Why Do Book Characters Always Get Into Elite Universities? | Disillusioned High School Senior Analyzes College Admissions in YA

Harvard. Stanford. MIT. The circle of elite colleges is tantalizing for many teenagers. And for YA characters, seem to be predetermined destiny.


Harvard. Stanford. MIT. The circle of elite colleges is tantalizing for many teenagers. And for YA characters, seem to be predetermined destiny.

Maybe I’m just jealous, but they spend the entire book agonizing over boyfriend drama, going to wild parties, and sometimes even solving murders. Not one ounce of homework, but then, Harvard acceptance it is!

Let’s talk about the unrealistic depiction of college admissions in YA fiction.


Elite American College Admissions Is A Lottery

The first thing to understand is that elite American college admissions has become nothing short of a lottery. And it’s a bubble that is probably going to burst soon.

For overachieving high school students who crave success, “HYPSM” (Harvard, Yale. Princeton, Stanford, MIT) seems to be the pinnacle of achievement. Students spend months, even years perfecting essays, preparing interviews, and stacking their resumes to craft the “spike” that just might convince an admissions officer to accept them.

(To get a glimpse of the pure psychopathy and unbridled ambition of teenagers who never go outside, simply spend five minutes on the r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit)

And last year, the acceptance rates for elite US universities were the lowest they’ve ever been.

This is partly attributed to the rise of test-optional applications, and also to trend of kids applying to a larger and larger pool of universities. When my parents were applying to college, people usually applied to around 5 colleges. Now, the average is more like 10-20. And more applications = lower acceptance rates.


Some 2021 Acceptance Rates:

Harvard: 3.4%

Columbia: 3.7%

Princeton: 4%

MIT: 4%

Duke: 4.3%

Yale: 4.6%

Stanford: 4.7%

Keep in mind that for the most part, students applying to these schools are already in the top 1% of high school students with regard to standardized test scores, GPA, and extracurriculars. They can only take 3-5% of a pool already filled with the most accomplished students. This makes admissions insanely competitive.

In 2022, the rates were about the same– and some schools refused to publish their statistics. Hm.


The Disconnect From Reality

It mostly just seems like YA authors– and filmmakers for that matter— aren’t aware of the true competitiveness of US college admissions nowadays.

I’m just going to say, at the risk of turning this post into a salty r/iamverysmart rant– I worked extremely hard in high school. I did many, many extracurriculars including publishing my own iOS app, and I had a 1550+ SAT score and 4.0 GPA. I applied to many top-10 universities for computer science– but I did not get into any. That’s okay, but I did spend a lot of my life in high school studying and working on school-related things.

There are several ways in which Hollywood and the YA industry seem to be out-of-touch with the reality of college admissions, mostly with acceptance rates, but also with some other things about the process.


What about major?

Currently, your major– what you plan to study– plays a huge role in the admissions process. Kids aiming for selective universities usually decide on a major with which to apply around junior year, and the really intense ones try to craft their application around this major in order to seem more dedicated to their chosen field, and thus more appealing to colleges.

Also, every university has a different “personality.” Your academic interests play a huge role in which colleges you shoot for. You wouldn’t go to Yale to study aerospace engineering, and you wouldn’t apply to MIT for English literature. This never seems to be discussed in any of the YA novels I read.

Anyway, let’s talk about some of the YA examples of college admissions I’m talking about here. All of these examples contain SPOILERS so proceed with caution.


Bronwyn in One of Us Is Lying (*spoilers ahead*)

In Karen M. McManus’s One of Us is Lying, one of the four main characters, Bronwyn Rojas, is the stereotypical overachiever. She has her sights set on Yale and will do anything to get there.

It’s revealed during the story that her big secret is that she cheated on an AP Chemistry test to save her grade. At the end of the book, her secret comes out, but Yale still accepts her.

This would never happen in real life! If you cheated on something in the way that she did, and your college found out, there is NO way that Yale would accept you and say “oh, people make mistakes.” They have a 4% acceptance rate! They’d just move on to the next valedictorian. In fact, she’d probably be blacklisted from all the top schools.

