Novel Approaches to the College Search

By Stuart Mitchner

I never had to deal with the college search process. The Indiana University campus was five blocks away, and since my father was on the faculty, the cost was minimal. I’ve never regretted staying at home. Besides making some lifelong friends, I wrote a novel, having figured out a plot in a sophomore geology class taught by a man whose amusingly morbid mannerisms influenced my depiction of a predatory professor at a fictional Eastern college. So even though I didn’t go away to school myself, my main character did, and came home to Indiana disillusioned about love and life. When the book was published the summer before my senior year, several reviewers gave me credit for at least not imitating J.D. Salinger, while others took the patronizing tone of the notice in the New York Times snidely titled “College Capers.” The Saturday Review quoted Picasso to the effect that “it takes a very long time to become young.”

Young Adult Fiction

High school students looking for a fictional preview of the college experience can find it in young adult novels like Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffin $18.99). For instance, the main character, who has just moved in, is about to make her first trip to the dining hall for breakfast, except she doesn’t know where it is or how it works: “In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you?”

Others books in the genre are Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay (Dutton $17.99), where the world she creates is “fragile but profoundly humane” (The New York Times Book Review), and Megan McCafferty’s Charmed Thirds (Broadway $13.99), which “captures the college years with incredible grace and insight,” according to YA author Joseph Weisberg.

The one college guide that combines the semblance of a narrative with slick imagery, splashy design, and unplugged information from students around the country is Seventeen Ultimate Guide to College: Everything You Need to Know to Walk Onto Campus and Own It! (Running Press $19.99). Put together by Ann Shoket and the editors of Seventeen, it lives gaudily up to its Trumpish title. Parents looking for prestigious placements may see the book as the epitome of bad taste and doubtful advice, with its glossy ad-style photography and confessional titles like “I Went Hookup Crazy!” from a coed at the University of Michigan, who admits that “hooking up with so many guys in the same frat made me embarrassed.” She tried texting her “guy friend” but “after seeing me hook up with so many of his frat brothers, he stopped answering.” Parents may wonder what “hooked up” signifies and conclude that the only way to own the campus is to join the Girls Gone Wild crowd.

Standard Sources

The standard sources for information about choosing and gaining admission to college are guides like The Princeton Review’s Complete Book of Colleges ($29.99) and The Best 382 Colleges. The Complete Book promises user friendly profiles of 1,355 colleges and universities. Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges tops that by describing more than 1,650. Creating College Lists: Your Guide to Using College Websites to Pay Less for a Better Education by Michelle Kretzschmar (Kindle edition $2.99) focuses on “one of the most ignored resources in creating a college list: the college website.” Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin paperback $18, revised by Hilary Masell Oswald) is “smart and credible,” according to The New York Times. Pope (1910-2008) was education editor at the Times “during the college-going chaos of the late 1950s started by the GI Bill.” In 1965 he opened the College Placement Bureau in Washington, D.C. Believing that “uninformed choices could account for heavy dropout, transfer, and failure rates,” he had a personal stake in the enterprise, having been given poor advice from what was then called the Office of Education.

College Novels

Not long after graduating from Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote and published at his own expense ($100) a novel based on his experiences there. Fanshawe appeared anonymously in 1828. Although it was well reviewed, Fanshawe did not sell well, and Hawthorne burned the unsold copies. While poor or indifferent sales are the norm in the college novel genre, a notable exception is Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970).
Some significant 20th century novels with campus settings include Bernard Malamud’s A New Life (1961), Vladimir Nabovov’s Pnin (1957), and Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe (1952), which is based on the author’s teaching experiences at Bard and Sarah Lawrence. A roman à clef set in Princeton was literary critic John Aldridge’s Party at Cranton (1960). Among other novels of literary merit set in Princeton, the most famous is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920).

Admissions As a Subject

A Princeton University admissions officer is the protagonist of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission (Grand Central $24.99), which “gleams with acute insights into what most consider a deeply mysterious process,” according to The New Yorker. Another more recent novel in the genre is Korelitz’s The Devil and Webster, (Grand Central $27). An NPR review finds the novel “wittily on target about, among other things, social class, privilege, silencing, and old-school feminist ambivalence about power. It also takes on Korelitz’s home subject, the insanity of the college admissions process.”

A Vote for “Franny”

Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway never went to college. Scott Fitzgerald and Stephen Crane went but never graduated, like J.D. Salinger, the creator of literature’s most famous drop out, Holden Caulfield. That said, my vote for the best fiction on the subject would go to Salinger for his novella, Franny (1961), which begins on the platform of the Dinky station in Princeton the weekend of the Yale game. In the dedication, Salinger mentions his 1-year-old son Matthew, who would land on the same station platform two decades later as a Princeton student.