Ethical College Admissions: Ready for My Close-Up

Portrayals of college admissions in popular culture do matter, writes Jim Jump.

November 12, 2018

Many television series today employ technical advisers to review scripts for realism. That’s not a new phenomenon. The character actor George Kennedy, best known for his performances in Cool Hand Luke and the Naked Gun movies, supposedly got his show-business start in the 1950s as a technical adviser for the comedy Sergeant Bilko.

In police procedurals, the technical adviser assures that actors who look like fashion models talk and act like street detectives or federal field agents. In medical dramas, the technical adviser makes sure that those playing doctors pronounce “stat” correctly and that a minor character’s cough before the first commercial break is a plausible symptom of the rare and exotic disease he or she is diagnosed with in the third act.

The newest twist in technical advisers is the intimacy coordinator. HBO now employs an intimacy coordinator on any show that has sex scenes to ensure standards and protect the actors and actresses. The news producer and actress Margaret Judson, who played a minor character (my favorite) on the series The Newsroom, recently wrote an article for The New York Times detailing her experiences working with an intimacy coordinator while playing a prostitute on the HBO series The Deuce.

Do we need technical advisers not only for sex scenes but also for scenes having to do with the college admission process? Should any television show where a character is applying to college employ a technical adviser with intimate knowledge of how college admission actually works?

Last week my wife and I were watching the CBS drama Madam Secretary, a show starring Téa Leoni as a female secretary of state (a concept that sounds vaguely familiar). Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord is wise, principled and diplomatic -- in other words totally unqualified for the job as it exists in the real world.

In last week’s episode, Secretary McCord and her husband, a professor of religion who is also an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, are discussing protocol and cultural norms for Thailand, where he is about to attend a conference, and trying to decide how to break it to their three children that she is going to run for president (“ripped from yesterday’s headlines”) when their son, the youngest child, yells from downstairs, “Mom and Dad, my college counselor is here.”

That piqued my attention. A college counselor who makes house calls?

In the next scene the boy and parents are gathered in the living room with the college counselor. She says that despite her reservations about the boy’s personal statement on sea turtles (which he claims is a metaphor for the progressive movement in a time of rising fascism), his improving grades and perfect SAT scores have resulted in three acceptances with merit scholarships. She lays out three packets that look like the itineraries that travel agents give you when you have booked a trip (at least what travel agents on television give out). Northwestern and Vassar are offering 30 percent, while Vanderhof is offering half tuition. She closes by encouraging him to do some more research, because the deadline to decide is 5 p.m. on Thursday.

I sat through the scene with the mantra “It’s only TV! It’s only TV!” running through my head. But I wonder what messages the entertainment industry sends impressionable students and parents with depictions of the college search and admissions processes, and I wonder if we as a profession should be more vigilant in combating falsehoods about college admission. Is it time for a College Admissions Anti-Defamation League?

Let’s deconstruct the Madam Secretary scene from a college counseling perspective, beginning with the appearance of the “college counselor” at the front door. She is not identified other than as “my college counselor,” but the fact that she is making a house call suggests that she is an independent educational consultant rather than a school counselor. I don’t see that as a major issue, although I know that those on both sides of the school/independent divide can get heated about the other.

My only concern is if viewers think the message is that one has to hire an outside consultant. I don’t know where Elizabeth McCord’s son goes to high school, but if it’s one of the D.C.’s independent schools, he already has access to outstanding college counseling. Counselors in public schools may be overworked and dealing with counseling loads that are too big, but I have never met one who wasn’t anxious to help a student.

The bigger issue is that the college counselor comes bearing news about acceptances and scholarships. That has no basis in reality. Wouldn’t the student be informed directly by the college rather than through the college counselor? That scene reinforces the suburban legend that college counselors function as agents, negotiating deals for their clients.

The counselor also tells the student to remember that he has to make a decision by 5 p.m. on Thursday. It’s not clear what time of year it is when the episode takes place, but that makes no sense. If Thursday happens to be May 1 then the student would have until midnight to make a deposit, and the acceptances and scholarship offers should have been made a month earlier to give the student appropriate time to weigh his options. If not we have a violation of the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. Both Northwestern and Vassar would know that; as a fictional institution, Vanderhof may not be a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

That raises another issue. Hollywood’s depiction of the college admissions process almost always promotes the myth of prestige, the idea that one has to go to an “elite” college. Just once could we have a teenager from a network drama attend the College of Wooster or Montana State or the University of Scranton?

It would be bad enough if the Madam Secretary treatment of college admission was an outlier. But it happens all the time, not even including over-the-top teen dramas like Gossip Girl, where all the main characters go to an open house at Yale and are invited to a cocktail party sponsored by the dean of admission where their clever banter results in admission on the spot.

Friday Night Lights, believed by many critics to be one of the candidates for best drama in the history of television, has a number of college admission plotlines that misrepresent how college admission actually works. One student’s story arc includes working as a waitress at Applebee’s, killing a customer who tries to assault her and running off with a rodeo cowboy. Despite a lousy transcript and the Texas top 7 percent rule, she gets admitted to UT-Austin after she walks into the admissions office without an appointment and begs for a chance. Perhaps Fisher v. Texas focused on the wrong kind of affirmative action.

In the same series, star Connie Britton starts out as the wife of a high school football coach who hasn’t worked for 15 years, becomes a school counselor without any training, then after attending an “Admissions Directors Conference” and offering the original insight that standardized testing is flawed (proving that the event is not sponsored by the College Board or ACT) finds herself hired as the dean of admission at selective Braemore College in the Northeast (most likely a peer school to Vanderhof).

The good news is that writers and producers see college admission as worthy of story lines. The bad news is that depictions of college admission may not contribute to an accurate understanding of how admission works. Hiring a technical consultant to review college admission-related content will fix that.

My agent awaits your calls.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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