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Artistic License – University Admissions

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In the United States, university admissions are a long, tedious process, and involve a lot of hard work filling out forms and sending supporting documents, waiting, and even more hoping and praying.

In fiction, it involves a lot of things that wouldn't happen in Real Life, including the colleges ignoring their own standards, school officials (other than the Admissions Committee) directly intervening in student's admissions process, subjective decisions, improbable or downright impossible financial aid offers, bizarre timetables, and a lot of hijinks and chicanery on the part of the applicants that would get them summarily turned down or possibly even arrested (in the case of depictions of applicants committing fraud).

This trope can work in a variety of ways, including:

  • A character successfully pulls a wacky stunt or confronts an admissions officer with a "No More Holding Back" Speech to get into the university of their dreams. In real life, this will get you summarily rejected and (depending on what the stunt was) possibly arrested and barred from that university.
  • A high-ranking admissions officer or professor makes all admissions decisions personally, up to and including one-on-one interviews with applicants. While this may be the case for some tiny schools, most well-known schools receive thousands of applications, and direct contact between applicants and admissions officers is discouraged to preserve the appearance of impartiality.
  • A character who isn't an athlete is offered a spot at a prestigious school without applying at all because they were 'scouted' by an official who saw them run or play ball. While students with high grades may receive letters from prestigious schools persuading them to apply, they're never directly given a spot in the school unless they're an athlete.
  • A character gets into a prestigious school with terrible grades and only one reference. Most good schools require multiple references and high grades and will reject any incomplete applications. The most prestigious schools reject students with poor grades without even looking at the rest of their applications.
  • A character with decent or mediocre grades can't get into any school, including community colleges, for-profit schools, or state universities with open admission.
  • A school has specific, bizarre, or arbitrary admissions criteria that one couldn't reasonably expect a student to meet through regular schoolwork, or which would fall afoul of legal rules.
  • A character hinges all of their hopes on one competitive scholarship and/or highly-selective school, with no Plan B or "backup school" to speak of.
  • A character learns about their admission/rejection far later than most schools give said results (especially if it's right before school starts, to add drama). In real life, unless you applied early, most notification dates are in late March or early April.
  • The story implies that a poor character's only hope for attending college is winning a full-ride scholarship, as if there aren't also loans, need-based grants, work-study programs, and/or attending a two-year college for an associates degree then transferring to a four-year school.

Remember, university admissions processes are different all over the world. This is primarily about United States university admissions, but some of the worst abuse of this trope happens when American media tries to portray foreign universities. For example, in the UK there are processes known as "pooling"note  and "clearing"note  that would be seen as massive violations of admissions policy in America.

A Sub-Trope of Artistic License – Education, which refers to education in general being portrayed inaccurately in fiction. Ivy League for Everyone is a subtrope. See also On One Condition.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In the manga Alice The101st, a prestigious music school that only admits one hundred students a year bends its own rules to admit a violin prodigy who cannot read music, has never had a violin lesson and doesn't even know how to hold his instrument properly. They do this at the insistence of one faculty member, who is then incapacitated before he can tell anyone why "Alice" is an exception. It shouldn't have to be stated that, if an exception for admission is made without a reason, said admission will be revoked as soon as possible.