AND, Bronwyn was involved as a suspect in a sensational murder case. You know they’d probably be even less likely to accept her after that. Sure, they found out Simon killed himself, but Bronwyn’s still going to have residual notoriety, especially now that everyone knows she lies about academics– what else did she lie about?


Peter Kavinsky in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Movie (*spoilers ahead*)

I’m sorry but how the heck does Peter get into Stanford in the movie for Always and Forever, Lara Jean? All we ever see him do is go to parties and drive Lara Jean around! And apparently the movie features Lara Jean and Peter *planning* to go to Stanford together before submitting their applications. Well, that certainly is something.

The book Always and Forever, Lara Jean is quite a bit more realistic, to be fair, with Lara Jean getting rejected from her dream school, UNC.


Aaron Samuels in Mean Girls (*spoilers ahead*)

Okay. I’m going to now drag one of my favorite movies into this post. So obviously, this isn’t a YA book, but it’s a YA movie, I guess. At the end of Mean Girls, Aaron Samuels gets into Northwestern. Northwestern is an Ivy League with a 9.3% acceptance rate. Aaron Samuels’ entire role in the movie is being the dumb jock that protagonist Cady crushes on.

The whole sideplot is that Cady, who is really good at math, begins purposefully failing her tests so that she can get Aaron to “tutor” her even though Aaron is actually really terrible at math. If you failed calculus, you’d better be a child prodigy in some other area to have even a sliver of a shot at Northwestern, I’m sorry.


Done well: Pip Fitz-Amobi in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (*spoilers ahead*)

To break up the negativity of this post, I’m going to now include an example of a realistic elite college acceptance– Pip getting into Oxford in the A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series.

I don’t know a whole lot about the UK admissions process, but Pip, with her viral podcast and fame from solving a notorious cold case, has a real admissions “spike”.

(Oh I spent way too long on A2C last year)

I’m not sure what college they’re going to make her attend in the US version of the series, as we know the publisher of this series believes Americans cannot comprehend a book set in England, but I can see Pip getting into somewhere ~elite~.

She was already characterized as brilliant and a serious overachiever. The first book even saw her doing homework for an actually realistic amount of time (wow!)

She’s also famous for solving a murder that baffled police for years. They’re going to want her. You go, Pip!


Why are YA Books Out-of-Touch?

Are authors just unaware of the admissions process? Are there rules and stipulations about name-dropping universities in your books? I’m not sure, but regardless, to me this is another manifestation of the generally unrealistic depiction of high school in fiction, a topic I could talk about for hours and which will be explored further in a subsequent post, I think.

So, do you think YA books are disconnected from reality when it comes to elite college admissions? Do you agree with any of my points? Why or why not?

Read Pages Unbound’s post on this topic


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16 comments on “Why Do Book Characters Always Get Into Elite Universities? | Disillusioned High School Senior Analyzes College Admissions in YA”

  1. Ugh, yes, this has been bothering me for YEARS! As you say, top schools are hard to get into and, the thing is, it’s not even that you need good grades, standardized test scores, etc. You can have all those things and not get in because 1) a bunch of other people with good grades are applying and 2) that’s not all schools are looking for. But America, and American YA books, insist on perpetuating this idea that if you have a 4.0 GPA and a great SAT score, you’ll get into a good school.

    People at fancy private high schools put a lot of time and money into doing interesting extracurriculars, paying for people to advise their admissions essays, getting private tutoring, etc. to get into these schools, and the thing is that often it’s known the high school has x number of slots. So everyone knows that 2 kids from their class are getting into Yale, 2 are getting into Harvard, etc. They see themselves as competing against each other, and it can be really toxic.

    If you’re not at a fancy prep school, then it’s all about other factors. Does the college band need a new tuba player? Great, you’re in. Can you pay full tuition and someone else can’t who has similar grades? Great, you’re in. And so on.

    Also it’s great to be a legacy student. A study suggested that the people with the lowest chances of getting into Harvard are actually middle class white males. Because the school has a lot of white males, but they’re all legacy kids and rich kids. If the school wants to diversify, they accept people from different backgrounds, but not white guys who aren’t connected and not paying full tuition.

