How the College Application Process is Portrayed in Teen Movies and Shows


Alyssa Wend ’24
Staff Writer

My first memory of watching someone choose a college was seeing Gabriella Montez in High School Musical 3 attend Stanford. Being six years old and watching her character on Disney Channel, I idolized her and dreamed of going to Stanford as well, without having any idea of why. Gabriella was hardly ever shown doing things in the academic sphere, and her glorified acceptance into Stanford led me to believe that having a good college experience was tied to going to a top-tier school.

What High School Musical didn’t show was that instead of singing and dancing during the college application season, in my senior year, I would be crying over essays and surviving off of Rice Krispie treats. During this time, I watched my friends and I struggle emotionally and physically while retaking standardized tests, rewriting essays, and anxiously waiting for college responses.

It can be isolating for teenagers to watch the media constantly showing characters getting into college without revealing how taxing the college application process truly is. Movies and TV shows often include colleges that are typically seen as incredibly competitive to get into, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. Entertainment is a reflection of what society wants to see and only ever showing characters going to high-ranking schools solely gives value to this one experience. While having this prestigious list of college choices may be the experience for some students, it doesn’t apply to all. In the media, there is no reflection of students deciding to go to a school because it financially works for them, has a department they’re looking for, or is closer in location to their family. It always tends to come back to the college’s prestigious name. When there are occasionally examples of characters struggling with finance to attend college, realistically required steps such as having a conversation about financial aid with their guardian, filling out FAFSA forms, and the potential of having to switch a college decision based on receiving a financial offer after getting into a college is hardly ever shown.

Two examples from mainstream media can be seen in Gilmore Girls and The Kissing Booth 2. In The Kissing Booth 2, the college application plotline falls flat by having both an unrealistic standard for colleges to attend and an unrealistic demonstration of the process to get into these schools. The movie follows the character Elle as a senior who has to apply and choose what college to go to. She decides that she wants to go to either UC Berkeley, where her best friend wants to go, or Harvard, where her boyfriend is.

The movie’s first introduction of the college application process is Elle writing her personal essay answering the topic, “What do you want to be in 5 years?” She begins her essay by writing, “what do you want to be in 5 years is a difficult question to answer because as soon as I start to figure out one thing, something or someone changes and makes me question everything.” In the rest of her essay, Elle vaguely writes about how she wants to be her brother’s joy, her dad’s love, her mom’s warmth, her boyfriend’s courage, etc. Elle writes in a more diary-style of her experiences by talking about people the colleges don’t know and ends up not answering the prompt of her essay at all.

Throughout the movie, Elle writes one essay for her entire college application. Realistically, even just applying to these two colleges would require her to write at least six different essays. She is seen not putting in the range of work required in a college application but still gets into both UC Berkeley and Harvard. In addition, the movie deliberately decides to show the college representatives in the decision room emotionally reading Elle’s essay. This theatrical effect that her essay has on the college representatives ignores the fact that she didn’t answer the prompt and supports the lack of effort put into Elle’s application.

In Gilmore Girls, for her entire life, the character Rory was entranced with the idea of attending Harvard. She was at the top of her class and went to a preppy private high school that almost guaranteed her spot at an Ivy League. Her process of getting into college was shown throughout the show through her working hard in class, touring colleges, and writing her essays. While she was shown working hard, she still had a life outside of school with her mom and friends. This showed a seemingly more realistic portrayal of how to get into a good school without giving up your entire life.

When watching Gilmore Girls as a young girl, I admired Rory’s dedication to going to Harvard and believed that she could get in given her determination. As expected, Rory ended up getting into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. This wasn’t surprising because systematically she had everything she needed to get in: a prestigious high school, many opportunities for activities, volunteer work, etc. However, this is an experience specific to her. For example, a different student could work just as hard and not be in an as privileged position, therefore needing to balance public school and a job while applying to college. However, what was surprising in Rory’s situation was that she ends up attending Yale instead of her original dream school. While these are both prestigious schools, the switch was an important distinction for her character arc.

Once Rory got into these schools, the show emphasized her process for choosing which one she wanted to attend. To make this decision, Rory and her mother make a pro and con list for each of the schools. During this process, Rory kept getting comments from townspeople such as, “It’s going to be Harvard. We all know it.” This social pressure for Rory to choose a school based on everyone’s expectations was an important struggle in the show and accurate to some real-life experiences. Rory overcame this by choosing Yale for reasons important to her such as location and a strong department she was looking for. Although Gilmore Girls shows the effort that goes into getting into these schools, it doesn’t show other challenges such as financial aid, getting rejected from colleges, and having to make difficult choices based on different circumstances.

Since I’ve been six years old, the only marketable college experience that has been sold to me is one of a character choosing between two highly ranked schools. Without much representation of the financial aid process, reasons to go to a school other than its name, and acknowledgment of the emotionally taxing college application process, I’ve continued to watch variations of the same story that doesn’t apply to many people. While I’m not expecting to watch a four-hour-long movie diving into the specifics of what goes into a college application, the media does influence how teenagers perceive applying and choosing a college, and needs to actively try harder to be realistic.

Image Source: Dreaminbiblio

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