Recommended Reading

This section offers an introduction into the larger landscape of education as it currently exists in the U.S.

I encourage those of you who know of articles, books, or websites on these issues to forward links to me. If you like, please write a few words about these texts so that we may begin a dialogue. There is far more good information out there than any one person can read. Our virtual communities provide us with exciting forms of communication.

The New York Times Blog has a valuable list of admission-related books here.

Malcolm Gladwell's article on the US News rankings is one of the very best articles on college admissions today. I will have more to say about this article after some of you may have had the opportunity to read it. Reading Gladwell in general is a good idea.

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, Andrew Ferguson. This book was on several top 10 books of the year in 2011. Well-written, well-researched, and funny too. The U in question, which is never named, happens to be the one I worked at for nearly thirty years so it has a special resonance for me. It is a great overview of the way the entire process of applying to Universities has gotten completely out of hand. Too many people are trading on students’ and parents’ fears.

How To Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Stanley Fish. A New York Times contributor and world famous English professor, he knows that essays begin not with words but sentences. Throughout my blog I will be giving examples of great sentences. A single great sentence can save an essay. In fact, a single great sentence is often better than some entire books. His book is far more useful than the mountain of books that focus entirely on college essays. He is a wonderful writer and just reading it will inspire students (and parents and others too).

Admission, Jean Korelitz. This novel has as its central character an admission officer from Princeton. While the plot gets a little melodramatic the actual details of the life of an admission officer ring true to my experience. There are some pages that are actually a bit uncomfortable to read as they recount the truth of this life all too accurately. For example, there is a several-page long rant on why every possible group in the world thinks the admission process is especially unfair to them. Here is a snippet: “The applicants are angry because I can’t see how special they are. Their parents are angry because I let in some other kid with a lower SAT score. The alumni are angry because they got into Princeton, but their brilliant kid got denied….” In the interest of full disclosure an admission officer who is now a full time writer and a good friend of mine was consulted on this book.

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, Jacques Steinberg. This book is about a decade old but it is still the best of a long line of books that follow the model he created. The book began as a series of essays for the New York Times and follows the lives of a diverse group of applicants to Wesleyan College. It has the drama of a novel in that we have to keep reading to see what will happen to the band of applicants when the decisions are finally made. It does portray admission people as heroic and willing to put in unending hours of work to pick the people the school has identified as most useful to their educational mission. I did not say “the best”, as what a school defines as useful may be far different than what parents and students believe to be “the best.” Again, under full disclosure I should say that I have been interviewed by him on a completely different educational issue.

Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, Mitchell Stevens. This Stanford professor spent a year researching an unnamed small private liberal arts college (it is Hamilton). He has excellent insights into how the admission game is played at schools like this. It demonstrates the effort it takes to get full-paying students to apply in large numbers to schools that carry a high price tag and this issue has only increased since it was written just a few short years ago. He does see that these schools are held afloat on the hefty tuition of wealthy people who are willing to pay for the privilege of lots of frills and services that are not available outside of a small number of similar schools.

Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges---And Find Themselves, David Marcus. This is another book that follows the fates of students through the admission cycle, this time from an affluent suburb of New York. What I want to point to in this book, which humanized the students, if not the process, is the following: “Since my days as a high school senior, a new industry had been born. It was built around getting affluent kids into the fifty or so most prestigious colleges (and universities).” But what this book and Steinberg’s book both leave out is that this group of people seeking access to the best the United States has to offer has spread like a YouTube video across the world. The cases in all these books dramatize only domestic students. But the growth in the industry these days is almost all from abroad. International parents and children are least able to understand the rules of the game since often they have little or no experience with the U.S. educational system. The market is now full of agents and counselors, some of whom are great. Others, unfortunately, are not and parents are paying a great deal of money for information that can be readily accessed on the web. I hope to help people with my blog who need information and either cannot afford or do not wish to pursue working with a private counselor.

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, ed. Philip Lopate. The editor is one of the better living essayists alive. He has been published in The Best American Essay series, a yearly compilation of great essays from known and unknown writers in a wide range of publications. I recommend this series too as a place to find out what great essays really are. Lopate’s introduction to some of the best essays ever written is better than almost all the college essay books I have read. And I have read quite a few. It sometimes takes a great writer to understand the subtle nuances necessary to convey the writer’s eye and ear elegantly. It is indeed an art.

The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, ed. by Jon D'Agata. The first two of a trilogy of collected essays, these books give a huge range of essays that have been written in a wide variety of styles, approaches, and cultures. Taken together they represent one of the few resources for students outside the U.S. to see how people from different cultures approach writing a great essay. The Next American Essay would actually now be called what has recently been dubbed “creative non-fiction.” All these essays approach things in ways that are not standard. Some of these ways work for me and others I think are almost impenetrable. Nevertheless, what the book encourages students to understand is that writing is not born from a template. Each approach is so different that it should give hope to anyone interested writing in ways that will set a student apart from the crowd of people who read books and articles on the simple rules of writing. If there is a simple rule it is this: there are no simple rules. Each student or writer should have a unique approach to the written word. It takes time to develop an art. Following a standard set of rules means writing a standard essay. That’s not what catches a reader’s ear of eye. So the truth is that there are no simple shortcuts. Writing takes time to learn. But like any craft, the more someone puts in, the better things get. I would advise against getting the college essay books for the most part. Many of the people who write them are not great writers themselves and I think it helps to have a master craftsman teach not a formula, but the way to draw out the gift that is already within. This idea goes back to Plato and is a part of the Socratic method, something I have used in the classroom and in endless conversations with students over the years.

There are many other books that I am going to review and use parts of on my blog and in my tutorials. This list is simply a good starting point to see a bit of the landscape. No one should go out and buy all these. Some will be useful to one set of students and others will help a different set or maybe just one person. Of those of you who will work with me I will try to match the reading and work with your strengths and weaknesses. For those who are trying to learn on your own, get a Kindle instead of buying all these books and download a sample of each. If one or two speak to you, then you should probably read the whole book. Use technology to your advantage.