What can college applicants learn from Tina Fey’s movie ‘Admission’?

Admission Movie Poster

“Admission” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Focus Features.

At this time of year, high school seniors from coast to coast are wracked with stress about the college admission process. Is there any way to turn this ordeal into a romantic comedy? Tina Fey and company give it a try in “Admission.”

Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton who gets way too emotionally involved with one of the applicants to the freshman class. Instead of remaining a name on an orange folder and a series of grades, tests scores and extracurricular accomplishments stapled to a personal essay, a 17-year-old boy named Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) becomes all too real to Portia. She comes to believe she is actually his birth mother and soon is doing all sorts of questionable things to try to give him a leg up in his struggle to get into Princeton.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Korelitz, who worked in the Princeton admissions office, the movie milks a seriously touchy subject for some good laughs. But high school students facing the daunting college application process will wonder how closely this movie hews to any real college. Their parents may ask whether it will help or hinder their kids as they wait out the verdicts from the schools they’ve applied to.

There are no simple answers to these questions. The movie has its moments of truth as well as its flights of fancy. Whether a particular teenager will have a good, lighthearted time or find the film painfully stressful will depend mostly on the person. But, underneath its humorous exterior, “Admission” does offer some earnest commentary and a few real lessons to be learned. Here are a few admissions realities I think the movie got right.

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‘Admission’ the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

“Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Grand Central Publishing)

Before the soon-to-be-released movie “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, there was the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Princeton faculty wife and sometime admissions reader

If you’ve always wanted to know what happens behind the doors of Ivy League college admissions offices—and prefer reading novels to non-fiction—this book’s for you. Author Jean Hanff Korelitz spent 2006 to 2007 working as an application reader at Princeton University to do her research for this fact-filled fiction. In her novel “Admission,” first published in 2009 and due to be reissued soon as a movie tie-in, she takes us inside the secretive process.

Like the author, the book’s protagonist Portia Nathan works in admissions at Princeton and is obsessed with her job. When the story opens, she’s headed to New England—her new territory—where she’ll be visiting the elite prep schools, some public high schools and one new progressive private school based on a farm. As she flies north, we look over Portia’s shoulder while she reads through students’ application folders and considers whether they are Princeton material. It is just the first of many such sessions.

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The Gatekeepers: Inside the admissions process of a premier college

The Gatekeepers cover

The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg (Penguin Books)

First published a decade ago, Jacques Steinberg’s book “The Gatekeepers” still offers a revealing window into how the college admissions process really works

Every fall, as almost three quarters of American high school seniors prepare to apply to college, a new crop of teenagers and their parents wonder: who gets into the top schools and why? As anyone involved can tell you, it’s not based only on grades and test scores. Those are just two of many factors, some quite mysterious. In fact, how admissions offices at the most competitive colleges weigh those factors and make their decisions has long been a closely guarded secret. Oh, to be a fly on one of those ivy-covered walls!

A little over a decade ago, New York Times education writer Jacques Steinberg convinced Wesleyan University to let him be that fly. At the time, Wesleyan was a well-respected and up-and-coming school profiting from the rapidly multiplying number of college applicants in this country. As Steinberg describes it, the pyramid of elite colleges worked like a tower of champagne glasses, with applicants who didn’t quite make it into the Ivy League spilling down into the next tier of schools, which included Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Wesleyan.

If you’re concerned with quality education, that’s a simplistic way to think about any of these schools, each of which offers an excellent education and has unique qualities of its own. But if you’re tracking admissions statistics and developing marketing strategies, the image of a champagne pyramid makes perfect sense.

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