Schiff is a graduate of Phillips Academy preparatory school, and earned her B.A. degree from Williams College in 1982. She was a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster until 1990. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The Times Literary Supplement.
Schiff has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Schiff won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife and muse of Lolita and Pale Fire author Vladimir Nabokov. She was also a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Saint-Exupéry: A Biography about Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
Schiff's A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America won the 2006 Arwen Taylor Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Institut Français’s Gilbert Chinard Prize.
Schiff was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Currently a guest columnist at The New York Times, Schiff resides in New York City and Edmonton, Alberta.