Portia Nathan has been a college admissions officer for more than a decade. And not at just any school—she works behind the gilded gates of Princeton University. The life she’s made is comfortably predictable, down to which New England prep schools she visits to recruit the next freshman class. There are no surprises, which is just how Portia likes it.

But there’s nothing predictable about what happens when her longtime boyfriend—a professor of English—leaves Portia for another woman. Suddenly, her intricately planned existence is gone, and during the busy “reading season” when thousands of applications pour into the nation’s colleges and universities, Portia is forced to confront the reason she lives solely to avoid the past.

A one-time admissions officer at Princeton, author Jean Hanff Korelitz shows her first-hand experience in the details of this superb, beautifully moody novel. The kids so desperate to gain admission into the Ivy League don’t just send an application—they send home-baked goodies, first drafts of novels, recordings of their own musical compositions. At this moment in their young lives, nothing matters more than being accepted by a handful of elite schools.

Portia’s job is to convince the best and brightest students in the nation to apply to Princeton, and then to turn down thousands of hopefuls. And it’s a job she takes seriously. Where others might just see a stack of applications to wade through, Portia sees a duty:  “She stood for a long moment, merely looking . . . she was entirely alone, except for the kids in their thick and suppliant folders. She felt a kind of duty to them, but not only a duty. She truly preferred to be with them, these fleshless people, their best selves neatly in black and white on the two-dimensional paper and primly contained within each orange file.”

By the time the newest Princeton freshman class has been selected, many thousands of orange files later, Portia makes a choice that will affect many people. Saying more would ruin the rich surprises this book holds, but Portia herself hints at it: “Admission. It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.”

Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

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