  • In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods submits a video application instead of the requested essay, allowing the Harvard Law admissions committee to see how pretty she is. And it works. This is subverted when we find out that she had near-perfect LSAT scores and a 4.0 GPA, which would have most likely have gotten her in anyways.note 
  • Accepted lampshades this, since the whole student body of the fake school was rejected for one reason or another from legitimate universities, but one of the characters mentions several times throughout the film just how illegal and crazy their actions are. In the end, it saves them, since he applied for accreditation in case something happened.
  • Big Hero 6 is a multiple offender:
    • Hiro goes through way too much trouble to get into SF Institute of Technology. Given that he's an academics and robotics prodigy who graduated high school at the age of 14, most schools would be practically begging him to attend (though given his lack of desire, it's quite possible that there was already an attempt at recruitment that he either ignored or turned down).
    • Individual professors don't typically hand out admission letters to random people on the street. Even if the letter was just a token of Professor's promise to lobby for a person before the school, it would be rather juvenile of a serious college to make such a token look like an admissions letter at first glance. While it's possible that the expo Hiro demonstrated at has the first prize of being accepted specifically into Callaghan's program at SFIT, this is never clarified in the film.
  • At the end of Undefeatable, Kristy reveals she enrolled a bunch of friendly neighborhood gang kids to college without their knowledge, and she says that classes start tomorrow - all of which is played for laughs. Even with the assumption that they all either had good school records or got enrolled in a community college that must accept all applicants who meet their minimum scholastic requirements, there are a couple of problems with this scenario:
    • Applying in place of another person would not be legally binding and may be outright fraud.
    • Universities have set application periods, usually months before the start of the semester where you would begin studies if accepted. Unless Kristy had put this plan into motion months before the film takes place and it just happens to be the beginning of the semester at the end (not to mention signing up for courses), going to classes the next day is complete bull.
    • Unless she falsified their addresses on the paperwork, the kids should have received several bits of official correspondence from the school; at the very least, they'd have gotten financial aid information, application packets and an acceptance letter, and a packet of information about registration (and depending on the school, there might have been more than those).

  • Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed both refer to villain Jack Hyde as having won a scholarship to Princeton University because he was bright. Princeton does not give any scholarships based on talents or academic achievement, and they even say so right in their FAQ:
    Do you give scholarships for academic merit, special talents, or athletic ability?
    No. All financial aid awards are based solely on need.
  • Several reviewers of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life have found it odd that the Harvard admissions office cares so much about Opal's social life; while Harvard and other tertiary institutions often do look at prospective students' extracurricular activities and so on, it seems unlikely they'd care much about how popular Opal is and whether she has a boyfriend.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In season five of Parks and Recreation, April has decided to go to veterinarian school without any references from actual veterinarians, any practical experience, or even the mandatory prerequisite classes. This is particularly jarring because veterinarian school is generally considered to be one of the most difficult to get into (even more so than law schools and medical schools), so people who want to be veterinarians need to be making decisions accordingly when they're still in high school. She might be able to get into veterinarian tech school with minimal baseline prerequisites, but that's a very different prospect.
  • One episode of Home Improvement has the eldest son put together a dreadful application video for college, though a heavily-edited version made by his brother gets sent instead. Most colleges don't require an application video except for special circumstances, so the eldest son shouldn't have needed to send one in the first place.
  • In Gossip Girl, Yale rejects Blair (a straight-A student with excellent references and a number of extracurriculars) in favor of Serena (who has so-so grades and no references or extracurriculars mentioned) because they want more "it girls" — apparently, being on page six is more important to Gossip Girl's Yale than being a good student.
  • Dear god, where to start with Glee?
    • Kurt and Rachel focus exclusively on the highly selective NYADA (the fictional New York Academy of Dramatic Arts) with no plan B for either of them. When Kurt initially fails to get in, he resigns himself to attending community college in Lima, as if he's not aware that there are hundreds of public universities with high-quality theater and fashion programs.
    • Finn bases his goals on a football scholarship to Ohio State University, with his plan B being Pace University, home of Inside the Actors Studio, despite being way out of his league. Predictably, both of these fail. To Finn's credit, he does attend university in-state... for all of one day.
    • Carmen Thibideaux, the new dean of NYADA's music department, travels across the country to hand-pick her inaugural class. When Rachel is initially rejected after choking during her audition, the lengths she goes to get Thibideaux to change her mind would have resulted in her being banned from the college in the real world.
    • Lauren applies for a wrestling scholarship at Harvard. Not only are all Ivy League schools prohibited from awarding athletic scholarships, but Harvard has never sponsored women's wrestling as a varsity sport, and not a single college that was a member of NCAA Division I had a varsity women's wrestling program until 2018 (granted, several Division II and Division III members had previously done so, but Division III also doesn't allow athletic scholarships), and the NCAA didn't recognize wrestling as an "emerging sport" for women until 2020.
    • MIT invites Brittany to attend in the middle of the second semester due to her supposedly-untapped math genius. The writers must have realized how ridiculous this was, as they had MIT admit they were making a special exception to their admission practices for her. note 
    • Most maddening is that not only do Rachel, Kurt, and Finn all apply absurdly late and receive their admission letters days before graduation, but none of the kids even think of going to school long-term in their home state of Ohio, which has over a dozen public universitiesnote  and several prestigious private ones.
  • In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode "Alma Matter", Will meets with a Princeton recruiter after Uncle Phil insists. The recruiter points out that "[his] scores are mediocre, [his] grades would make an impressive batting average, and [his] extracurricular activities are non-existent." On his way out, just for giggles, Will grabs a Rubik's cube off the desk and solves it in seconds... and the recruiter ends up begging him to attend Princeton. Meanwhile, Carlton tries acting like Will at his own interview, which doesn't impress the recruiter, despite him pointing out that "[his] scores are topnotch and [his] grades couldn't be better." So Will gets in because of a Rubik's cube, while Carlton is blown off by acting exactly like Will. This situation also ignores the "legacy admissions" system many universities have, of offering preferential admission to the children (and occasionally other relatives) of their alumni — and Princeton's is one of the strongest, with about 30% of legacy applicants admitted, compared to 7.4% of non-legacy applicants.
  • Occurs in the Saved by the Bell episode "SATs". Zack, who's lucky to never repeat a grade and only takes up extracurriculars for plot points that are never brought up again, scored a 1502 on the SAT and the "Stansbury" recruiter wants to eat him up. Meanwhile, Jessi's had one B in her life and has an impressive list of extracurricular activities, but when she scores a 1205 on the SAT, she gets the cold shoulder from the recruiter. In reality, while SATs are taken into account, they're not the only thing taken into account - they also look for overall school grades and extracurriculars, in case the SAT scores were a fluke. (Not to mention that the stated scores are impossible in real life; the SAT is scored in 10-point increments.)
    • Going along with this, during the series finale we find out that Zack got into Yale, as his mom made him apply after he did so well on the SAT. No school, particularly an Ivy, would admit someone solely based on their SAT scores. They want students who will keep their grades up and make the school look good, and someone who's Brilliant, but Lazy does jack-squat for their numbers.
  • In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we briefly see SHIELD's super-secret academy for their research division, where Fitz and Simmons had their training. Apparently, you have to have a PhD to even be considered, but every single student we see is in their late teens or early 20's. While it's implied that they purposefully scout out gifted young people from all over the world, it's still a very unwieldy setup that is only discussed in vague terms. This is especially bizarre because SHIELD is a security agency, not a science institute, and neither Tony Stark (the genius son of one of SHIELD's founders, albeit a spoiled playboy) nor Bruce Banner (the genius nuclear physicist) were ever scouted by the university.
  • In Smallville, Lana Lang gets into a Parisian art school out of the blue near the end of season three, despite never having been shown doing anything art-related. In reality, almost all art schools accept students based on interviews and portfolios, so it's unlikely Lana would have been able to get into a presumably prestigious academy just by application and nothing else.
  • Variously handled in the different incarnations of Degrassi:
    • In School’s Out, the tying-up-loose-ends movie conclusion to the original series, Caitlin contemplates a last-minute change in universities and justifies it with her also being accepted there. In reality, university acceptance is not an unlimited-time thing, as students have to declare their intention to attend several months before the semester starts.
    • Subverted with Anya in The Next Generation. She's rejected everywhere she applies, but she manages to get a second-chance interview with one admissions official... and she blows the interview because she was high. Instead, she tries to join the Army — and can't join because she failed the drug test.
    • Holly J. worries that she won’t be able to afford Yale after her family has financial setbacks. Yale's financial aid is 100% need-based and was famously one of the first Ivy League schools to do this.
  • Beverly Hills, 90210 is filled with this:
    • Steve has terrible grades, a Book Dumb personality, and only has one reference from his principal. Additionally, he broke into his school's computer system to change his grades (admittedly with the help of a Black and Nerdy freshman) and was temporarily expelled from West Beverly High for the incident. Judging by the frequent remarks by other characters, California University (which is the actual name of the school) is supposed to be a very hard school to get into. And Steve somehow gets accepted. The only explanation that would make any sense is if CU has a ridiculously strong "legacy" system in place, since his father is an alumnus.
    • Ditto for non-studious students like Kelly, Donna, and Brenda. While this is somewhat justified if you consider the fact that many of them are wealthy and have connections to the schools they want to attend, it typically takes more than just connections to get into the school they want.
    • Brenda entered the same school after leaving the University of Minnesotanote  earlier in season 4. Even if she was accepted to CU earlier, classes had already started at that school, so it doesn't really make sense since Brenda should've at least applied for late admission (though no such mechanics are ever mentioned).
  • In Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm gets into Harvard. While he has the grades and extracurricular achievements to get into any well-respected school, one like Harvard would be far out of his reach. He has a criminal record, has been suspended from school, and has received countless other disciplinary citations, which would look very bad on an application.

