If the purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response, then this is a book of intense artistry. The reaction from most Canadian parents who read it will be intense, hand-raising, thank-you-God relief they don’t have to participate in the madness that is the U.S. college application process.
Crazy U combines U.S. writer Andrew Ferguson’s first-person account of helping his son get into college with a behind-the-scenes investigation into the American university industry. It is a world of competition, conflict and confusions that can apparently only be solved by generous applications of cash.
Ferguson provides a brief history of the controversial SAT test, its opponents and the various prep courses that cling like remora to its underside. He visits with Kat Cohen, an independent college admission counsellor who charges $40,000 for her “platinum package” of advice on how to get into the school of your choice. As personal essays are now a major component of applications, and since these unfairly favour Type-A boasters, Ferguson finds a “model essay development service” that promises to turn every student into a mouthy extrovert. He spends $199 on an essay and finds “every sentence contained a little stink bomb of braggadocio.”
While fascinating in their own right, Ferguson’s experiences—thankfully—have limited applicability to Canada. Some Canadian schools do require personal essays. But aggressive competition for spots in top schools, driven by what Ferguson calls “that feral look of parental ambition,” is largely absent north of the border. For that we can thank the uniform quality of Canadian universities, a more civilized application process and our muted interest in the provenance of degrees.
Regardless of cross-border differences, however, Ferguson is a witty writer worth reading for his talent alone. Describing the university brochures sent to his son, he says they “were printed on paper so thick and voluptuous they might have been mistaken for the leaves of a rubber plant—you didn’t know whether to read them or slurp them like a giraffe.” There’s plenty to slurp here.