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An Interview with Irena Smith, author of The Golden Ticket


Irena Smith is a former Stanford admissions officer, long-time college counselor, and relatively new author. She emigrated from the Soviet Union with her parents when she was nine, and after vowing strenuously that she would never learn English, she earned a PhD in Comparative Literature and taught literature and composition at UCLA and Stanford before transitioning to admissions counseling and writing. Her memoir, The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays, recently won the 2023 Best Book Award for creative nonfiction. Forbes lauds it as “captivating and smart,” an antidote to conventional thinking about elite college admissions.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

As a college counselor, I spent over fifteen years helping ambitious, tightly wound high school students apply to some of the most selective colleges in the world while my own children struggled with developmental delays, learning differences, anxiety, and profound depression. That disconnect between my professional life and my personal life—and my increasing frustration with the culture of toxic achievement—was the catalyst for my memoir.

I also wanted to tackle the burden of generational expectations—my immigrant parents’ expectations for me, my husband’s and my expectations for our children, and the expectations of the families I worked with for their children. Parenthood, I’ve realized, is driven by a combination of love and fear, and when fear takes over, parents will make decisions that are often not in their children’s best interest—even though I really believe that as parents, we’re all doing the best we can.

And last but not least, I spend so much time immersed in helping my students write and revise college essays that I couldn’t help but be curious about how I might tackle the essay prompts as an adult, knowing what I’ve learned 30+ years after graduating from college. Hence the subtitle of the memoir: A Life in College Admissions Essays.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Finding the right title was a long and arduous process. My title was originally going to be “The Book of Complaints and Suggestions,” because in the former Soviet Union, where I was born, public establishments—stores, government offices, medical clinics—were required to have on hand a kniga zhalob i predlozhenii, an actual hardbound, official-looking book in whose pages irate visitors could air their grievances. It was a well-known fact that complaints and suggestions entered into such books went exactly nowhere.

There’s a lot of complaining in my memoir: I complained that I would never learn English when my parents and I first arrived in the US, my parents complained about my excessive TV watching, parents of the students I worked with complained that their children were unmotivated, or overly serious, or not sparkly enough, or too frivolous, or Indian, or Asian, or white, or too privileged, and they looked to me for suggestions about how to effectively convey their (quiet, shy) child’s leadership skills or build their child’s brand or package their child’s accomplishments in a way that would put everyone else’s child’s accomplishments to shame.

The agent I was working with at the time said that title was too obscure and I changed it to “Contingency Plans for Unexpected Occurrences,” which was subsequently changed to “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” After going through at least half a dozen other contenders, my husband suggested “The Golden Ticket.”

That one stuck. I re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a book in which a kind-hearted boy from an abjectly poor family lucks into a golden ticket that grants him entry (dare I call it admission?) into Willy Wonka’s beguiling, mysterious, magical chocolate factory, and I realized it was a perfect fit.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory mapped perfectly onto the college application narrative. The chocolate factory was Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton, or Stanford, or any number of other sought-after, beguiling, unattainable colleges my students yearned for. And of course, as the four spoiled children who enter the chocolate factory alongside Charlie discover, not all that glitters is gold, not all that is gold is good, and beguiling things are often dangerous (see: the golden fleece, Sauron’s ring, the golden apple of discord, the Midas touch). I think the title perfectly captures the tension between yearning for an object of desire and the unexpected consequences of obtaining that object.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy (the funniest, most irreverent, most poetic and profane memoir I’ve ever read), Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist (masterful combination of memoir, biography, and cultural history), and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Latecomer (like a 19th-century novel in its sharp-eyed observations of society and culture, beautifully braided narratives).

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’ve worked as a summer camp counselor, a student journalist, a public relations officer at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, a teaching assistant, a lecturer, an admissions officer, and a college counselor.

Fun fact: when I was fifteen, my father started his own telecommunications company and asked me to work as his buyer during summer vacation. He’d leave me a list of parts he needed ordered and phone numbers of different vendors, and I would put on my most professional-sounding voice and call around to get the best deals. Toward the end of the summer, of the vendors asked if she could take me to lunch to thank me for our business, and because I was so mortified by the possibility that she would find out I was fifteen (plus, I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet, and I wasn’t about to have her pick me up at home), I stammered something about being terribly busy and rushed off the phone. I went back to school shortly after that, and my father took over my duties; for months, vendors would ask him where his buyer was, and because he couldn’t very well tell them that I in the middle of my junior year of high school, he would say that I left to pursue “other opportunities.”

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I read Naked, David Sedaris’ collection of essays, in 1997. The book hit me like a thunderbolt—his utterly unique voice, his honesty, his snark. He was so essentially, authentically himself, and I thought, “I can write like that.” Obviously not as a snarky gay Greek man, but as a snarky, cynical middle-aged Russian-Jewish woman.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I’ve always been fairly haphazard about my writing, but my one reliable ritual is walking to a coffee shop about a mile and a half from my house, getting an almond milk flat white, and writing for about 20-30 minutes. I have strong feelings about my writing tools: I use a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen, because both make me feel like a Serious Writer (important for the many moments I’m plagued by self-doubt). The time walking to the coffee shop allows me to think about what I might write, and the time walking back allows me to reflect on what I’ve written, so I consider that a part of my writing practice as well. Eventually, I’ll transfer whatever seems promising to my computer.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope reading my book compels readers to broaden their understanding of what it means to succeed and to live meaningfully in the world.

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