Jean Hanff Korelitz


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Admission Summary

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Admission is a 2009 work of fiction by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Set in Princeton, New Jersey, it chronicles the life and struggle of an admissions officer, Portia Nathan, who acts as judge, jury, and executioner for hopeful students who invest heavily in the possible social capital of acceptance into Princeton University. As the mother of a son trying to gain admission to top colleges, Portia empathizes with the thousands of students she profiles and has to reject despite their merits and rich personal struggles. When her son applies to Princeton and is deemed an uncompetitive applicant, Portia is forced to intimately internalize the implications of her job. For its salient exploration of the modern college admissions process, Admission was adapted into a feature film starring Tina Fey.

Each chapter begins with an excerpt from an admissions essay to Princeton. These snapshots give brief, fragmentary profiles of the young adults vying for admission, and they illustrate the intense relationship students have with their application essays. Many of these students fervently believe that admission to a college like Princeton is the ultimate determinant of their future and a judgement of their existential worth.

Meanwhile, Portia Nathan works as an admissions officer. Having been rejected from Princeton herself, she instead went to Dartmouth, another elite university—but one that is held in marginally lower esteem. Now 38, she still carries the insecurity of her rejection. It’s exacerbated by her proximity to the institution that refused to accept her as a student but instead found a fit for her as a lowly administrative official. Portia’s life consists of a slow, cyclical work routine as well as a marriage to her partner, an English professor at Princeton. Her husband, ironically, declines to use his privileged position at Princeton to produce actual work; instead, he’s chosen a leisurely life as a department chair and home chef. Somewhat bored of life with her husband, Portia is enamored by the emotional cycle of Princeton’s admissions process. She spends much of her time each year traveling throughout the northeast US, selling the university to high-achieving students. In reality, the students who tend to get in are uncompelling children from long, wealthy Princeton legacies. These students include one named Matt Boyle, who arrogantly tells Portia that he was born to go to Princeton.

In the winter and spring months, Portia is tasked with reading application essays. During this time, she is overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of the hopeful narratives she reads. Parsing thousands of applications, she sympathizes with the overachieving students who seek admission, and often deserve it, but are rejected due to the limited number of spots at Princeton. A perceptive and compassionate reader, she often sees through their polished and rationalized narratives into their terrified and unstable realities. This causes her to harbor a sense of irony and disillusionment about the validity of the college admissions process, knowing that it can never really select the right students. As Portia gets deeper into reading, many of the applications elide. Occasionally, the languor is punctuated by a moment of clarity about the students Princeton accepts: Neglecting many insightful, likeable kids, the university tends to favor accomplished and polished ones who may not necessarily have interesting stories.

One day, Portia reviews a student from an experimental school in New Hampshire called the Quest School. The student is lauded for his indifference for formal learning; he’s a brilliant autodidact who is knowledgeable about a wide array of academic thought. Portia is charmed by him and recommends him to her boss as gifted, though slightly odd. Her boss decides to offer the student admission because he believes a small amount of oddness is a good trait for Princeton’s image. (Portia’s story is peppered with other absurdities about her relationship with the admissions director. For example, in one chapter he bluntly tells her to bring him saxophone players.)

Once Portia’s son seeks entrance into Princeton, she is forced to reckon even more intimately with the reality of its cutthroat process and narrow conception of a good student. Though her work demands neutrality, even in the case of family, Portia watches as her son’s application is deemed uncompetitive and nearly thrown out. In the end, she forces his application through, allowing her own judgment to supersede Princeton’s process.

Ultimately, Portia is torn by the irony of her actions, realizing that there is nothing that makes one person or institution’s judgment superior to another’s, and that she reinforced this central fallacy of the college admissions process by asserting her opinion over the rest. The book is thus an excoriation of the emotional and logical patterns propagated by the elitist mindset at institutions of higher learning, and an appeal to improve the values and metrics by which people are considered for admission.