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The Poisonous Portrayal of Ivy League Schools on Television

Diving into the unrealistic and idealistic portrayal of college applications in coming-of-age movies and shows.

With high schools' opening up again around late August and early September, this year’s rising seniors are beginning to anticipate the upcoming application season. The CommonApp in the United States opened on August first, the deadline to apply for regular admission being in January 2022. Seniors are busy drafting supplemental essays, contacting college counsellors and requesting letters of recommendation. With recent trends depicting how college application and acceptance videos are surging in popularity on social media such as TikTok and Instagram, even highschoolers who aren’t yet approaching graduation are being exposed to the admissions process and are starting to think about college, and more specifically: what it takes to be accepted.

When one thinks of a desirable college experience, at least in the US, one is inclined to take a mental shortcut straight to the Ivy League: the brain readily retrieves the success stories attributable to graduates of the eight member schools, and revels in fantasies of attending one of the most prestigious and elite universities in the world. Ironically, though these schools are world-renowned for their educational excellence and academic rigour, it’s their name that we covet the most. Many young students dream about going to Yale simply because it’s Yale, and haven't once inquired about the actual programmes and courses being offered.

Well, what’s wrong with students wanting to attend colleges because of their venerable reputations and well-known names? By fixating our visor on the sticker that ‘advertises’ an institution - we become blind to the fact that it’s what an institution has to offer that counts. It’s more important for a school to be equipped for catering to our interests than looking good in our Instagram bio. And while this isn’t a warning that esteemed universities like Princeton and Brown aren’t really the fantastic schools they seem to be (they are), it’s a wake-up call that other schools, whose name you might not ever have heard of, might provide an education of a comparable standard. You’re not going to college to tell others the name of your institution, but to gain knowledge about a field that you’re passionate about, which may or may not shape your future career path!

Controversially, popular movies and television shows perpetuate our distorted thinking about university by encouraging plots that culminate in skewed conceptions of college admissions in the impressionable minds of adolescent viewers. In fiction media, it’s a highly common and even encouraged aspiration to study at an Ivy League university or a comparable school. Even students with abominable behavioural records, like Noah Flynn in ‘The Kissing Booth’ manage to matriculate at Harvard with limited impediments. In Gossip Girl, an entire friend group enrolls at Ivy League institutions, despite having spent the majority of their high school career partying and drinking.

Unrealistic is an understatement. It’s alarming how severely the media downplays the rigour of college admissions and undermines the history of achievement needed to be considered a competitive applicant. Rory Gilmore was accepted into Harvard, Princeton and Yale: yes, she was smart, and she had strong extracurriculars, and although she was occasionally shown studying, the show implied that she was naturally gifted and didn’t need to put in tremendous effort to keep her perfect grades. In the third sequel of ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, protagonist Lara-Jean applies to a grand total of four schools, which all happen to be on the list of top 30 colleges in America: Stanford University, New York University, UC Berkeley, and UC Los Angeles. Applying to such few schools, all of which have an acceptance rate of under 20%, is something that no normal student can afford to do - the risk of being rejected from all of them, no matter how high your grades or test scores may be, is simply too exorbitant. Lara Jean did not end up getting accepted into Stanford, her dream school, and almost needed to settle for her ‘safety’ school - UC Berkeley (acceptance rate of 16% as of 2020), she decided to go to NYU, a school she also applied to as a backup choice. In reality, of course, none of the schools she applied to were safety schools, and the fact that she got into ¾ of the prestigious schools she applied to is pretty ridiculous.

Besides being blatantly unrealistic in their portrayal of students’ success rates in university admissions, movies and shows tend to emphasise the school’s name, never their programmes, or quality of education, as their most valuable assets. Instead they assume that the school’s name speaks for itself and the status alone conveys everything we need to know about the university and those attending it. Harvard is a good school, just because it’s Harvard, but the academic and personal performance required to actually get accepted is never adequately communicated. On the contrary, Ivy League and Top 20 schools are sometimes depicted as schools that anyone can get into if they put in minimal effort. This is misleading for obvious reasons, because not even a student with a 1600 SAT score, a perfect GPA, a varsity sport, and a long list of impressive extracurriculars is guaranteed a spot at an esteemed university.

What do we want from screenwriters? We want them to incorporate more realistic representations of the college admissions process, characters getting rejected from their dream schools, characters becoming successful in their careers after attending an ‘average’ university, characters having schools outside of the Ivy League and co. as their dream schools, and characters embracing the fact that schools that are deemed as ‘average’ can provide an equally rewarding college experience as schools like Princeton. After all, that’s the reality, and in 2021, we need to surmount the narrow-minded notion that anything that isn’t Ivy League is inferior.

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