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Five Movies About Getting into College

Every year, high school juniors around the country start thinking seriously about what comes next. Many of these students will want to continue their educations, and that means beginning the process of applying to college. Debates about the relative value of a college education aside, it’s a competitive and stressful process that involves a great deal of change.

Risky Business (1983) 

I suspect that the highly favorable view many people have of Risky Business has as much to do with Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear to a Bob Seger song as with any other part of the movie. But beyond that iconic scene, Risky Business isn’t much better than other disposable 1980’s coming of age flicks.

Joel (Cruise) is in the midst of trying to get into Princeton (his father’s alma mater), but his chances are slim. His parents go away on a trip and leave him home alone. He’s a bored suburban prepster, so he gets involved with Lana, a prostitute. Joel and Lana quickly run afoul of Guido the Killer Pimp, and find themselves needing to come up with a large amount of cash. So they turn Joel’s house into a brothel for one night while Joel’s parents are still away. Of course, that just happens to be the night the Princeton representative comes to interview Joel.


Things ultimately turn out well for Joel, but that payoff is fairly unsatisfying. Was there really ever any doubt that Joel, given his privilege and status, would win the big prize? Sure, maybe it wasn’t via the path Joel (or his parents) would have imagined, but still…. could the story have ended any other way?

Dope (2015) 

For many high schoolers, going away to college is just as much about the need to get away from home, as it is about getting an education or getting on the path to a new career. Malcolm and his two best friends (Jib and Diggy) face a variety of challenges and stresses in their daily lives. Their neighborhood isn’t great, so drug dealers and drug-related goings on are just another thing to be managed. Over the course of the story, Malcolm uses his greatest strengths — his intelligence and his confidence — to get himself and his friends out of a serious jam, and to make the strongest possible Harvard application.


Dope is smart, interesting, unpredictable, and the valedictorian of the class of movies on this list. One of the great things about Dope is that there’s very little dramatic tension in whether our protagonist, Malcolm, is going to get into a top college — he has top SAT scores and straight A’s on his report card. Sure he might not get into his top choice school (Harvard), but even if that doesn’t happen, what’s his consolation prize? Columbia or Princeton? (Gee, that’s tough….) Still, there’s plenty of excitement in watching the story play out.

Dope shows us how young men and women can take charge of themselves and their futures, without having to compromise who they really are.

Superbad (2007) 

The transition from high school to college is exciting because you can count on having the opportunity to meet tons of new people, and possibly make a new set of friends that you’ll have for the rest of your life. Of course, that means you’ll end up leaving behind some of your closest high school friends. That makes for a melancholy story, right? Nope. Superbad is damn funny.


Seth plans to head off to Dartmouth with his best friend Evan, but Evan gets in and he doesn’t. Seth is heartbroken, while Evan is relieved. Friendships are rarely completely even or balanced, and Seth is faring far worse in the friendship breakup/transition than Evan. Alcohol, crazy adventures and the prospect of hooking up are standard (perhaps overdone) fare for coming of age flicks, but they’re consistently funny, on point and sometimes even insightful here. I’m not always a fan of Seth Rogan’s writing, because it sometimes strikes me as being focused more on cheap and quick laughs than drawing interesting characters. But Superbad is honest and heartfelt.

Moving on to college is always going to be a mixture of excitement and sadness.

Real Women Have Curves (2002) 

For some reason, we haven’t seen as many movies about young women working to take the step from high school to college. Is it because their stories aren’t necessarily going to involve drunken hook-ups, drug dealers, fake IDs and other hi-jinks like the other movies here? Beyond all that, what really happens when a young person goes off to college? For most students, they’ll be exposed to entirely new ways of thinking and living.

Once they’re enrolled at a college or university, the influence of the family, and the traditional ways of doing things, is at it’s lowest. Real Women Have Curves lets us see what happens to those complex family relationships. Unfortunately, many parents (whether they admit it to themselves or not) are fearful of the day their kids leave for school. Some parents even discourage their kids from trying to get that college degree.


When children become young adults, their parents lose something important in terms of their family structure and their routines. They also need to reevaluate their own identities. If you’re no longer a parent raising a child or a teenager, then who are you?

Admission (2013)

Admission promises us some insight into the college entry process, through the eyes of a Princeton admissions officer (Tina Fey) whose life has just been thrown for a loop. She gets dumped by her longtime patronizing boyfriend, and meets Jeremiah — a prospective applicant who might be the son she gave up for adoption right after he was born.

So what do we learn about the process? It’s flawed, corruptible, and subject to petty internal politics and horsetrading. Unfortunately, the applicants themselves are seemingly an incidental part of the process. They’re just stereotypical overachievers that we see as five second caricatures. We do get to learn a little bit about Jeremiah, but even he is too one dimensional for us to care very much about.


The story is a mish-mash of comedy, drama and romance, but none of the story lines is particularly compelling on its own, and taken together they don’t add up to much more. There are plenty of scenes throughout Admission that are good, but they don’t build any momentum or develop into anything more.

The takeaway from Admission seems to be that there are a lot of bad parents out there. Maybe that’s why so many high school students are basket cases when it comes time to try to get into college.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.