It's nearly September, which means business is booming for the small army of private college counselors shuttling from McMansion to McMansion to help terrified 17-year-olds bare their souls on a dreadful application form that is as sterile as a tax return (but much more important).
Lacy Crawford, a 15-year veteran of the industry, isn't among them.
She's retired, having proofed her last personal statement and consoled her last helicopter parent in early 2012. Since then, the Princeton-educated admissions expert has spent much of her time chronicling the atrocious behavior she witnessed in Early Decision, her debut novel out this week from William Morrow. Touted as "based on a true frenzy," Early Decision tells the story of 27-year-old Anne—a not-so-subtle stand-in for Crawford—as she attends to Chicago's most pampered and petrified teenagers in the months leading up to the application deadlines.
Curiously, it was Crawford's experience having children of her own that drove her to write it all down.
"Once I had my own child and started to have a sense of what it's like even looking at preschool options, I realized how much of a trap it is for parents who want the best for their children and come up against these cruel, pseudo-meritocratic application processes," Crawford explained in a phone interview. "I was like, ''My god, I'm not immune to this!' And I started thinking about what those parents had done and I was really horrified. I was like, 'My god, how can you treat your child that way?' But also, how can you not do everything in your power to get everything for your child that you can?"
The families chronicled in Crawford's book, most of whom are fabulously wealthy (who else games the system by enlisting a private consultant?), do precisely that.
At its best, the book is a wickedly fast-paced testament to the hysterical arms race for prestige that college admissions has become. There's the mother, for example, who debates listing her son as Muslim on his application just to boost his chances at Amherst. There's the high-powered attorney who tries to goad Anne into writing his daughter's essays, despite being chair of the Board of Trustees at her first-choice school. And there's the stern father who won't let his theater-buff son apply to Vassar because it's too "girlie."
To the seasoned guidance counselor in an affluent community, these stories will be as familiar as the Old Testament. Crawford swears it's all true—dialogue copied verbatim—though names and details have been changed.
"It's no surprise that people are willing to do anything for their kids, but what's amazing is that they said these things in front of their kids," Crawford told The Atlantic Wire. "They didn't understand that when you hire someone to write the kid's essay, it says, 'I don't care what you have to say.' If you have to say your kid is black, it says, 'The way you are built is not enough.' That was what I was most interested in in writing the book—the damage that these parents were doing to their kids."
So why not pen a tell-all nonfictional account, filling in the one perspective that Jacques Steinberg's extraordinary The Gatekeepers lacks?
Crawford bristled at the thought. "I have no interest in hurting people who have already been hurt by their parents' ambition," she replied. "These are stories of real devastation. And I was able to shine a spotlight on things with fiction that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise."
"I also didn't want to write a memoir," she added. "I don't have to relive my 20s. It wasn't that fun the first time."
Indeed, that's part of what makes Anne a compelling character: she makes a living helping high schoolers achieve their Ivy-coated dreams but remains secretly crippled by insecurities about her own career path.
This, Crawford revealed, is also a true story. She'd never intended to become a college admissions guru. After graduating from Princeton in 1996 with an English degree, she had no idea how to pursue writing. Around her, friends in the finance and tech worlds were making millions. Meanwhile, she taught creative writing to high school seniors and created a unit around the personal essay. ("I mean, how many times have you in your life used the ability to write effectively in the first person—every cover letter, every application—and it's not something that's taught in school.") When the students all got into their first-choice schools, the parents began calling.
Some shuttled Crawford around the world to enlist her services: to Paris, New York, Dublin, and Los Angeles. When she moved to Manhattan for the last several years of her counseling, "that was the heart of the fire—the Upper East Side and the Horace Mann students."
Still, like her book's protagonist, there was nothing so revolutionary about her tactics. She didn't write her students' applications or pull secret strings. She just advised parents on the process, monitored deadlines, and—most crucially—helped her students write essays that read like thoughtful, breathing teenagers and not miserably bored SAT-word drones. Year after year, it worked.
Except for the rare occasions when it didn't.
"I once had a father scream at me," Crawford recalled. "He had sent his daughter to private schools, he had done everything he thought he needed to do, and she didn't get into Georgetown early. I would simply say, 'I am so sorry, I think you have an exceptional daughter or son, and I think they will have a wonderful time at X school.'"
Naturally, I wondered what Crawford's own college essay was about. She grew embarrassed.
"It was so bad," she confessed. "I went to a New England boarding school and there were a lot of ponds on the campus and whenever the ice froze over, it would be a really fun hockey night and they would set up skating boards. I think I wrote some really sentimental, awful thing about always hoping I had the courage to skate past the light so I could, you know, see the beating heart of summer still caught in the ice."
It's too late to cough up thousands for Crawford's secrets. But the college-bound senior—or, more likely, his or her neurotic parent—could do worse than read her book. It will be a terrifying, infuriating experience—but an altogether illuminating one.
Images via Goldberg McDuffie Communications.