is a book that captures the details of college admissions at the expense of the larger truth, which almost everybody professionally involved in the admissions process seems blind to: In comparison to other countries, what’s remarkable about the United States is how easy it is to get into a good college and how little where you went to college matters in the long run. In Taiwan or South Korea, only a minority of applicants will get to go to any college at all; in England, if you don’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, you have no chance at a wide range of important positions in the society. Here in America, 95 percent of colleges accept most of their applicants. Those who get into one of the handful of highly selective schools ought to go, for the education and the lifelong networking and credential advantage, but being admitted doesn’t set them up for life, and being rejected doesn’t permanently close any doors. People who didn’t go to Ivy League colleges currently occupy such positions as president and secretary of state, and (to name a few of the most prestigious billets in business) CEO of Citicorp, Disney, Goldman Sachs, and General Electric. American life still turns much more on what you actually accomplish over the long haul than on gaining a magic ticket at the age of 17; admissions-mania only encourages the notion, which is both harmful and untrue, that getting and staying on track matters more than doing.

Dozens, even hundreds, of novels of the Victorian and Edwardian ages set among the prosperous and respectable classes have plots that turn on the conflict between some rigid, nonsensical social convention of the group and the purer, better impulse of the main character. In upper-middle-class America today, obsession with college admission is becoming the functional equivalent of obsession with propitious marriage in the work of Henry James or Edith Wharton: It is the central principle around which the transition to adulthood is organized, but it is fundamentally irrational. That the irrationality of it is not obvious—because it appears to be motivated by pure parent-child love—only demonstrates how deeply the convention has us in its grip. It makes sense in the same way the idea that marrying Countess Olenska would be ruinous made sense to Newland Archer. In fact, it makes less sense. Archer would have had to live in exile from everything he had ever known. Princeton’s rejectees will go to Duke.

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.