In real life, university admissions are a long, tedious process, and involve a lot of waiting, a lot of hard work, 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, improbable or downright impossible financial aid, 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.
This trope can work in a variety of ways, including:
- A character pulls a wacky stunt or confronts an admissions officer with a "World of Cardboard" Speech to get into the university of their dreams. In real life this will get you summarily rejected and possibly arrested.
- A high-ranking admissions officer or professor makes all admissions decisions personally, conducting one-on-one interviews with applicants. Most well-known schools receive thousands to tens of thousands of applications, and direct contact between applicants and admissions officers is discouraged to preserve the appearance of impartiality.
- A character is offered a spot at a prestigious school without applying at all, because they were 'scouted' by an official, especially when the character isn't an athlete (the only time this happens regularly).
- A character gets into a prestigious school with terrible grades and only one reference. Most schools require multiple references and reject incomplete applications without even looking at them.
- A character with average grades can't get into any school, not even community colleges, for-profit schools, or state universities that admit everyone.
- A school has specific, bizarre, or arbitrary admissions criteria that one couldn't reasonably expect a student to meet through regular schoolwork.
- A character hinges all of their hopes on one competitive scholarship and/or one highly-selective school, with no Plan B to speak of.
- A character learns about their admission/rejection at an unusual time of year. (Unless you applied early, most notification dates are in late March or early April).
And remember, university admissions processes are different all over the world. This list is very America-centric, but some of the worst abuses of this trope are when American media try to portray foreign universities. For example, in the UK there are processes known as "pooling" and "clearing" that would be seen as massive violations of admissions policy in America. Respectively, they are: Oxford and Cambridge applicants who were rejected being entered into a pool for another college to look at their application and offer a place, and 'clearing up the last university spots' a month prior to the start of the academic year for students who didn't apply to literally just call up universities advertising places remaining and ask for them.
- In the manga Alice the 101st, a prestigious music school that only admits one hundred students a year bends its own rules to admit a "violinist" 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.
- In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods submits a video application, rather than the requested essay, allowing the Harvard Law admissions committee to see how pretty she is. It works.
- Then again, her near-perfect LSAT scores and 4.0 GPA would most likely have gotten her in anyway.
- Actual college admissions officers have commented that given her otherwise near-perfect academics, the video would have made her seem different than the piles of personality-challenged resumes they wade through, thus assuring her admittance.
- 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. Being an academics and robotics prodigy, they would be almost begging him to attend.
- Given his lack of desire, it's quite possible that there was already an attempt at recruitment that he ignored or turned down. As well, there are plenty of other robotics geniuses seen at the expo.
- Individual professors don't typically hand out admission letters to people from the street. It's possible that the letter was just a token of Professor's promise to lobby for a person before the school. However, it would be rather juvenile of a serious college to make such token look like an admission letter.
- It's likely that the expo Hiro demonstrated at has the first prize of being accepted to SFIT and into Callaghan's program specifically.
- Hiro goes through way too much trouble to get into SF Institute of Technology. Being an academics and robotics prodigy, they would be almost begging him to attend.
- At the end of Undefeatable the main character Kristy reveals she enrolled a bunch of friendly neighborhood gang kids to college, completely without their knowledge, which is played for laughs. Then she says classes start tomorrow. Presuming they all had good enough previous school records or that she's talking about a community college that must accept all applicant who meet their minimum scholastic requirements, there's at least a couple of problems with this scenario:
- Applying in place of another person would at the very least not be legally binding, if not 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 would have received several bits of official correspondence from the school; at the very least, they'd have gotten financial aid information and application packets and an acceptance letter, as well as a packet of information about registration. Depending on the school, there might have been many more than those three.
- 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 non-need-based scholarships. It says 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. Learn more about how aid is assigned in the Undergraduate Financial Aid Information and Application Instructions.
- In season five of Parks and Recreation, April has decided to go to vet school without any references from actual vets, any practical experience that we know of, or possibly even the mandatory prereq classes (biology, chemistry, math, and so on). This is particularly jarring because vet school is generally one of the most difficult to get into — even more so than law schools and med schools. Kids who want to be vets need to be making decisions accordingly when they're still in high school. She might get into vet 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. Thankfully, a heavily-edited version made by his brother gets sent instead.
- On Gossip Girl Yale rejects Blair (straight-A student with excellent references and a number of extracurriculars) in favor of Serena (so-so grades, no references or extracurriculars mentioned) because they want more "it girls". Apparently being on page six is more important to Yale than being a good student.
- Glee...dear gods where to start? Most maddening is how none of the kids even think of going to school in Ohio, which has over a dozen public universities and several prestigious private ones.
- 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 Ohio has over a dozen public universities—all of which have theater programs and Kent State has a renowned fashion school—that he could have attended instead.
- Finn bases his goals on a football scholarship to Ohio State University. When that fails, his next goal is Pace University, home of Inside the Actors Studio, despite being way out of his league, which predictably fails too. To Finn's credit, he does briefly attend university in Ohio. 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. And 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 a restraining order in the real world.
- It doesn't help that Rachel, Kurt, and Finn all apply absurdly late and receive their admission letters days before graduation.
