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Hollywood’s College Admission Process

By Ashley Dobson

Allison Janney, Heath Ledger, and Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Photo by Touchstone Pictures - © 1999

When it comes to the world of college admission, Hollywood needs to go back to school.

There are a few essentials truths about college I’ve learned through many years of movie marathons, TV show commitments, and Netflix binges: Red Solo cups are an essential part of the college experience and there are only a handful of colleges in America—the nearby college your parents want you to attend; the faraway dream school; the school that your best friend wants to go to that will separate you in distance but not in spirit; the school with the bad reputation; and Harvard.

I’ve also learned that most of Hollywood has never heard of NACAC or even remotely remembers what it was like to apply to college. Despite not having any practical knowledge of the process, all my favorite on-screen characters embark on this journey. And now I will share with you what I know about applying to college, as told by movies and television…

Your first step is to meet with your high school counselor. Between their budding romance novel careers, al la 10 Things I Hate About You, and too-aptly-named pamphlets provided by Emma Pillsbury, from Glee, there will be little time for this crucial meeting. In fact, your counselor may never look away from computer.

Once this meeting gives you a sense of direction, the next process is as easy as filling out the FAFSA, because there are only two parts to a college application—the essay and letters of recommendation.

“The singular college essay” should consist of anything from a Legally Blonde-style video essay, featuring you in a bikini and detailing the plot of your favorite soap opera, to a more traditional essay about your beer-fueled coming-of-age story like Sutter’s in The Spectacular Now. Movies and television teach that you only have to write one essay, and it can be on any topic or in any format you want. Personally, I would lean toward the video essay. It really seemed to impress that all-white, male admission panel when Elle Woods did it.

According to TV and movies, more important than “the essay” are your letters of recommendation. On Disney’s Hannah Montana, Hannah’s brother Jackson performs a variety of tasks for his neighbor, a generous donor to the fictional State University of Santa Barbara, ranging from menial (doing his neighbor’s laundry) to the disgusting (cleaning his neighbor’s feet) to the absurd (convincing his father to date his neighbor’s sister) to obtain a good letter of recommendation.

In the teen drama Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, the “dying girl” ends the movie by sending a guilt-trip-laden recommendation to NYU on “me’s” behalf to completely excuse his C-average. Even though NACAC research suggests that letters of recommendation don’t play a critical role in admission decisions, TV and movie characters bend over backward to get these coveted recs.

Nick Offerman, Thomas Mann, and RJ Cyler in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). Photo by Anne Marie Fox - © 2015 - Fox Searchlight

Don’t worry about how long it takes you to complete these two parts to your application—you have plenty of time your senior year. Take a look at The Spectacular Now’s Sutter. His friends already had their acceptance letters in hand, he’d already been to prom and completed the rest of his senior milestones, but he figured right before high school graduation was the best time to get cracking on his personal statement.

Once your college application is submitted, the real work begins. Overcoming rejection is a pivotal part of the college admission process. On Hannah Montana, when Miley Cyrus isn’t accepted to Stanford University she drives up to the campus, demanding to know why her best friend was accepted and she wasn’t. And the admission officers tell her. After being rejected by several colleges, Aria on Pretty Little Liars tries to learn some computer hacking skills so she can find out the reason for her rejection, because every college has a file somewhere listing the reason each student was rejected. And if the world of Gossip Girl wasn’t privileged enough, these students also get to choose which student on the wait list their spot goes to. When Serena gets accepted instead of Blair, she gives up her spot for her friend. Feels.


Yes, students, movies and television teach us so much. For instance, you’ll be able to live in a giant New York City apartment if you write your own column or if you’re a waitress or a part-time chef. No wonder you don’t really need your counselor’s undivided attention.

Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s manager of communications, content, and social media.

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