Preparing for College

ACCEPTANCE is the Perfect Summer Book for Admissions Addicts

Question: Can you please recommend an admissions book for my family (wife, me, possibly our 11th grade son) to read on vacation? We want something like The Gatekeepers that feels like a vacation book, not The Fiske Guide!

Excellent timing ... for your request that is, not your vacation (well, probably that, too ;) ). Acceptance, by Dave Marcus, is exactly the book you need. I promise it won't feel like homework ... even for your son. I just finished reviewing it for College Confidential. The review should be posted in the CC "College Books" section fairly soon, but in the meantime, here it is:

Book Review: Watching a guidance guru in action


A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves

By David L. Marcus

The Penguin Press; July 23, 2009

ISBN-10: 1594202141

Reviewed by Sally Rubenstone

Do you need a 12-Step Program to get off of College Confidential? Can you recite the median SAT scores at Princeton and Pomona from memory? Did you stay up all night to read The Gatekeepers or finish Fat Envelope Frenzy in a single sitting? If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, then Acceptance is the perfect book to keep by your beach chair or Barcalounger this summer.

The Gatekeepers revealed the inner workings of the Wesleyan University admission office, and Fat Envelope Frenzy followed five Harvard hopefuls throughout the application process. Now Acceptance, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David L. Marcus, completes the behind-the-scenes trilogy, navigating the admissions maze alongside of high school guidance counselor Gwyeth Smith.

Marcus, a Brown alum, Yale reject, and veteran correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, Newsday and other nationally known publications, spent a year shadowing Smith (known to all as "Smitty"), his colleagues, and his advisees in the Oyster Bay (Long Island, New York) High School Class of 2008.

Although smaller than most of its counterparts (109 students graduated in 2008), Oyster Bay is in many other ways a typical U.S. public high school, its students racially and socioeconomically diverse. Yet Gwyeth (rhymes with "Faith") Smith is far from the typical counselor. He knows the admissions world inside and out and is better versed in college strengths, stats, and trivia than perhaps even the most fanatic College Confidential addict. Smitty knows his young charges well, too. He helps them to craft personal statements that are truly personal, and he urges them to seek the best fit—not the biggest name—when making college choices. As Oyster Bay's Director of Guidance, Smitty has also managed to insert a daily "Essay Writing for College" elective into the curriculum, to add Oyster Bay High School to the roster of SAT and ACT testing sites (the home-court advantage translates into higher scores, he contends), to make certain that none of his counseling-staff underlings will shoulder unwieldy loads, and to wangle a $150,000 annual salary for himself.

Through Dave Marcus' eyes, we watch Smitty hob-knob with admission honchos at a national conference in Texas and plead with the manager of a local pharmacy to reduce the work hours of a promising but overburdened senior. We also see Smitty probe behind his students' school lives and stereotypes to learn about their families, their fears, their true passions, and their dreams. Armed with such insights, he writes letters of recommendation that convince admission committees that he is offering them the ideal addition to their campus community.

Yet as I turned each page (and, yes, I read long into the wee hours without flagging) what struck me wasn't that Smitty is a marvel—the Leonardo da Vinci of college counseling, blessed with gifts that few mortals could hope to equate. Nope, what I realized instead is that Smitty is special but hardly unique. I've found from my own several decades in admissions circles that there are other counselors out there who share Smitty's knowledge, dedication, and charm. Yet most are hog-tied by skinflint budgets and uncooperative administrations. As a parent, I am angered that the 109 students in Oyster Bay were granted the privilege of Smitty's attention and expertise, while hundreds of thousands of deserving high school students elsewhere are saddled with counselors who are overburdened or even downright inept. Why, I wondered, can't all of our kids go through the college process with a wise and wonderful advisor like Smitty at the helm?

Although "Independent College Counselor" is one of the many hats I wear myself, I would be delighted to see this profession become obsolete. Private counselors, predictably, work most frequently with well-heeled students and also, perhaps more surprisingly, with disadvantaged ones. (All of the indie counselors I know take on pro bono clients.) The disadvantaged, too, may have access to programs like Upward Bound and TRIO to help shepherd them through the college quagmire. So, of course, it's the middle-class kids who are often caught ... where else? ... in the middle.

So my advice for your summer staycation (yes, seniors, you can put it on your EC list) is to first read Acceptance and share it with your friends and neighbors. Next, stampede the School Board meeting and demand that they find—and finance—a Smitty (or at least a reasonable facsimile) for your community.

If college counseling in this country were what it should be, then Acceptance need not have been written. Smitty wouldn't be the exception but the norm. College Confidential could still exist as a place for parents and students to gather for admissions information and moral support. But it wouldn't have to be the primary source of college knowledge—nor the obsession—that it has become for many families.