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Book review: 'Acceptance' by David L. Marcus

ACCEPTANCE: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges - and Find Themselves, by David L. Marcus. Penguin Press, 272 pp., $25.95.

There are some books that are destined for the big screen, others that are natural-born TV series and some that go straight to merchandising, but I don't know if I've ever seen a book so clearly crying out to be a Broadway musical.

"Acceptance," by David L. Marcus, is the winning story of a bunch of kids at Long Island's Oyster Bay High School who just wanna sing and dance - well, no, they just wanna get into college. But like the hopefuls auditioning in "A Chorus Line," Riana and Lee and Allyson and Jeff and Chelsea and Kasper and their classmates are tap-dancing their hearts out . . . not on stage, but on their Common Applications. Just look at these chapter titles and tell me you're not hearing a musical score in the making:

"BWRK (Bright Well Rounded Kid)," "My Whole Life Is in That Folder," "I'm Kicking It Up," "Apped-Out," "The GPA Game," "You're Lost Before You've Started," and the grand finale, a production number staged with waving college pennants, "Accepted!"

Most people probably think the college applications process far too serious a matter for the kitschy treatment I'm suggesting. I know how important getting into college is because I am a college professor myself, I have kids at Georgetown and Loyola New Orleans and I read the newspaper. I've heard about the plagiarized novels, the faked community service, the imaginary soldier fathers who died in Iraq (actually I believe that one was to get into a Hannah Montana concert). Hey, a long, long time ago I poured my whole teenage heart into a 500-word essay only to get wait-listed at Harvard and Yale but accepted at Brown, and God knows I've had to live with that.

So has David Marcus (another would-be Yalie who wound up at Brown), but he is nowhere near as jaundiced as I am about our national obsession with college admission. Marcus, a Newsday reporter and once education writer for U.S. News & World Report, is a pro at the narrative nonfiction form, observing and recording the 2007-2008 school year as it was lived by Oyster Bay guidance counselor Gwyeth Smith, or "Smitty."

The book grew out of "The College Quest," a yearlong Newsday series by Marcus.

Smitty takes the college application process about as seriously as you can - essentially, he sees it as a means to enlightenment. Instead of helping students package themselves on their applications, he believes in helping them find and reveal themselves. In practice, this means everything from emphasizing the subject-oriented ACT over the reasoning-oriented SAT, keeping close ties to college admissions departments, managing crazed parents, talking to coaches and employers, working on recommendations and co-teaching an "Essay Writing for College" class with his partner, English teacher Kathy Reilly. The class is as much group therapy session as writing seminar, and Marcus includes all the couple's best tips plus lots of excerpts from essays.

All the sage advice and inside scoop are worked into the larger narrative, which Marcus tells with unrelenting suspense: "The fax whirred and Lee was done. His application, and his fate, now lay on the other side of the ocean." And: "He took out his iPhone - it was now 4:59 p.m. - and went onto Columbia's site."

But there's more than just the unbearable mystery of the admissions process to keep this tale moving. As with the dancers in "A Chorus Line," who turn out to be gay or to have had unhappy childhoods or even to be tone-deaf, there's a story behind each 1250 - or 1410 combined - and many of them are heartbreaking. One student lost his father in a train wreck just before school started; another lost his brother in a car crash. One has survived cancer, another meningitis, and one has a dozen deadbeat relatives living in his house. As Marcus puts it, "In every community where [Smitty had] worked, rich or poor, kids were dealing with what some counselors call the Ds: death, disease, divorce, debt, drink, drugs, depression and disorders."

And P stands for Pool! If "Rent" could be a musical, if "Sweeney Todd" could be a musical, if "Spring Awakening" could be a musical - let's get out the varsity sweatshirts and put on a show.

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