Novel: An Unflattering View of Admissions Process

Book review: “Getting In.”
By Rebecca Ruiz
The Choice blog
The New York Times
March 4, 2010

Applying to college can feel downright novelistic, with its stress and suspense catapulting some families into faraway fantasy worlds and alternate frames of mind.Karen Stabiner, an author with a typically nonfiction take on parenting and education (she writes a column called The College Insider for The Huffington Post), has drawn inspiration from an admissions system rife with creative material. Her latest book, “Getting In,” (Hyperion, March 2010) is a work of fiction that chronicles the senior year strife of five high school students as they file college applications, confront rejection and acceptance, and prepare to leave home.
The novel’s greatest strength is its greatest downfall: it’s too real. “Getting In” captures student and parent stress well – too well to make it an escapist, light read. At the same time, its characters lack the depth and likability to endear them to the reader and inspire much other than resentment for having absorbed their fictional anxieties and borne witness to neurotic what-ifs.
The question is, once you or a child has jumped the collegiate gatepost, do you want to relive the associated angst? And if you’re in the midst of applying, or are anticipating the process, do you want to expose yourself to a powerful strain of the virus? (Maybe you do.)

The book presents an unflattering and hyped picture of competition and cruelty among high school students and parents, with threats exchanged over valedictory standings, bribes extended to prospective colleges and lavish gifts presented to admission counselors. In this, “Getting In” adopts some marked character stereotypes.

There is a fourth-generation legacy at Harvard with roman numerals after his name whose unfeeling father buys his way in to that university, suffocating the boy’s strong desire to go elsewhere.

There is a spoiled queen bee who requests Botox at age 17, walks all over her friends and, in the end, has no friends at all. She is Williams-bound early on (and is a legacy there), but she is resentful of not having had the opportunity to apply to Yale because of her parents’ objections. Never in the book are we allowed to forget her grief over sacrificing four potential years in New Haven.

There is a shy, “have-not” Asian student, a daughter of immigrants who is driven to make it to Harvard. She has no social life because of her full absorption in schoolwork, yet she attracts that fourth-generation Harvard boy with a few words at a financial aid information session — one that the boy’s father, a well-off lawyer, has charitably organized for the underprivileged.

There is a private-gone-public schoolgirl, somewhat academically rebellious in the wake of her parents’ divorce. She fabricates her college essay to gain acceptances and ends up happy at a state university, having received a new car in the process.

And there is an all-around good girl, a private school student who is maligned for having “only taken” six advanced-placement classes. It is this character who cares for the drunken queen bee when she sneaks too much vodka at the prom.

These portraits give the book a tinge of “90210” flavor, undermining its weight. The characters’ perspectives are limited, with stories capturing a narrow slice of privileged life. The book is set in Los Angeles, where Ms. Stabiner lives, and its backdrop plays heavily into the story, with frequent references to gourmet coffee shops and the tanned muscle men of Venice Beach.

To be fair, the novel doesn’t take itself totally seriously. It’s aware that a lot of plotlines or character behaviors verge on the ridiculous: At one point, an admissions counselor reflects on the “set of indulged teenagers and invented woes” he has seen.

But that tone of irony is subtle and rare, and the omniscient narrator is, on the whole, too distractingly obsessed with class systems. The voice comes off as superficial, with brand-name consciousness not limited to colleges but extending to cars and clothes and types of dogs.

The best insight of “Getting In” is into a parent’s over-identification with a child’s experience. In the book, a mother’s internal dialogue takes the format of SAT multiple-choice questions; a father sees himself and his family legacy so strongly in his son that it prevents him from letting the boy branch out. The lesson seems to be about letting go, making this a better book for parents than students. But no tips or examples of coping are offered, just a warning that separation from a child is inevitable.

In the end, the book establishes that “growing up” is more important than “getting in.” Its heart is in the right place, and that message is a good one. You sense that the story aspires to a higher meaning. But it doesn’t quite achieve that. Prestige and materialism have for 400 pages been major values in this book. The critical importance of the “getting” is never debunked. Maturation comes in second.