    It’s this weird combination where, of course, you need to put in the time studying and doing all the right things to have a chance of acceptance, and YA books never show that, but a lot of it is also completely outside of the student’s control, and the YA books never show that either. Everyone just gets into their dream school.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 100% yes. I think might actually be worst for middle class Bay Area Asian males in computer science at the moment. The legacy admission and prep school stuff is extremely unfair. One book that kind of went into that is Admission by Julie Buxbaum, but… I really hated that book for other reasons lol
      I’m glad some people are talking about this… it really is about a lot of outside factors. besides even YA books, the college admissions system is kind of broken


  2. I absolutely adored this rant 🤣 I’ve always thought that movies in particular were incredibly unrealisitic in representing college acceptance choices, but it must be even more frustrating when you yourself are actually applying to these colleges! Working really hard and being rejected when even the dumbest fictional characters (**cough – the MC from The Kissing Booth, who is a complete idiot but somehow accepted by TWO top universities anyway 😳 – cough**) apparently have no trouble getting in must be so demoralizing! Also, I loved the additional saltiness you got in about the American publishers changing AGGGTM’s setting 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “I did many, many extracurriculars including publishing my own iOS app, and I had a 1550+ SAT score and 4.0 GPA. I applied to many top-10 universities for computer science– but I did not get into any.” Wow, if you can’t get in, who can? Honestly, I don’t know enough about these writers to speculate too accurately, but I’m willing to bet at least a higher percentage of them probably came from affluent families who were able to “persuade” the colleges to let them in even if they didn’t tick all the boxes. That or the never actually went (or tried) to do the Ivy League route so they probably have no idea what it’s actually like. Who knows? I do agree, however, that an improbably high amount of YA protags somehow end up getting into elite schools. I guess success is easy when you aren’t real xD

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There are more ‘elite’ schools beyond HYPSM or Oxbridge, but they never get representation in YA. Any of the French grandes écoles, the C9 League in China… many of which are even more elite and even more selective than the American schools, many of which American students often choose to go to.

    I think a lot of YA authors choose HYPSM or Oxbridge because they have very strong brand recognition around the world, whereas these other international elite schools lack that.

    My guess is that the authors know it’s unrealistic, but using HYPSM or Oxbridge is an easy signal to readers from around the world that the character is very smart, high achieving, top of the class. Whereas saying that they got in a top state school, or a top French school doesn’t quite deliver the same “oomph”.

    So it’s both out of touch with reality and in touch with reality at the same time, if that makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I keep thinking I should make a list of every college I see a YA protagonist apply to because the number of Ivy Leagues they attend is laughable. I understand they may have name recognition authors are relying on, but if an author made up a college and said something like, “It has one of the best nursing programs in the country” or something, I would understand that it’s a prestigious school, or why the character is so keen to be admitted. I really would like to see a handful of characters just get into regular schools, or community college, though and have that presented as something to celebrate.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I didn’t realize that acceptance rates were that low! Thats kind or terrible. I wonder if sort of the disconnect is because of our schools themselves? My Brother is a freshman in High School and his school hard core pushes “everyone needs to go to the best college ever and you are a failure if you don’t go to college” But the thing is my brother is terrible at academics. I’m all for college and went myself, but I also know college in general isn’t for everyone. My sister dropped out of college after 2 years and she now makes more than I do. She would have been better off not going to college at all and not gaining the debt associated with it. Maybe if schools would start accepting that some kids would be better off learning life skills rather than being pushed into college, then books would follow?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that is part of the problem. In my area, every kid goes to college even if they hate school, and I think there’s this unfair sort of perception that if you don’t go to college you won’t be successful, which as you said isn’t necessarily true. There’s also an idea that if you worked hard in school but you don’t get into an Ivy League you have failed, which is also unfair… but in any case I’m going to my state school with a scholarship and honors program and I’m happy with that

      Liked by 2 people

  7. You have no idea how good this post made me feel! For so many characters it’s incredibly realistic because their lifestyle doesn’t fit with one of an overachiever and they are barely said to be studying! This also happens in a lot of teen or coming of age movies and knowing how hard it is in reality, as a French student mind you, I really loved all the points you highlighted! I feel that if books/ tv shows would stop doing that, it would help students manage their expectations and have a healthier view of everything.

    Liked by 2 people

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