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Acceptance: A Novel by Susan Coll

Is it Harder to Get a Job at Wal-Mart or Get into Harvard?

Find the pattern: Amherst = Fred. Mt. Holyoke= Velma, Hampshire College = Shaggy. University of Massachusetts = Scooby, Smith College = Daphne. Yes, they are all Massachusetts colleges whose personalities are attributed to a particular Scooby Doo character. If you are nodding your head in recognition, chances are you are either applying to college or have a potential humanoid who is jumping into the applicant pool as we speak.

Let’s say that you don’t fall into either of these categories. Acceptance, the third novel from Susan Coll, still proves to be a good read. Coll obviously took the note from some creative writing teacher about not only writing about what you know, but about what makes you angry (Coll is also the parent of three college-bound children). Her novel broaches the application dilemma from both sides: the high school juniors wondering what will appeal to admissions officers and an admissions officer who has ambivalent feelings about her role in the process.

The novel takes place over a year, beginning with an information session at Yates College in upstate New York. Grace, a single working mother, has forced her son Harry to make a detour from Harvard to check out this small liberal arts school. What they don’t know is that the school’s popularity is due to a statistical mistake in the annual US News and World Report’s listing of the top 50 colleges.

Harry’s schoolmate, Taylor Rockefeller, has fallen in love with the school but her depressive personality may prevent her from getting there. A third student at the session, Maya Kaluantharana, is the only one in her hyper-achieving family who realizes that she is only a good student, not a great one. Olivia Sheraton is an admission’s officer at Yates whose only way of navigating among her colleagues is to dress better than them. The novel rotates in points of view among these five characters.

While some of these characters could waver into stereotype territory, none of them fall in completely. Harry, called “AP Harry” based on the number of advanced placement courses he has taken to buff his academic record, receives text message SAT prep questions from prepatory sources and carries a briefcase and a backpack to school. Maya is of Indian descent but she is also a competitive swimmer who finds real joy in being under water, not only under texts. Taylor is a sullen girl because her mother is the ultimate stage mother whose insecurity forces her to see everyone else as a potential enemy. It is this character who makes Acceptance worthwhile. Taylor needs Olivia to admit her into Yates College not so she can advance, but so she can escape.

Some great pokes at the process abound: college staff who try and sell features of the college as they would on a designer showroom -- bathrooms with granite countertops, basins for shaving legs, Starbucks on campus. On the flip side, Olivia receives flowers from desperate applicants.

All in all, Acceptance does not allow you to care about a single character for an extended length of time a la Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, but it does have some nice jabs to make at the whole application process.

Acceptance by Susan Coll
Farrar Straus Giroux
March 6, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-23719-6
Hardcover, $23
286 pages