Admission

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

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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.

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.

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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.

“Admission” is an intelligently written, thoughtful novel, and parents of high school juniors should stay far, far away from it. There are enough worries to keep you up nights without finding out for certain that your child really should have published her first novel by now or set up shelters for refugee women in Darfur in order to have any chance of attending an Ivy League school.

Those of us who somehow made it into (a lesser) college will be stunned at our good fortune at not having been uncovered as intellectual midgets and lazy frauds who thought that college was when we were supposed to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up. (Apparently, these days, the correct time to be mapping out that life plan is around fourth grade.)

Each chapter opens with a quote from a college essay. My favorite reads: “Long after I have forgotten what’s in the Magna Carta or the Krebs’s cycle, I will remember the lesson learned from my former best friend, Lisa, who betrayed my trust and unilaterally ended our friendship one day when we were in tenth grade.”

Korelitz says in her biographical information that she once served as an admissions reader for Princeton, and her detailed knowledge of the process grounds the novel – in both good and bad ways. The realism is impressive enough to unsettle even the parent of a first-grader, but Portia has a tendency to ruminate about the admissions process that slows down the plot in the beginning.

“To wade through these best and brightest 17-year-olds was to be, at once, deeply reassured by the goodness and potential of the American near adult population and deeply humbled by one’s own relative shortcomings.”

Portia’s feelings of inadequacy are a theme she returns to again and again in “Admission,” but it takes quite some time before readers learn the underlying reason that she has built a life that is protected from direct contact with many people. The closest she’s comfortable coming to the incoming class are the orange folders she totes with her everywhere; once they’re on campus, they’re no longer her precious charges.

In the meantime, visiting professors and parents of high-schoolers enjoy sneering at Portia and her “lack of qualifications.”

Who was she, their sharp eyes seemed to ask, to sit in judgment on them or their brilliant children.” Portia is used to being regarded as “something akin to the Witch in ‘Snow White’ or the pompous and dismissive Professor Charles Kingsfield of ‘The Paper Chase,’ ” but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Admission” isn’t a satire, but Korelitz uses her setting to think empathically about “this national hysteria over college admissions.” (If the recession continues to drag on, economic considerations may take some of the wind out of colleges’ sails, but her points remain valid.)

Korelitz has created a complicated heroine who is nonetheless easy to love, and readers who stick with “Admission” will be pulling for Portia just as powerfully as she roots for the applicants she falls in love with every year.

Plenty of us these days are applying for college, graduate school, and job after job after job, so I’ll just leave you with one final thought from the novel: “Why anyone would bother to lie in the age of Google was baffling.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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