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.

It’s all about grades and test scores” – dispelling the myth

One helpful thing “Admission” does is to dispense with a long-standing myth about getting into college that it’s all a question of who has the highest grades and test scores and the most impressive list of awards. According to this outdated thinking, admissions officers actually play a small role in the process because they’re so constrained by the numbers. They check a student’s GPA, SAT scores, and the number of AP classes. Then they tally the number of awards, do the math and assign a score to each applicant’s folder. An impressive essay and a winning smile during an interview may help seal the deal, but otherwise college admissions decisions are nothing but a numbers game.

In reality college admissions decisions are much more nuanced than that. This is especially true today, and particularly at highly selective schools like Princeton. As the movie makes clear, there are many more well-qualified, high-testing, high-ranking applicants than there are spots at the top schools. The successful candidates are the ones who distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill excellence.

In one humorous fantasy scene in “Admission,” a procession of high school applicants materializes in Portia’s office to make their cases in person. One award-winning gymnast, dressed in red and black Spandex, does backbends on top of Portia’s desk, while re-capping her life story, which involves a Cuban father in a wheelchair.

In the real world, things don’t unfold so flamboyantly. But, allowing for poetic license, the movie has it right. Who you are, where you come from and what you do outside of class is important. Tasked with choosing among thousands of smart, high-achieving teenagers, admissions departments often gravitate to the most unusual ones.

“To-the-manor-born”? Debunking the cliché

Many people think admissions officers are a group of affluent, stuffy, middle-aged white men who graduated from the schools they work for and are now looking for junior versions of themselves. If this ever was true, it isn’t now.

Except for a small number of senior staffers, most admissions officers are young. Many are women and people of color and did not graduate from the schools they represent. Although the institutions where they work may require them to admit a certain number of “legacies,” “development cases” and star athletes, admissions officers personally do not tend to personally favor such applicants. Quite the opposite: left to their own devices, admissions folks are more likely to favor smart, hard-working kids from ordinary backgrounds who have distinguished themselves through their own intellectual efforts.

The diverse group of Princeton admissions officers portrayed in the movie is pretty realistic—they’re a mix of personalities from different backgrounds, each with his or her own attitudes and values. Of course, in her efforts to help her favored candidate, Portia ends up going way out of bounds. Such a breach in ethics is obviously rare in the real world of admissions. But the deeper message, that admissions officers are regular flesh-and-blood people, as capable of being charmed as anyone else, is a truth that students should remember.

The secret of what colleges are really looking for

In an early scene in the movie, Portia visits the upper crust Deerfield prep school, where students in blue blazers earnestly listen to her sales pitch. “We’re looking for passion,” she tells them perkily, then directs their attention to a slick DVD about Princeton.

But it’s at another, seemingly less likely place, that Portia encounters some truly passionate students. On a visit to the alternative Quest School, where teenagers learn how to raise livestock and question the status quo, Portia meets several remarkably self-directed kids, including Jeremiah Balakian, a self-professed autodidact, who’s immersed in linguistics and philosophy.

In a scene at a birthday party, Jeremiah performs a ventriloquist act with a dummy named René Descartes. “Don’t put de cart before de horse,” he cracks. Prompted to say something about himself at his Princeton alumni interview, Jeremiah asks, “Do you mean about my inner soul?”

In recent years the “passion” line has become a cliché in college admissions. But what does “passion” really mean in this context? Jeremiah is Hollywood’s attempt to flesh out an answer. He’s a kid who’s truly gifted and intensely serious about learning, although—as the movie makes clear—he’s got one very serious weakness in the eyes of Princeton: a D-plus average during his first three years of high school.

In the real world, would a kid like Jeremiah be admitted to a top-tier university? With his grades, it’s unlikely. Still, Jeremiah stands as an appealing portrait of intellectual passion and, with better grades, he would have been a shoe-in. That’s something worth thinking about.

“Admission” makes gentle fun of the high-stakes competition for entrance to Princeton and other “highly selective” schools, exaggerating for the sake of humor. But it also underscores some timely truths. If they don’t take “Admission” literally, high school students may well benefit from this flick.

Watching Princeton admissions officers dispatch rejected applicants through a trap door in the office floor isn’t a bad way to release test prep tension. Along the way, this small dose of absurdity can teach a valuable lesson about the struggle to get into college.

– The College Strategist

Click for a review of “Admission,” the book by Jean Hanff Korelitz.

About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.

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