Skip to main content

Skewed look at college entry is price of "Admission"

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
March 26, 2013 -- Updated 2348 GMT (0748 HKT)
Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in a new film,
Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in a new film, "Admission".
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: New film starring Tina Fey exaggerates the plight of college admissions staff
  • He says admissions officers don't have to go to extraordinary lengths to admit unusual applicant
  • Film properly sends message not to lose perspective over college admissions, Mills says
  • Mills: Landing a spot in a prestigious college doesn't guarantee happiness in life

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills has served on the Admissions Committee at Sarah Lawrence College, where he teaches literature and writing. He is the author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- Just when many colleges have started sending out their acceptances, director Paul Weitz's "Admission," a comedy set in a fictionalized Princeton University admissions office, has debuted in movie theaters across the country. The film is off to a so-so start at the box office, but its timing could not be better for drawing in high school seniors and their parents.

Tina Fey, in the role of Portia Nathan, an admissions officer with a screwball love life, gives us a lot to laugh at in "Admission," but as a college professor who has served on his school's admissions committee, I found myself doing more squirming than laughing as I watched the film.

What had me squirming was the focus of "Admission," Portia's efforts to gain entry into Princeton for Jeremiah Balakian, a brilliant student, who was a screwup at his local New Hampshire high school but who has found himself at Quest, a nearby progressive, prep school.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

Jeremiah is the classic diamond in the rough. He has gotten fives on all his advanced placement tests, despite never having taken an AP course, and he is near 800 (the top score) on his College Boards. But Portia, whose motives for helping Jeremiah are personal and professional, cannot convince her fellow admissions officers that Jeremiah is right for Princeton.

After they vote to reject him, she takes matters into her own hands. In the middle of the night, she sneaks into the Princeton admissions office and changes Jeremiah's folder from deny to accept. The result is a blessing for Jeremiah but the end of Portia's career in college admissions.

What worried me -- and will, I assume, worry high school students and their parents -- is the film's implication that the only way a diamond in the rough gets into a college such as Princeton is through an admissions officer willing to sacrifice her best interests.

My Harvard undergraduate experience, as well as my current Sarah Lawrence experience, tells me that admissions officers are a lot smarter than "Admission" suggests. The admission officers I know find it easy to advocate for the student with great grades or the 220-pound halfback who likes physics or the cellist who has played in the local symphony, but their eureka moment comes in discovering the promising student everyone else has ignored.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Still, I take the larger point of "Admission" -- namely, these days getting into a prestigious college has become a blood sport. As Portia tells herself in the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel on which "Admission" is based, "The system as far as she was concerned was not about the applicant at all. It was about the institution. It was about delivering to the trustees, and to a lesser extent the faculty, a United Nations of scholars, an Olympiad of athletes, a conservatory of artists and musicians, a Great Society of strivers."

Colleges want students who will enhance their ratings and their brand, which means many worthy applicants get left behind. At the country's most selective colleges and universities, only 3 percent of the students come from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Even worse, at all too many high schools, it is hard for aspiring students to get help on their college applications. A 2010 Public Agenda study found that across the nation the ratio of high school students to guidance counselors was 460 to 1.

The humor in college 'Admission'

What are good students and their parents supposed to do then? Here "Admission" provides no checklist of answers, but its satire on the workings of a fictionalized Princeton (last year the real Princeton took in just 2,095 of the 26,664 who applied), provides solid, commonsense advice.

"Admission" tells students and their parents that although the Princetons of America offer a great education, those who obsess over gaining admission to them are, in most cases, headed for disappointment. They are letting themselves play a game in which there are certain to be more losers than winners.

Equally important, "Admission" asserts that landing a spot in a prestigious college (Portia is a Dartmouth graduate) does not guarantee a happy post-college life. Indeed, if there is an overriding message in "Admission," it is: Don't lose perspective.

The one truly shallow moment in the film comes when the director of Princeton admissions complains to his staff that U.S. News & World Report has lowered Princeton to No. 2 in its rankings. The director is deeply upset by the downgrade. He believes, as all too many parents and their children do in real life, that the quality of an education can be measured like a baseball batting average or the carats in a diamond ring.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT