I should start out by noting a few major differences between Portia Nathan, Princeton University’s oh-so-serious admissions officer played by Tina Fey in the movie Admission and me.
First off, my admissions experience was wholly in the MBA space as a member of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business admissions committee.
Secondly, unlike Tina Fey’s character, I was already happily married during my tenure on Tuck’s admissions committee in the mid-2000s. So during my 21 months as assistant director of admissions at Tuck, there was no romance or fall-out from an unplanned pregnancy. In fact, while many might assume I met my husband–a Tuck graduate–while working at Dartmouth, the reality is I only ended up at Tuck because we were already married when he was admitted to the MBA program.
Yet, while watching the high strung and overworked Portia Nathan in Admission, there also were times when I could see myself again sitting quietly behind a big desk overflowing with folders containing the stats and stories of anxious applicants, just as Tina Fey does in the movie that opened on Friday (March 22).
My job then—as her job is in this charming romantic comedy—was to evaluate and ultimately affirm the potential of young people. Admission is a smart and humorous movie with a number of parallels that brought a knowing smile to my face and often made me chuckle. It contains a number of insights that could be valuable to any applicant, whether to an undergraduate institution or a graduate business school.
NEVER OFFERED A BUNDT CAKE BUT I DID GET UNSOLICITED GOURMET GIFT BASKETS
At Tuck we had far fewer parents accompanying their children on campus tours or calling our offices hoping to somehow sway or influence our decision making processes. But perhaps the absence of helicopter parents was simply shifted to a large presence of extremely diligent and persistent applicants doing more of that kind of outreach on their own. While I was never offered a Bundt cake from a parent running alongside my car, I did receive a number of unsolicited gourmet gift baskets.
In the movie’s earlier scenes, viewers are treated to a fairly solid representation of just what it’s like to be an evaluator of application files. Like Fey’s character, I steadfastly believed it was best not to open a file and start reviewing it unless I knew I’d have the time and attention span to get through it all and come up with a well-reasoned recommendation. In the movie, Portia Nathan refers to this as avoiding “application interruptus.” The risk was that if I stopped half way through a file, when I returned my attention to it there would be a chance that I’d forget a salient detail or overlook some facet of the application that would have been readily apparent if I had looked at it all in one sitting.
When in the zone of reading a large pile of applicant files, I would begin to picture the applicant behind the text, creating a mental image that often helped me put a true personality or face on candidates. This echoed several clever scenes where Fey has imaginary conversations with the applicants whose files she is reviewing. They appear in her office, at the side of her big mahogany desk, making their case for admission.