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Skewed look at college entry is price of "Admission"

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 7:48 PM EDT, Tue March 26, 2013
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.

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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.

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

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