- Lauren applies for a wrestling scholarship at Harvard, despite the fact that Ivy League schools have been prohibited from awarding athletic scholarships since at least 1945. And that's just for starters. Harvard has never sponsored women's wrestling, at least not as a varsity sport. In fact, anyone care to venture a guess as to how many NCAA Division I members had varsity women's wrestling programs when Glee aired its final episode in 2015? We'll make it simple for you: none. It wasn't until 2018 that Presbyterian College, a small South Carolina school, became the first D-I member to sponsor it. (Several D-II and D-III members had previously done so, but D-III also doesn't allow athletic scholarships.) Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has yet to recognize women's wrestling as an official sport, even as an "emerging sport" for women.
- MIT inviting Brittany to attend in the middle of the second semester due to her supposed untapped math genius. At least they admit to making a special exception to their admission practices for her. In reality, this was to write out the newly-pregnant Heather Morris, so some Artistic License is justified.
- In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode "Alma Matter," Will meets with a Princeton recruiter after Uncle Phil insists. He flat-out states that he doesn't care about Princeton and is only there under duress. The recruiter isn't surprised: "Your scores are mediocre, your grades would make an impressive batting average, and your extracurricular activities are non-existent. Unless one counts detention, in which case you lead the league." On his way out, just for giggles, Will grabs a Rubik's cube off the desk and solves it in seconds. The recruiter ends up begging him to attend Princeton. Desperate to get in himself, Carlton tries acting like Will at his own interview, which...doesn't impress the recruiter: "Mr. Banks, you're nothing like what I expected. Your scores are topnotch and your grades couldn't be better...Unfortunately, at this time Princeton doesn't accept the clinically insane...Close the door on your way out." So Will, who's a total screwup, gets in because of a Rubik's cube, and Carlton, who's spent his entire academic career getting top grades and participating in carefully selected extracurricular activities, 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 sometimes, 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.
- In the Saved by the Bell episode "SATs," Jessi scores a 1205 on the SAT and gets the cold shoulder from the "Stansbury" recruiter. Zack scored a 1502 and the recruiter wants to eat him up. Meanwhile, Jessi's had one B in her life and has an impressive list of extracurricular activities. Zack? He's lucky he never had to repeat a grade, and the only time he ever took up an extracurricular was for the occasional plot point, after which it was never mentioned again.
- Going along with this, during the series finale we find out that Zack got into Yale—his mom made him apply after he did so well on the SAT. No school, particularly an Ivy League, is that short-sighted. They want students who will keep their grades up and make the school look good. Brilliant, but Lazy does absolutely jack for their numbers. And if Zack were that brilliant, he could have easily gotten A's and B's just by skating.
- 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. Despite this, every single student we see is in their late teens or early 20's. It's implied that they purposefully scout out gifted young people from all over the world, but 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) nor Bruce Banner (the genius nuclear physicist) were ever apparently scouted by the university. At least in Tony's case it makes sense that they'd want to avoid a spoiled playboy.
- 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 Schools Out, the tying-up-loose-ends movie conclusion to the original series, Caitlin contemplates a last-minute change in universities, justifying it with I was accepted here too. In reality, university acceptance is not open-ended: students have a limited time to declare their intention to attend.
- In The Next Generation, Anya is rejected everywhere she applies. She manages to get a second-chance interview with one admissions official—but, this being DeGrassi, she is high and blows the interview. (Interviewer: If I didnt know better, Id think you were on drugs.) Instead she tries to join the Army—and promptly fails the drug test.
- Holly J. worries that she wont be able to afford Yale after her family has financial setbacks. Apparently nobody told the writers that Yale was famously one of the first Ivy League schools to make its financial aid 100% need-based.
- In Beverly Hills, 90210, Steve gets into California University (which, in-universe, is the actual name), despite his terrible grades, his book dumb personality, and he seemed to have only one reference from his principal. Additionally, he broke into his school's computer system to change his grades (admittedly with the help with a nerdy freshman) and was actually expelled from West Beverly High for the incident (albeit temporarily). And by the frequent remarks by other characters, it seems as if California University was a very hard school to get into. About the only explanation that makes sense is the CU has a very strong "legacy" system in place, since his father is an alumnus.
- Ditto for non-studious students like Kelly, Donna, and Brenda. Fridge Brilliance could be applied, if you consider the fact that many of them are wealthy and hence have connections, though in reality, it may take more than just connections to get into the school they want.
- Also, Brenda entered the same school after leaving the University of Minnesota earlier in season 4. She may been accepted to CU earlier, though since classes had started at that school, 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 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 received countless other disciplinary citations, has very few extracurricular activities, and comes from a far-from-respectable family.
- Malcolm is valedictorian of his high school, was part of an advanced program, won a dancing championship, was both on the school newspaper and published his own magazine, been part of the Booster Club, has been part of at least one play, and has tutored other students (including his brother). The fact that he has accomplished this within his incredibly dysfunctional family would look even better.
- 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 Marco & 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 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.
- In Gravity Falls, a character's admission to a prestigious university hinges entirely on a single science fair project which he presents personally to an admissions officer. When the showpiece of the project doesn't work as planned, 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's wrong. Despite being an academic prodigy and a lover of science, the student in question had apparently not applied to any other good schools or even seriously considered going to college prior to receiving a leaflet from this on particular school.
- In Phineas and Ferb's future episode, Act Your Age, Phineas hasn't decided where he's going to college yet by the day that Isabella is leaving for college. He decides to go to the same school that day; in reality, he would have had to register and pay tuition months in advance to secure his spot at the school.