Valedictorian status or high test scores no longer open doors to the country’s top universities. And striking that subtle balance among academic achievement, extracurriculars and the dreaded college essay can be tricky. That’s why Oyster Bay High School on Long Island, whose diverse student body represents a range of cultures and socioeconomic levels, was lucky to have “guidance guru” Gwyeth Smith Jr., simply known as Smitty.

In Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David L. Marcus follows Oyster Bay’s class of 2008 as it prepares for college admissions. Focusing on several of Smitty’s special “projects” for the year—including an African-American girl with an overloaded schedule and limited financial resources, a popular jock who can’t focus on school work with all of the chaos at home, a free-spirited artist and a would-be engineer with a helicopter mother—Marcus’ engaging and inspiring narration reveals the mounting challenges teens face today and the resiliency that often exceeds their years.

Although he once flunked out of college and passed through three campuses before earning his bachelor’s degree, Smitty knows after nearly four decades of counseling that the secret to admissions success is not seeing college as a destination, but the beginning of a journey. The encouragement he gives his seniors on finding the right college—look beyond status and pressure from home and into one’s own character and passions—is timeless advice. For any student scouting the same path, and parents who want to help rather than hinder the search, Acceptance offers an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at the college admissions process.

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