Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College
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Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College [Hardcover]

Andrew Ferguson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ferguson (Land of Lincoln), an editor at the Weekly Standard, chronicles his son's journey to getting accepted into college in this humorous memoir. Ferguson, an overwhelmed and underprepared parent, shows off his wit and research skills as he tries to make sense of a serpentine system that has him debating if he needs to hire his own ,000-a-year college admission counselor. From there, Ferguson discusses everything from what lengths schools will go to rate highly in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings guide to an outline of the "history of American higher education." In all this digging, Ferguson finds the many "claims for and against" the SATs, how the skyrocketing cost of college is creating its own education bubble, and that "two out of every three" freshman openings are filled before a "general" applicant even gets considered. Still, despite the funny moment like his disastrous retake of the SATs, it isn't till the book's final chapters, when the author starts to connect with his son, that it becomes apparent what they truly learned together on their quest for higher education. (Mar.)
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"A hilarious narrative and an incisive guide to the college admissions process...Ferguson's storytelling is irresistible."
--Steven Levingston, The Washington Post

"Hilarious....[Ferguson] shines a (very funny) light on the issues, and offers an important reminder that not every young American needs a $200,000 degree to live a good life." --Amy Scribner,

A calm, amusing, low-key meditation on a subject that is anything but calm, amusing or low key. [P]arents will grip it ... as if it were a cold compress they might apply to their fevered foreheads. --Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Reading Andy Ferguson’s prose is like sipping a martini—even if you don’t happen to drink martinis. His adventures in the college application trenches are hilarious, eye-popping, and instructive, a perfect match of author and subject. A+!”
—Christopher Buckley, bestselling author of Losing Mum and Pup and Thank You for Smoking

“Alas, by the time our almost-grown children arrive on campus, they will already have been hardened by exposure to the principles of Absurdistan. As a parent, I wish I had read Andrew Ferguson's guide to this world of bloviation, hypocrisy and bureaucracy before I was pitchforked into it myself.”
—Christopher Hitchens

“Thank God a writer as good as Andrew Ferguson has finally written a book about what I, after two serious bouts of it, call ‘college madness.’  His title Crazy U says it faster and funnier.  I’ve heard it called other colorful names but none fit for a book lying around in a high school junior's home.”
—Tom Wolfe

“It’s Andy Ferguson, so of course this book is meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and funny. But by using his son’s forced march through the anxiety and muck of picking and getting into a college, Andy has done a new thing: He has employed poignancy as a tool of critical analysis. As a result, the stuffing is removed from the absurd, fraudulent, parasitic college admissions process—and from the absurd, fraudulent, and parasitic colleges themselves.”
—P. J. O’Rourke, bestselling author of Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards

“Andrew Ferguson has long been one of the funniest and most observant and beautiful writers. A satirist who can illuminate both the absurdities of life and its deeper meaning, he is the perfect guide to the madness of applying to college. Crazy U is not only a terrific and hysterical book—it may be the only way to keep you sane.”
—David Grann, bestselling author of The Lost City of Z

“The joy of pride in one’s child, the sadness of separation—all this is part of leaving for college, and in Ferguson’s honest,deeply felt, and truthfully recorded memoir it is overlaid with the monstrosity known as the college application process. Rumor, gossip, college hucksterism,and internet bandits rule. Ferguson has written for every hair-rending and stressed parent who has gone through the process—or is about to. The book is hilarious, probing, maddening, moving, and gets it right.”
—William Bennett, bestselling author of The Book of Virtues

“[Ferguson’s] got a big, beating heart, but he tucks it behind a dry prose style that owes a little bit to Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe…and also to Dave Barry…[Crazy U] is a calm, amusing, low-key meditation on a subject that is anything but calm, amusing or low key.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A hilarious narrative and an incisive guide to the college admissions process… Ferguson cuts through the muddle to elevate the discussion and deliver some powerful big-picture analysis…[his] storytelling is irresistible.”
—Steven Livingston, The Washington Post

