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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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“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.

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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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