Published in The National Association for College Admission Counseling Newsletter, March 27, 2013
Movie Impression: Admission
by David Hawkins, Director of Public Policy and Research, NACAC
I’m not a professional movie reviewer, nor am I a fan of reviewing in general, so we’ll call this an impression. I joined a group of fellow higher education geeks last Friday—opening day for Admission—for a first-day screening. Right off the bat, you can’t go wrong with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. And you get Lily Tomlin to boot. Here are my impressions of the rest of the film:
- Realism: Admission officers will find themselves chuckling throughout the movie at the main character’s life. Anyone who works in college admission will notice occasional exaggerations, stereotypes and simplifications, as with all movie adaptations. But the movie gives people a pretty good idea of what life as an admission officer looks like. There is a montage where Tina Fey’s character visits high school after high school in New England, the two constants in her life consisting of her car and rooms full of anxious, obedient students, with which admission officers and counselors are bound to identify.
- Existential Questions: During a pivotal moment, Tina Fey’s character asks her colleagues on the admission staff at Princeton, regarding a student who doesn’t fit the typical applicant profile, “Who is going to make room for these kids? We have to make room for these kids!” While she’s referring to a particular student, I found myself wondering—knowing that a former admission officer wrote the book on which the movie was based—if her question was, in fact, more broadly focused. I think it probably captures the fatigue many admission officers feel knowing they can’t help every student that comes through the process, regardless of how much they want to. It also articulates a frustration with hyper-selective admission, and raises the possibility that standard methods of admission serve students, the institution or the world well. Which, of course, points to the larger question of how we offer higher education in the modern age—who gets access and why?
- Story within a story: Audiences won’t be confused about the point of the movie—the motif of college admission is clearly the setting rather than the subject. Tina Fey’s character navigates her way through the kind of ‘hero journey’ through which we all inevitably go. However, the movie’s setting is plausibly realistic, without the kind of clownish characters we’ve seen in other admission films, like Orange County.
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and think you will, too. My only disappointment was that Wallace Shawn’s character, the dean of admission at Princeton, never dropped an “inconceivable” reference.