Q&A: On the Pain and Heartbreak of College Admissions


Students return to school at summer’s end, and many high-school students will have college admissions on their minds. Ariel Kaplan has won praise for her fiction for young adults that deals with the issues that consume the minds of young teens, and she does so with a light touch, wit, and a keen sense of those awkward and intense years. She has followed her debut Grendel’s Guide to Love and War with We Regret to Inform You (Knopf Books for Young Readers) which centers on high-achieving high school senior Mischa Abramavicius who is rejected by every Ivy League university to which she applied, and then even turned down by her safety school. Kaplan, who lives in Virginia with her family, answered questions the National’s Lucy K. Gold.

Q: When you were applying to college, did you experience the same anxiety and pressure as the students in your novel?  Do you think the pressure has increased since you applied to college?

A: There was pressure, absolutely, but the expectations were generally not as high then. I'll give you an example: When I was a teenager, if you were an average math student you took Algebra I at the start of high school. If you were an advanced math student, you took it in eighth grade. Today, everything's been accelerated—everyone takes Algebra I in middle school, and the advanced students take it in seventh grade, and the expectation is that you’ll start your high school-level language classes in middle school as well, so instead of kids starting high school at fourteen, they start part-time at twelve or thirteen. Then there are more AP classes available, and colleges want to see that you took "the most rigorous course of study possible," which means the kids feel that they have to take all of APs that are offered. On top of that, it isn't enough to say that your extracurricular was working at the bagel café after school . . .you have to "stand out." And who can afford to stand out? The kids who don't need to spend their time working at the bagel café, who can afford internships that don't pay and extra classes that cost money, and I know plenty of parents who go broke paying for that sort of thing because you feel like you have no choice. It used to be that good grades and test scores were enough to get you into a pretty good school. And the perception is that it isn’t like that now.

Q: When you created Mischa as a character, did you think of whether or not she bore any resemblance to you?

A: Ethnically, we are very similar—we’re both the product of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, and that influences a lot of the choices Mischa makes, because she’s dealing with a lot of deeply-buried intergenerational survivor’s guilt, which is something I wanted to explore in a YA novel. Apart from that, Mischa’s much more type-A than I ever was.

Q: We Regret to Inform You features really interesting young women leaders. Do they reflect our changing society with so many more women being elected and exerting increasing influence in this society?

A: I spent my last two years of high school in a very progressive single-sex school, which definitely influenced the way I look at the teen experience. I’m sure you can draw a direct line between my educational background and the all-girl hacker squad in the book.

Q: You dedicate this book to your parents. Do you think that parents can read your novel and have more insight into the pressures and stress on their children?

A: I hope so. I think most adults in their forties or older who don't have kids in the middle of the process don't really understand how things have changed since they were teens. It's not the same game anymore.

Q: You made a choice to write a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. Do you think fiction is the best way for people to understand the high school experience and college application process?

I don’t think it’s either/or… certainly I talk about Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission whenever I can, because I think his analysis is very important (if nausea-inducing). But I wrote this book primarily as a piece of entertainment. While I hope it gets people talking about college admissions, my biggest goal was just for readers to enjoy the story.

Q: Again, without spoiling some of the suspense, what role do you think technology plays in the application process?

You know, I just read an article about a clarinet player who thought he’d been rejected from his dream conservatory, and then discovered a few years later that in fact he had gotten in, but his girlfriend had gone into his email, deleted the acceptance, and sent him a fake rejection. And near where I live, there was recently a big scandal because someone had hacked into a local high school’s computer system and changed some grades. Anytime you are dealing with digital content, you run a risk of it being compromised. Probably for 99.9% of kids, this sort of thing is like Slenderman, a scary story to keep you up at night, but it does make you wonder about the security of kids’ data.

Q: When readers finish reading your novel and close the book, what do you hope they will take away from it?  

A: I suppose the obvious answer is that the admissions process isn't a meritocracy, and anyone who says it is, is lying. But more than that, I think it's that getting those acceptance (or rejection) letters isn’t the end of the story. 

A fact that didn’t make it into the book is that here in Virginia, where the story takes place, UVA only accepts around 30% of its applicants. But if you spend two years at any VA community college and make a 3.4 GPA, they have to take you as a transfer student. Most people don't know that, because the schools don’t exactly publicize it. There are plenty of alternative ways to make it into the college you want, and of course, lots of successful people don't go to name-brand schools, or even go to college at all.  

Q: You included some themes involving nepotism and financial influence. Should students think about the role these factors have in the college process? Or ignore them because they can’t control them?

A: I think kids deserve to know how the sausage is made, even If they can't control the outcome, because they need to understand how nepotism in college admissions affects class structure. And I think they should ask questions, like, for instance, why can't a school with a $36 billion endowment afford to have a firewall between its admissions and development offices?

Q: Although your novel deals with the pressure of college admissions, it was really fun to read. Did you have fun writing it?  How long did it take you to write the novel? What kind of parent will you be if you have a child applying to college?

A: I did have fun writing it (during the fall/winter of 2016, and I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions about how events at that time might have influenced the story). I hope it's fun to read, because it's as much a comedy and a caper novel as anything else. As far as parenting through the college admissions process, I hope I'll be the one with the cool head and the plate of brownies, reminding the kids that they can always transfer.

Lucy K. Gold is a student at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School.