“The Golden Ticket: A Life In College Admissions Essays” by Irena Smith may seem like a memoir that is completely irrelevant to your life. Maybe you have little kids for whom adulthood seems very far off (trust me: it’s a well-greased slippery slope of time after they become bar/bat mitzvah, and suddenly you’re moving them into a dorm or apartment, holding an IKEA bag and thinking in David Byrne’s voice, “How did I get here?” But you’ll see!). Or maybe you just don’t have time to read (relatable).
Well, stop what you’re doing and order this book, no matter what, whether online or at your local library. Because I’ll say it as a mom of six children aged 7-19: Regardless of what stage you’re at in your parenting experience, this book is the best book to read both about parenting and human-ing, and the more people who read it, the better our world will be.
Smith is a former Stanford admissions officer whose memoir is written in the form of responses to college essay prompts. It’s a clever idea, but really, the conceit is barely even noticeable after a while, because you become so immersed in her story of her two radically disparate lives.
On the one hand, professionally, she’s a college consultant for the many aspiring Ivy Leaguers of Palo Alto and their tightly-wound parents. And on the other hand, she’s a Soviet Jewish immigrant who is raising her own three children who struggle with autism, ADHD, depression and anxiety.
The contrast between these two worlds is jarring, both to us and to Smith as she reflects in her memoir. As she attains greater heights of success with fantastic college outcomes for her clients, Smith is fighting seen and unseen battles that are all consuming with her own children. “The problem,” she writes, “is that while I am a ringer at extricating the pearl from the oyster when it comes to college essays, I have no words for what I’m living through. There’s no pearl, only a slippery, amorphous mass.” With her own children, she isn’t trying to get them into “HYPS” (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, for those who are lucky enough not to know that there’s a stupid acronym for these schools) — she’s just trying to make sure that they survive, that they can be independent adults.
In an interview with Kveller, Smith talked about writing the unmentionables of parenting: the deep-seated anxiety, whether channeled toward college or developmental milestones, whose common denominator is a deep, abiding love.
The “batshit crazy” parents who “need” their kids to get into an Ivy League school, Smith says, “are equally desperate to do the right thing as my husband and I were, in the best way that we knew how. I started this work from a lofty perch of ‘oh my God, these insane people!’…and then, going through what I went through, the more my life unfolded in surreal and parallel contrast, the more I started realizing that we were really the same. We had different circumstances, but we were being driven by the same desire to do right by our kids.”
Lest you be put off by my mention of “batshit crazy” parents, let it be clear: Smith acknowledges that “we are all batshit crazy parents.”
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have at least a small streak of that in them,” she says on the phone from California. “One of the things that has really helped me in being a better parent – at least to my own kids – is taking my ego out of it, which has been hard. You can argue that the whole point of having kids for most people is to reproduce: make a mini you, and somehow a faster, better, stronger version of you.
“When you have children who have very different struggles and challenges, it’s a big blow to your ego,” Smith says. “What did I do wrong? What should I do more of? So it’s very helpful to take myself out of it and step back and engage with each one of them without expectations.”
I love her implicit and explicit parenting approach: “One of the things I found damaging to me and my relationships with my kids was approaching them and having in the back of my head, ‘if only you were doing x y and z.’ That’s a terrible way to relate to anybody. You’re both going to come away disappointed.”
Smith addresses things we all wonder about as parents, particularly what will constitute “success,” either in parenting or our children. And, Smith is quick to point out, it’s not the name of the college your child attends.
“Let’s remember this: The Unabomber went to Harvard,” Smith laughs. “The idea of this being a social signifier? At the end of the day, it means nothing. It’s a profoundly American thing: college admissions, and everything it represents, well, a lot of it is embodied in status seeking, power and access. But is any of that what really matters?”
Smith’s raw candor is compelling, beautiful and meaningful, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read — I only wish I had read it before starting the college “process” with my own kids.