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An Ivy League admissions officer worries about her school’s eager applicants, even as she struggles with a past secret of her own.

By Yvonne Zipp / April 30, 2009

Anyone who thinks Ivy League admissions officers play darts to decide which lucky 9.8 percent of applicants gets in – or just throw all the applications in the air and see which ones land closest to the target – raise your hand.

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Portia Nathan would be very disappointed in you. The admissions process, Princeton University’s New England representative would have you know, is rigorous, high-minded, and above all, fair.

And, while the orange-frosted brownies you sent in with your child’s application are both delicious and school-spirited, they aren’t going to help Betsy join the class of 2013. Oh, and if she says her favorite book is “Pride and Priviledge” by “Jane Austin”, she’s really not getting in.

For the past 16 years, Portia has been an admissions officer, first at her alma mater, Dartmouth, and then at Princeton, and is devoted to her job, as Judith Hanff Korelitz chronicles in her new novel, Admission. Portia gets her heart broken over and over during the reading season, longing to offer solace to these exceptional teenagers who just aren’t quite amazing enough.

“She wished, as she checked, again and again, the box reading ‘Only if room’ (a euphemism for no, as there was never room), that she could reach through the folder to the kid beyond and say, Anyone would be ecstatic to have their child turn out as great as you, and, Please, go and do all the things you say you intend to do.”

Portia is somewhat less devoted to her longtime partner, Mark, the chair of the English Department, with whom she has a companionable existence. Portia got the coveted New England assignment because her new boss decided she needed some “shaking up.” Unfortunately for Portia, he gets his wish, although it takes some time for the action in “Admission,” Korelitz’s fourth adult novel, to kick into high gear.

“Admission” takes its title from both Portia’s job and a secret she’s been keeping since her own college days. That secret starts shaking loose after Portia takes a trip to an experimental high school in New Hampshire and meets its most brilliant student, Jeremiah Balakian, an auto-didact with lousy grades and eight perfect 5s on AP exams (despite never having taken any AP classes).

She also meets one of his teachers, who says he remembers her from Dartmouth. Although Portia has no memory of John Halsey, encountering someone who knew her in college is almost enough to spark a panic attack.

Portia becomes enchanted with Jeremiah and believes that Princeton would be the perfect home for him – despite the grades and the absence of any extracurricular activities.

Meanwhile, her mom, an earth-mother-type who has devoted her life to a series of liberal causes, has opened her Vermont home to a pregnant Mormon teen and offered to adopt the baby. The 68-year-old is convinced it won’t come to that, because how could anyone not fall in love with their own baby, but Portia is terrified for everyone involved.


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