In "Admission" Tina Fey plays an Princeton admissions officer whose world is shaken by the revelation one of the prospective applicants may be her son. To be sure, there's plenty of comedy, romance and maternal stirrings. But, loosely based on a book of the same title by an "outside reader" at the Princeton admissions office, "Admission" offers a view—albeit it fictionalized—into the crazed world of top-tier college entrance offices, where as few as 9 percent of applicants get in.
Dr. Michele Hernandez, who worked as assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth college and is now a consultant for high school students applying to college, saw "Admission" over the weekend and assessed its depiction of the college selection process with U.S. News.
In the film, Fey's character Portia first learns that a child she gave up for adoption may be among her pool of applicants while touring various high schools to speak about Princeton. The fall high school tour is a staple of real-life admissions life as well:
"In the fall you visit schools [and] you feel bad because your job is to encourage all these kids to apply even though you know a lot of them aren't going to be that qualified," says Hernandez. "I laughed at all the prep school scenes because I had to visit a lot of prep schools, my daughter goes to prep school, and they were so on target. The kids are well mannered and they are quaking in their shoes waiting for a nugget of information. That's very spot on. … It's anxiety-producing for everyone."
Reading applications in the film, Portia visualizes the applicants themselves in her office pleading for a spot, something Hernandez found amusing. "When you do it, you try to almost not visualize them as kids, because you feel bad rejecting them all."
The bright orange application files that Portia and her colleagues trudged around "is exactly how we used to do it," says Hernadez. "But I know talking to my colleagues that most schools are doing it on laptops now."
The concerns about her son, as well as other personal drama—her professor boyfriend has left her for the Virginia Woolf scholar he impregnated—begins to take its toll on Portia as her coworkers notice her erratic behavior.
"That made me laugh when her private life was interfering with her reading the folders, and it made me think, gosh if I was a kid I would be kind of discouraged from that because that is what happens," says Hernandez. "[During] the reading season you are supposed to read 25 to 30 folders a day and some days you aren't having a great day—you get in a fight with your boyfriend or whatever—and you still have to sit and read the files. So if you are in a pissy mood … that kid might not get a sympathetic read."
And distressed admissions officers are not the only obstacle ambitious high schoolers need to overcome. At one point, a pompous, older Princeton alum is rude to the eccentric high school student he is interviewing and ultimately writes a nasty review about the applicant.
"With alumni interviewers there is no quality control. Anyone who is an alum can do interviews. Oftentimes you don't know if they are some kind of crack pot," says Hernandez, "That could be a whole topic for movie in and of itself because with a school like Princeton, you are going to get super WASP-y people interviewing some inner city kids—it can be intimidating. But it's really just to keep the alums happy. They don't even count that much, but they do produce a lot of anxiety."
The film even gave a shoutout to the U.S. News college rankings, as the staff discovers in horror that Princeton has dropped from No. 1 to No. 2. "[Admissions offices] definitely care about the rankings. The rankings typically make the front page of the student newspaper and admissions directors are always trying to push up their rankings," says Hernandez.
The climax of the film is in the committee when Portia and her colleagues meet to hammer out the final acceptance list. Hernandez says how admissions offices handle their committee differs from school to school—at Dartmouth they used the committee to choose or reject students that were the cusp after the earlier rounds of reading. However, the aftermath of the committee, the hostile phone calls admission staff receive from parents and teachers of students that were rejected (in the film, the staff keeps a tally of slurs hurled at them on a white board), rang true for Hernandez.
"The worst week of admissions was the 10 days after decisions came out because you waited for all the irate alums to call, 'What do you mean you didn't take this kid?' You just didn't even want to go to work. You wanted to hide and not return phone calls," says Hernandez.
The drama of angry phone calls aside, Hernandez says it's not surprising there wasn't more of a focus on the day-in, day-out of her old job. "The majority of admissions is drudgery, and if anything, they didn't get enough of the drudgery because of course it would be boring in a movie to watch a lot of drudgery."