Irena Smith joins the Spotlight to discuss her memoir, The Golden Ticket

Author Name: Irena Smith

Book Title: The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays

Book Genre: Memoir

Release Date: April 18, 2023

Publisher: She Writes Press

Welcome, Irena! Please tell us a bit about your book.

Imagine if David Sedaris and Tina Fey had a love child (never mind about how old the child is), and that love child worked as a private admissions counselor in Palo Alto, California, right in the shadow of Stanford University, and was also raising three children, and wrote a memoir that was a series of responses to actual college application essay prompts. Because the love child was voted “Most Likely to Talk to Anyone or Anything About Anyone or Anything” in high school and has a lot to say, the memoir is about a lot of things, including, but not limited to, misguided parents, wayward children, our national obsession with elite colleges, Kellogg’s Corn Pops, developmental delays, domestic mayhem, great (and not so great) literature, and improv comedy.

What was the spark? What drew you to write a memoir about this experience? What made you want to tell this particular story?

I’d say it was more of a slow burn than a spark. As a college admissions counselor, I worked with students and families who are convinced that if you don’t attend a college in the top 20 of The US News & World Report, you’ve pretty much failed at life. That’s a lot of pressure.

At the same time, I was raising three children, each of whom was struggling with significant challenges—developmental delays, depression, anxiety, and learning differences—while living in a city full of outrageously expensive real estate, highly educated people, and unbridled ambition. And then, in March 2019, the Varsity Blues scandal broke, and I remember thinking, “There’s something deeper at work here.” Not just class anxiety and wealth and entitlement and inequity and terrible behavior, but something more primal, something I recognized on a cellular level, something that binds all parents. And yes, it’s unsettling to realize that you have something in common with people who were indicted for conspiracy to commit felony mail fraud and bribery to get their child into a prestigious college, but the truth is that what propelled them was probably what propels most parents: the desire to do what’s best for their children. The Varsity Blues parents and the parents who come see me for college counseling, who pay thousands of dollars for test prep, college counseling, and expensive summer programs, want the same thing my husband and I wanted when we pushed our oldest son through a behavioral intervention program as rigorous as any SAT bootcamp after he was diagnosed with autism as a two-year-old.

All parents want their child to land well and to do everything in their power to help their child land well, but sometimes those good intentions go terribly wrong, and that was the story I wanted to tell. And because I vicariously apply to college every fall alongside a new class of students, I decided to tell it through a form I’m obsessed with—the college application essay.

What was your research process like for The Golden Ticket?

Since the subject was mostly me, my research was fairly minimal. I did have several long conversations with my parents to make sure the details of our life in the US after emigrating from the Soviet Union were accurate. And I dug into the history of Stanford University, which was fascinating; I knew that it was founded to commemorate Leland Stanford Jr., but I had forgotten how young he was when he died—and hadn’t realized how touchingly inclusive its mission was or how progressive it was for its time.

From your perspective, what’s the hardest thing about writing and researching? And what do you love most about it?

Finding the motivation to sit down and write, particularly on days where I would rather be doing almost anything else. (Literally, anything: Wordle, The New York Times Spelling Bee, a trip to Trader Joe’s for some kale and chocolate-covered peanut butter cups, texting with friends about the arbitrary unfairness of Wordle and/or the Spelling Bee, admiring Simona Tabasco’s profile picture on Instagram, folding laundry.) Conversely, there’s nothing like the euphoria when words and sentences fall into place and the shape of what I’m writing comes into view and it feels like I’m being guided by friendly and omnipotent force.

What’s capturing your imagination these days outside of reading and writing?

I had a brief love affair with finger-knitting those chunky blankets that were all over Pinterest last winter, and I’m now contemplating learning how to knit. I’ve long considered knitting the province of old ladies and the Fates, but after discovering that several of my students are passionate knitters and reading Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Unraveling, I’m *this* close to giving it a try.

Any new writing projects in the works?

Yes! I’m working on a collection of essays about memorable trips, both in my own life and in culture and literature.

Where can readers find you?




Upcoming events: April 10 at 3 pm Pacific: Live Instagram conversation on Berit Talks Books

Thank you, Irena! The Golden Ticket is available for preorder!

Palo Alto, California, is home to stratospheric real estate prices and equally high expectations, a place where everyone has to be good at something and where success is often defined by the name of a prestigious college on the back of a late-model luxury car. It’s also the place where Irena Smith—Soviet émigré, PhD in comparative literature, former Stanford admission reader—works as a private college counselor to some of the country’s most ambitious and tightly wound students . . . even as, at home, her own children unravel.

Narrated as a series of responses to college application essay prompts, The Golden Ticket combines sharp social commentary, 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.

Author Bio:

Irena Smith is a college admissions expert and the author of The Golden Ticket: A Life in College Admissions Essays, a blend of memoir and sharp social commentary about her work in college admissions. She was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up in Moscow in the waning days of the Brezhnev regime; when she was nine, her family emigrated from the USSR and sought asylum in the United States as political refugees. In spite of tearfully vowing that she would never, not ever, learn English, she went on to receive a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA and taught humanities and composition at Stanford before transitioning to college admissions work and writing. She an inveterate advocate of reading as many books as possible, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and the Oxford comma. For more information, visit and follow her on Twitter at @irenawrites.