College anxieties channeled into a novel
As a college counselor, Lacy Crawford thought she understood how students and their parents were driven crazy by the college application process — until she had a baby. Crawford says that as soon as she was “late” to sign her four-month-old son up for preschool, she truly felt what it was like to walk in the shoes of the parents she’d been advising. That experience became her novel, “Early Decision,” which follows a top-tier college counselor and her students through the head-spinning frenzy of college applications. We asked Crawford about walking the line between fiction and memoir for her debut novel.
How did you find the characters in the book?
All of the stories in “Early Decision” are based on things that happened. There were interactions between parents and students that really troubled me, that I couldn’t get out of my memory and I wanted to try to understand them. I also wanted to write them in a fun way — it’s a satire. It’s accessible, and it’s meant to let parents and students see what this process is doing to us.
So what do you feel the process doing to us?
I think [the college application process] puts the emphasis on getting in rather than growing up. So, I had the characters begin with their essays [the book features college essays from Crawford's fictional students] and I wrote their essays and then I figured out who their parents were and went from there.
It sounds like you’re a little bit skeptical about the application process. Is that true?
I’m not an education expert — my experience is only anecdotal, but I think the process privileges the very privileged, the rich kids who attend private schools all the way through, or public schools in towns that have the really good schools. Those are the kids who know what they’re competing for and how to compete for it. At the other end of the spectrum, there are underserved young people who, when they can perform, the top colleges are desperate for them. If you are an ethnic minority coming out of a top (or a terrible) public high school and you have great scores, Harvard Princeton and Yale will fight each other for you. In the middle are hundreds of thousands of kids, maybe millions — lots and lots of kids who are good, bright kids, coming out of middling high schools who haven’t given them the resources they need to know what colleges are out there. And their parents are maybe working full time and maybe not obsessed with Yale, so they don’t have the time and the resources to figure out how to give their kids all the boosts that the rich kids are getting.
What are your feelings about your own kids and college?
My fantasy for my boys is actually a fantasy for myself. I hope that by the time they are 17, I am so confident of their character and so sure that they know their own hearts that I will be able to support whatever decisions they make. I think that, barring the obvious, there’s no such thing as a mistake when you’re 17 or 18. If you’re a good and honest young person, you can make choices that will make you have a more circuitous path than somebody may have wished for you. In my life that was the case, and I wouldn’t take back years of dumb stuff. That’s what I needed to get here.
What is your hope for the book?
I hope it’s a fun read — everyone is so anxious about the college process. I hope that there is some perspective around the way the book is perceived that it can help everyone relax a little bit. It is a real privilege to sweat Stanford. One person asked me ‘do you see the system changing or the process changing,’ and it seems there is some kind of reckoning coming for higher education. MOOCs, Student loans — the crisis in college admissions is not how kids can get into Harvard. The crisis is thousands and thousands of kids getting what they need to find competitive employment.