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Going to See ‘Admission’ With an Admissions Officer

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Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, a fictional admissions officer at Princeton U., in the film.

On Saturday I went to see Admission with Aundra Weissert, the super-cool associate director of admissions at Washington College, in Maryland. Although we agreed this wasn’t a great movie (“expectedly Hollywood-ized,” she says), some moments resonated with her. The best scenes captured truths about the national bellyache known as the application process.

Several details about life as an admissions officer were just right. There’s a scene in which Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), a fictional admissions officer at Princeton University, is driving to a high school she’s never visited when her navigation system goes haywire. “Everyone in admissions has a story about GPS failure,” Ms. Weissert says.

In the movie, one of Ms. Nathan’s colleagues brags about how many files she’s already read. In Ms. Weissert’s office, admissions officers must stack completed files on a couch each Thursday by noon. Ms. Weissert and her colleagues can’t help noticing who puts their stack down first. “It’s not a competition,” she says, “but it does keep you motivated.”

At high school after high school, Ms. Nathan delivers the same rah-rah speech from memory, a ritual of the recruitment trail. Ms. Weissert knows the drill. “You go in with your spiel, you’re confident, and you’re ready to go,” she says. Only you can’t script everything. Sometimes visits are difficult, like the time the whole football team showed up for Ms. Weissert’s visit, just to get out of class, and asked her a bunch of “ludicrous” questions.

Ms. Weissert’s favorite scene: A group of students, skeptical of Princeton and the value of a college degree, gives the visiting admissions officer a hard time. You’re just here, one student says, “to get more applications!” Crazy, right?

As for me, I loved the scene in which the parents of denied applicants call to vent. After hanging up, admissions officers transcribe the insults they’ve just heard on a whiteboard (the worst: “I hope you get rectal cancer”). I also enjoyed the brief cameo by Janet Rapelye, Princeton’s admissions dean in the real world.

Throughout the movie there’s some delicious mockery of the privileged. Ms. Weissert and I laughed heartily when an alumni interviewer, calling out to an applicant, says, “Good luck with the fencing finals, Sebastian!” In another scene, an admissions officer defends a legacy applicant who’s captain of his academy’s sailing team. The young man doesn’t test well, the admissions officer says, “but, oh, can he read the wind.” Pass the caviar!

Early on, Ms. Nathan gives some advice to anxious high-school students. “What’s the secret to getting in? Just be yourself,” she tells them. Those words sound as disingenuous here as they do in real life. Each year selective colleges repeat the “Be yourself” mantra even as they commission what can only be described as performances from applicants, expecting (and rewarding) virtuoso displays of smarts and talent.

Admission captures this well. When Ms. Nathan reads application essays, the authors appear on screen as she imagines them pleading their case in her office. A desperate young woman kneels, hands clasped like a beggar, and professes her love for Princeton. A cocky young man sits on her desk as he rattles off a list of his stunning achievements. And a gymnast, desperate to please, prances on the desk, pretzeling herself into impossible poses—a fitting symbol of the contortions many real-life applicants go through.

Ms. Weissert and I especially enjoyed the movie’s portrayal of admissions committee meetings, where applicants materialize as their files are discussed. One by one, the denied fall through a trap door (whoosh!). Meanwhile, the staff’s youngest admissions officer, who’s hopelessly idealistic, votes to admit every applicant. “He doesn’t think anyone can do any wrong,” Ms. Weissert says.

Early in her career, she found herself wanting to admit everyone, too. “You have to get that ear,” she says. “You kind of get numb to hearing certain things over and over.”

That’s not to say you must lose your heart. The movie’s main story line involves Ms. Nathan’s efforts to sell her colleagues on an unlikely applicant—a brilliant autodidact with a terrible grade-point average and awesome test scores. He’s an “undiscovered gem,” Ms. Nathan tells the committee. You know, the kind of kid the real-world admissions process is stacked against. When the committee rejects him, the dean, citing his poor grades, proclaims, “It’s too risky.” Ms. Nathan, crushed, finds a way to get him in anyway.

Each year, Ms. Weissert gets to know at least one or two students for whom she’s inspired to push hard. A while back, she met a quiet young man during a high-school visit who said he wanted to be a teacher. His grades weren’t so great, and he hadn’t participated in extracurricular activities because he worked part time to support himself. “I wanted to help him,” she says.

After the young man was denied admission, Ms. Weissert marched down to her boss’s office and urged him to reconsider, which, eventually, he did. The student, who will graduate from Washington College this May, is now well on his way to becoming a teacher. Recently, he stopped by Ms. Weissert’s office to share his excitement.

I thought of this story later as I recalled a memorable line from the movie. “Everyone thinks we’re sadists,” the protagonist says of admissions officers. But, really, sometimes they’re not.

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