Anyone who’s gone through it themselves—no matter how long ago—maintains the memory (or for some, maybe, more like a bitter taste), of how the college application system works: the letters and tests and transcripts that need to be sent, the waiting for an answer that has to be persevered. The final letter of acceptance. Or rejection. Whatever the case may be.
It’s a process fraught with drama and cynicism, and Acceptance—the newest novel by author Susan Coll – tries to take those elements and run with them. Framed around a year’s worth of college applications and preparation, with each chapter representing a new month, the story follows three high school students, as well as two mothers who look on at the process from the sidelines, one with eagerness and the other with concern, and an admissions officer who’s questioning her own role in the system. The students at the center must choose their schools and try to find a way—any way—to procure that coveted acceptance letter. The result is a satiric commentary on the entire applications process. Or at least it tries to be.
Acceptance, in some ways, does succeed. It moves along nicely, offering the stories of A.P. Harry—nicknamed for the number of advanced placement courses he’s taken—and his classmates Taylor Rockefeller and Maya Kaluantharana. All are likable sorts, based on kids readers will surely remember from their own high school experiences—the overachiever, his mind set on Harvard and nothing else; the depressive, who’s put her own sights on the small liberal arts college, Yates, which becomes the author’s embodiment of all things wrong with universities today; and the school athlete, who’s also intent on Yates, but knows she’s bound to disappoint her parents no matter what she does, because she doesn’t have the grades her older siblings had before her.
Acceptance does manage to accomplish a certain level of commentary on the college application process and is generally entertaining. At times, however, it appears to cave under the weight of its own format. The drama in the application process itself, after all, comes mostly at its beginning and end—with the initial applications and the final letter. Which leaves a lot of time in between that Coll brings to readers’ attentions through her month-by-month approach. The story in turn loses some of its momentum, meandering through months that offer little to the plot.
All of the characters in the novel do have a charm about them, though, that carries the story along. Still, none have the bite that might elevate Acceptance from a pleasurable read to the sharp satire it aspires to be—a novel the likes of Election, perhaps, a satiric piece with a similar high school setting, which author Tom Perrotta wrote with greater concern for his overall point than for whether readers liked his characters. Like the unpopular teen in the classroom, Coll seems too concerned that her cast of characters comes out looking good, and this in part takes away from the book’s potential impact.
If you put aside those intentions, though, and take it simply as a pleasurable read, Acceptance makes the grade, at least up to a point. Coll does a good job of pegging the teenage voice without delving too much into the over-drama that often comes alongside. The adults, too, are sketched out truly and fully, filled with insecurities and complicated relationships of their own that in turn affect the teenagers around them. Both the adults and teens are written so well, in fact, that you want more. More than just ongoing updates on the students’ college application process. More than plans on how to procure the best reference letters, or ruminations on how parents are pushing too far. All of those elements are valid, sure, but they’re not always enough.
Because, no matter how much weight the characters in Acceptance put on them—and no matter how much, as readers, you’re interested in finding out what the resulting letters will say—in reality, college applications are still only a small part of life, even of a teenager’s life. In Acceptance, though, they’re pretty much all there is.
Which of course, is part of the point the novel makes. But sometimes, without anything else to lean on, that point can be a little tedious to take.