The Golden Ticket combines sharp social commentary on the exorbitant aspirations driving the college admissions frenzy, family history, and the lessons of great (and not so great) literature to offer a broader, more generous vision of what it means to succeed.
Plot/Idea: The Golden Ticket is a capable and well-constructed personal memoir that leverages the author’s life experience to create a structure and narrative that sets it apart from other less focused contemporary memoirs.
Prose: At a sentence level, the writing throughout The Golden Ticket is remarkably strong and makes for a highly enjoyable read. The narration is erudite and entertaining; the author's skill and devotion to craft are apparent from the first page to the last.
Originality: This memoir is rooted in a unique conceit. The author draws from the experience of reviewing (and later coaching students and families in writing) college application essays.
Character/Execution: Smith's narrative offers an appealing blend of personal experiences and reflections on youth, college, literature, and more. Each chapter begins with a college essay prompt, effectively using the book’s thematics to establish a structure that works nicely with the personal narrative at hand. The footnotes add flavor, humor, and personality that work to the book’s benefit.
Date Submitted: January 30, 2023
There’s nothing like watching your child grappling with college admissions essays—and wondering how to support him as he tries to answer big questions for (and about) himself—to make you think hard about both your parenting and this process. So Irena Smith’s gorgeous memoir about advising some of the most high-achieving students in the most pressure-cooker community—while her own three children floundered in various ways—dropped into my household at just the right time.
“I’ve been living,” she writes, “at the intersection of unbridled ambition and family dysfunction for two decades now, and you learn a thing or two living there – including that there are parents who will stop at nothing to do what they think is best for their children. Myself included.”
She is perfectly positioned to reflect on our (misguided) culture of achievement generally, the college admission process specifically, and parenting through all of it. But she doesn’t take that position for granted; she offers her hard-won insights with rueful honesty and wry humor (“Believe me,” she wants to tell a student, “nobody cares about your being treasurer of the French club, unless you embezzled money from the croissant fundraiser or some thing. That would be a good story, though not a good way to get into college.”) It is a compelling read for any parent.
I loved how beautifully her essays responded to the college essay prompts. Some are very direct, some more subtle, and some, like the response to the University of Chicago’s “Solve for X,” turn that frankly obnoxious open-ended prompt right on its head by telling the story of having, after two sons, a daughter.
The thing about a book written by a college counselor is not so much that it’s full of advice—she is too wise to offer it, knowing it would likely come back to bite her. Instead, the book is full of heart.
“Let’s face it: in the drama of our own lives, we all want to be both deserving and lucky. We want to be Odysseus, not the suitors; Cinderella, not the stepsisters; Charlie Bucket, not Verruca Salt or Augustus Gloop. And then David and I became parents, and parenthood undid us. It left us bruised and battered and humbled. It taught us things about ourselves we would have preferred not to know: that we were flawed, that they we were vain, and we cared more about what others thought than was probably healthy, that we sometimes sought refuge in work, which felt easier than parenting three children we couldn’t understand. But we also learned how fiercely we were capable of loving, how hard we were willing to fight, how deeply proud we would be of their victories, large as well as small.”
-Caroline Grant, author and co-founder of The Sustainable Arts Foundation
In my book, I tell the story of what it's like to work as a college admissions counselor and to raise children in Palo Alto, which I describe as a "town both charmed and haunted, built on a bedrock of barely contained dread." Malcolm Harris, whose groundbreaking book Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World was released this February, provides a revelatory account of how it got to be this way. I love this serendipity and am deeply grateful for Malcolm's kind words about The Golden Ticket:“Tackling childhood and parenting in a new way, The Golden Ticket shows that growing up in America is an increasingly difficult job. With humor and pathos, Irena Smith draws the reader behind the curtain of college admissions, where life is more complicated than any kid's file.”