"This is an affectionate, affecting account, and . . . it may help you figure out how to keep your sanity in a process that lacks it entirely."
—David M. Schribman, The Boston Globe

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, is the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces, a collection of essays, and Land of Lincoln, named by the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune as a Favorite Book of the Year. Formerly a senior writer for the Washingtonian magazine, he has been a contributing editor to Time magazine, as well as a columnist for Fortune, TV Guide, Forbes FYI, National Review, Bloomberg News, and Commentary. He has also written for the New Yorker, New York magazine, the New Republic, the American Spectator, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications. In 1992, he was a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. He lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


COLLEGE ADMISSIONS in America is a big sprawling subject, but this is not, you’ll notice, a big sprawling book. It’s one parent’s view, the process seen from beginning to end through the prism of a father’s own flesh and blood. (Watch your step—there are lots of metaphors running loose around here.) Like many big subjects, college admissions plays itself out on a small scale. The great issues it raises, the clashing interests and massive institutions it involves, come to earth in the lives of ordinary people, clustered more often than not in families. That’s how it happened to us.

It began with a trickle, which is why I didn’t notice anything at first. “Who’s going to Elon College?” I asked innocently enough, fingering the brochure that arrived in the mail one day. There was no answer, since no one in the house had ever heard of Elon College, much less expressed an interest in it.

“Occidental College?” I called out the next day, when the mail arrived with another brochure—or viewbook, as I learned to call them in the admissions world. “Who in his right mind would go to an overpriced money trap like Occidental College?”

It was a sardonic question, as I’ll explain in a moment, and it too was met with silence. On the third day there were two fat envelopes and another viewbook, also from schools I hadn’t heard of, and then four the next day, and the next. Within a month, more than a hundred envelopes and viewbooks had been stuffed in the mailbox, glowing with color photos of cheerful undergraduates lounging on sunlit knolls against backdrops of shade trees and redbrick towers. The viewbooks 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. And each was addressed to my sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old son, whose name had somehow found its way onto a mailing list of high school juniors.

My boy was being solicited, as surely and shamelessly as a sailor come to port.

This was something new, something unexpected. I came to see over the next many months that what had once been a fairly brief and straightforward process, in which the children of the middle and upper classes found a suitable college, filled out an application, got in, and then went happily away, returning home only now and then to celebrate holidays and borrow money, has evolved into a multiyear rite of passage, often beginning before puberty.

For some of us, anyway. It’s worth remembering at the outset that most American high schoolers go on to college, roughly 70 percent of them, and 80 percent of those attend schools that don’t involve the difficulties encountered in these pages. Most college kids go to what admissions people call “nonselective” schools, and many of them begin at two-year institutions; it’s not too much to say that there’s a seat in American higher education for anyone who wants one. Even the cost won’t be prohibitive for the majority of students. More than 50 percent of us spend less than $10,000 a year on college, and a good chunk of this can usually be covered by loans and grants. For lots of high school graduates the pressing issue of higher education is finding the time off from work to take advantage of it.

All Americans, by virtue of being Americans, are winners of life’s lotto, in my opinion, as citizens of the most prosperous and least class-bound country in history. But the people spoken of in this book, my family included, are luckier than most. I had a happy childhood. My own children are healthy and don’t hate me, or say they don’t, and chief among my wife’s numberless virtues are tolerance, patience, and good humor. We live in a reasonably safe neighborhood in one of those “close-in” suburbs that have suddenly become desirable. I have a job, as many Americans do not at the moment, and while we’re far from well-to-do, the money we bring home puts us, in my layman’s reckoning, in the bottom quintile of the lower upper middle class. As a consequence we can entertain a wide choice of futures for our children.

I have no right to complain, in other words. My gripes and whines, my missteps and misfortunes in trying to get my son into a highly selective college are the complaints of a man whom fate has treated kindly. I hope that readers, forgiving as always, will keep this in mind as they go along. In Ahead of the Curve, his wonderful book about his years at Harvard Business School, Philip Delves Broughton faced the same problem. How do you chronicle personal misadventures that are themselves, in the large scheme of things, the result of unbelievable luck? Only the luckiest people get to be unlucky in this way. Imagine George Clooney bursting into tears because his lingerie-model girlfriend broke the kitchen faucet in his thirty-room chalet on Lake Como: you will be excused for thinking the lucky bastard really ought to dry up and get over it. As Broughon said about his own difficulties at Harvard, these are high-class problems. So are mine, and I’m grateful for them.