  • Elle Woods does this in a different way in Legally Blonde: The Musical. She shows up at the Harvard Law admissions office while they're looking at her application to present a huge dance number and an equally huge guilt trip until they agree to accept her. In real life, trying to manipulate an admissions officer into accepting an application would get said application rejected almost immediately.

    Video Games 
  • In Paper Chase, the player character walks in, fills in some forms, and gets registered as a student on the spot. Obviously, the actual acceptance process for any college takes months before applicants become enrolled.
  • One of the story missions in the handheld version of The Urbz involves the player character trying to enroll in the local university to be able to take skill classes. The conversation that initiates the mission in question mentions how classes have already begun so it's way too late to do it via the regular enrollment process, so he or she ends up being able to attend by... writing a thesis for one of the professors there and getting appointed as a research assistant. Slightly downplayed, as the protagonist still has to pay to attend (though each lesson is paid for individually).

    Visual Novels 
  • In Amy's epilogue in Double Homework, the protagonist and Amy wait until after graduation to decide which colleges to apply to. In real life, admissions decisions for the fall semester have long been made by this time.

  • In Marco And Marty Marco's father wins ten years of free tuition for his son to the University of Illinois in a game of high stakes Egyptian Rat Screw with one of the deans. In reality, free tuition is only done under special circumstances (like being top of your class or winning a scholarship), needs to be planned in advance, and cannot be handed out on a whim.

    Web Original 
  • In Video Game High School, the protagonist Brian D gets accepted to the school after he (surprisingly) defeats their star student "The Law" in an online match. This is not even remotely close to how any college accepts their students, as all colleges require applicants to submit something in order to get accepted.

    Western Animation 
  • In Gravity Falls, a character's admission to a prestigious university hinges entirely on a single science fair project that he presents personally to an admissions officer. When the project doesn't work as planned due to an act of accidental sabotage from the character’s brother, the officer rejects the student immediately without looking at any of the student's documentation of his work or giving him a chance to explain what went wrong. Despite being an academic prodigy and a lover of science, the student in question didn't apply to any other good schools, or even seriously consider going to college until the principal had him brought to his office to tell him the admissions officials of this one particular school were coming the next day to personally see his experiment, and give him a pamphlet about the school. As a result, the student is realistically forced to go to a far less prestigious school instead.
  • In the Phineas and Ferb future episode, Act Your Age, when Isabella is leaving for college, Phineas hasn't decided where he's going to college. That very same day, he decides to go to the same school as her. In reality, even for schools with high acceptance rates, he would’ve still had to register and pay tuition months in advance to secure his spot at the school. Additionally, even if he did already get accepted to that college, he’d have had to accept their offer of acceptance well in advance in order to attend.
  • The Simpsons: In one episode, Marge applies to a community college and needs the art professor to review her portfolio before being allowed to enroll. Community colleges don't require art portfolios at all - this is typically done by art schools.

Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence University Admissions