Review & Giveaway – Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

You guys… this book is wonderful.

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I’m not exactly convinced that the movie will be equally amazing, or even slightly amazing, but anyone even contemplating seeing the movie should read the book first.  Actually, read it right now.  I’m not kidding.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

“Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.”

For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation’s brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.

Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman’s life to its core.

When I was younger and full of the snobbery of college-age promise, I always read with pen in hand, ready to make notations, certain that this or that work of literature would suddenly explain the world to me in stark relief and beautiful language.  Sometimes it did; mostly, that pen was just a sign of my readiness to be transformed.  In the intervening decade, as my life became more full and my reading choices less profound (some would say; others, myself included, could argue this assumption, but that’s another blog post for another day), I stopped my habit of clutching a pen.

By the time I reached page 52 of Admission, I was digging in my purse for my favorite pen (and thanking the PR folk at Grand Central Publishing for sending me a paper copy of the book, enabling me to feel the extreme satisfaction of underlining this sentence: “There is a sound to waiting. It sounds like held breath pounding its fists against the walls of the lung, damp and muffled beats.”)  All told, I employed my pen eleven times to mark passages that seemed to me beautiful or particularly interesting or important.  I might have taken the time to underline more had I not read the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting, desperate to watch the journey unfold.

That careful unfolding is perhaps the best thing about the book.  The prose is beautiful, the story interesting, the backdrop profound, but it was the clarity of the author’s light shining into the murk her character had encouraged her life to become that floored me.  Portia is simultaneously far too aware of herself and utterly blind to the reality of her life.  Her struggle with the weight of the past, the penance of the present, and the impossibility of the future is at once shocking and intimately familiar.

I don’t often read other reviews before publishing my own review on a book, but this time I did.  The critical praise included in the book’s front matter seemed a bit strange to me, with most of the reviews focusing on the glimpses of college admissions culture that one can glean from this book.  That struck me as odd, because it did not seem to me that the book was about college admissions at all.  In fact, it is about Portia and her slow, difficult, and at times traumatic, recovery of her life.  Her sojourn in Dartmouth’s and Princeton’s Admission offices is the blindfold Portia uses to hide from reality.

“Her only tether was to the armchair and the orange folders, traveling slowly from stack to stack across her wooden lap desk, like that T.S. Eliot poem about the life measured out in coffee spoons, except that she was measuring hers with other people’s lives, which they had measured into these life-folders. Short lives, slivers of lives, fictions of lives.” (140)


“Her life was a port in the storm, a craft in unpredictable waters. Her life, it occurred to her, was a careful refuge from life.” (166)

One can, undeniably, learn quite a lot about college admissions while reading the book, but all those sections are a carefully crafted distraction from what’s really going on with Portia.  Along its winding road, this novel delves into the potential of young womanhood, along with all of its attendant responsibilities to justify and validate the struggles of all the women who came before; the weight of self-reproach and shame that falls on those who buckle under the pressure; the awareness of failure that marks middle age.  It also hints at the joy accessible to those who live, not through coffee spoons or any other measure of  habit, but through themselves.


I am absolutely thrilled to be able to offer a giveaway of Admission, hosted by Grand Central Publishing.  One lucky commenter, selected at random by, will win a copy of the movie-tie-in trade paperback (U.S. only… sorry!).  Please answer this question in a comment below in order to enter this giveaway (or feel free to make up your own topic, if you prefer, but please say something substantive…it’s just more interesting!):  

  • Assuming you wrote them, do you remember what you said in your college application essays?  Care to share the topic(s)?

The giveaway will run from Wednesday, March 20 until Tuesday, March 30 at 11:59 p.m. pacific time.  The winner must be willing to provide a mailing address in order to claim the prize.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, in exchange for an honest review.*

8 thoughts on “Review & Giveaway – Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

  1. This sounds like a great book! I was just reading about the movie last night in a magazine, and I totally want to see it (though that mostly has to do with Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin). As far as the giveaway question, I haven’t the faintest clue what I wrote down to convince APU to take me. It probably didn’t matter much because I had good grades, plenty of extra-curriculars, and a reference from the Chair of the business department. Getting into college wasn’t really an issue, but I’m still working on the finishing part. lol.

    • I’m really glad I didn’t know a damn thing about the book before I started reading it (even the publisher’s blurb gives you very little information, really). I hadn’t seen a preview for the movie, and I had no idea what I was getting into. The movie looks like an alternate universe version of this story… or a pantomime, maybe? I don’t know… it would still be worth it to see Tina Fey, Paul Rudd & Lily Tomlin all in the same place, but the elements of story and character that one can glean from the preview bear little resemblance to what I encountered in the book. I have a powerful suspicion that the folk who read the book and decided to make it into a movie didn’t quite understand it…

      Anyway… I should probably answer my own question. I applied to a few colleges, so I’ll just dole out the stories comment by comment. For APU, I wrote an essay (as we all did, for at least one of them, I think) about my faith. My essay focused on how my faith has been typically different from the faith of all the folks around me, coming, as I did, from a rather strange religious background, and how I endeavored to respect the nuances of others’ faith and my own. I’m a little surprised they let me in… That essay absolutely screamed, “FREE THINKER!!!”

      • You know what’s funny? Now that I think of it, I don’t believe that the magazine said much about the movie at all. It was pretty much an interview with Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin, but they didn’t talk about the movie other to say how great it was to work with each other. I still have no idea what the movie is supposed to be about. 🙂
        Regarding APU: They have to allow a few free thinkers, or else who are the Christian Ministry majors supposed to practice their evangelizing on? They have to keep their convert quota up. 😉

      • If you ever plan to read the book, don’t watch a preview of the movie (or the movie itself, obviously) before you read it. Normally I’m not much of a fan of books that rely on the reader not knowing what’s going on, but in this book, the reader’s ignorance matches Portia’s denial, and as Portia moves closer to the truth about herself, the reader learns more. It’s lovely how both happen together. The movie review just comes right out with it (and it does it wrong, too) as though the point of the story is not that revelation and what it means but is instead the admission process at Princeton. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

        Re: APU: Poor Tim!

  2. Hmmm…the animation school I went to online didn’t really have an essay but a whole bunch of questions to figure out how serious you were doing and finishing the program. So I wrote about how I wanted to be an animator since I was 10 and how when I’d color in my coloring books I used to pretend I was working in the ink and paint department.

    • I can totally picture you as studious coloring ten year old! It’s amazing that you knew, even then, what you wanted to do. When I was 10, I was in the process of downgrading my dreams from, “I want to be a lawyer” (age 9) to “I want to be a paralegal,” because law school is expensive and it’s always better to reach for something accessible, if unbearably boring. Luckily, it turned out that I pursued neither dream.

  3. I had no idea this was a book! It sounds great, and also like the professional reviewers didn’t read the book.

    I have no idea what I wrote on my college admission essays. I do remember hating filling out applications.

  4. I really want to see this movie, and I’m definitely a “read it before watching it” kind of girl, so, ‘yay’!
    Anyway, I went to Ohio University and I don’t believe the application actually required an essay…OU is a really good school, though, I swear.

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