MY LUCK IN HIGHER EDUCATION showed itself early, for I was a college student just as a great transformation got under way. I write about this larger history later, but my own entanglement with it may be worth recounting briefly here.

Both my father and mother were the first in their families to graduate from college, and it was always assumed that my brothers and I would go to college too. Having learned to despise the Chicago winters as only a Chicagoan can, I hoped to get as far away from Lake Michigan as I could and still remain in the contiguous United States. I studied the map.


My parents were obliging, so long as they could afford whatever accredited school I settled on. They had already dispatched my two brothers to the adult world and were now dropping gentle hints that I might want to get my own show on the road too. With the aid of a college guide in our public library—but without U.S. News rankings, the massive Fiske Guide, the Internet, a single tour of colleges, or direct-mail solicitations of any kind—I applied to three schools in California, another on the East Coast, and a state school in Illinois as a “safety.” The only school outside California that I longed for figures prominently in the pages that follow, what I will call Big State University. I had seen it years earlier on a family trip to the East Coast. It was my first exposure to the idyll of higher ed, to the brick buildings and sun-kissed lawns where students drowsed, the blue-jeaned girls making parabolas through the plazas on their bikes, the intoxicating air of postadolescence and preadulthood. I never quite got over it. The school, for its part, was less enchanted with me than I was with it, and I recall the day that the thin envelope arrived, bearing the return address of the admissions dean, as a dark, cold day.

I wound up at the just-mentioned Occidental, in Los Angeles. The next four years straddled the hump of the 1970s, just the moment when the revolution of a decade before was being ratified as everyday life. The insurgents had breached the battlements and settled into the captain’s quarters. The renegades of 1968 became the tenure-track assistant profs of 1975 (and the department chairs of 1990). Core curriculums were jettisoned, parietal rules struck down, curfews abandoned. All-girl schools opened their doors to men and all-boy schools welcomed, and how, women; and schools that were already co-ed accelerated the integration of the sexes. Administrations empaneled student committees and endowed them with managerial powers that would have been unimaginable only five years before. Customs that we now take for granted—student evaluation of teachers, kids sitting on tenure committees—were introduced and soon became standard.

Some people saw these reforms as a major advance for educational democracy. Others saw it as an abdication of responsibility by adults who should have known better. Of the two sides I suspected at the time that the second had it right on the merits, even as I delighted in the indulgences offered by the first.

College life has changed in many particulars since then. The students are by all accounts more career-minded, more mild-mannered, and less politically enthused than we were. Their music is better (no K.C. and the Sunshine Band). Drug use is down, and sexual promiscuity—to use an anachronism that was losing favor even when I was in school—has been hedged in by formal rules governing sexual conduct and by the clinical oversight of health professionals. Still the general shape that schools assumed in the 1970s stubbornly remains, which is why the experience of a moss-back like me remains pertinent, for I took full advantage of the new system as it was then being born. Without a core curriculum, I pursued classes like “African Literature of the 1970s,” “Women in Film,” “Our Bodies Our Selves for Men,” and so on, interspersed with a few dying holdovers from the old regime—survey courses in astronomy, Shakespeare, American literature, and other general-education offerings that, in many selective schools, have since gone the way of the snail darter.

The greater part of my energies were expended in earthier pursuits. I explored the great city of Los Angeles, joined a rock-and-roll band, became a regular at a Zen temple, attended concerts without number, swooned through doomed romances, and pursued a dozen other forms of fun that had nothing to do with traditional education—and all of which, more to the point, could have been pursued at a much lower cost if I hadn’t pretended to be a student.

This casual and scattershot approach to the privilege of a higher...
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