Reality Check: Your College Experience Will Not Be Like The Movies

Mattie Kahn is an undergraduate at Harvard University, class of 2015. She is passionate about social justice, sustainability, and her hair.
I got my first taste of college life courtesy of Legally Blonde. The movie opens to find the inimitable Elle Woods primping for her make-it-or-break-it date with Warner Huntington, III. College appears as a tree-lined place studded with Jacuzzis, pigtails, and people who wear Baby-G watches without irony. Hoku’s one-hit-wonder, “Perfect Day,” is the soundtrack to your life. Studying seems an extra-curricular activity making an appearance somewhere between your sorority sisters and Spring Break plans, on your list of priorities. I couldn’t wait to get there.
Fast forward. College, as I’m now experiencing it, bears little resemblance to Elle’s experience as the president of Delta Nu. We don’t debate the cost-effectiveness of Charmin versus generic. It has been suggested that my dorm’s bathroom is stocked with ¼-ply toilet paper. We play hard, sure. But we study enough to make up for it. And the vast majority of my fellow co-eds are not orchestrating engagements to their respective partners.
As an audience, we don’t count on Hollywood to tell the truth. In fact, we expect it to manufacture our most beloved fantasies. But when it comes to painting a picture of the Best Four Years of Your Life, it seems the movie-making business takes a particularly skewed approach.

Myth #1: Good Will Hunting

In 1997, Good Will Hunting claimed that we could master everything we would go on to learn in college for the grand total of $1.50 in late fees at the public library. If college were only about what we learned within the confines of two covers, Will Hunting would be right. But, as anyone who has celebrated Hallo-Week where Halloween used to suffice knows, the college experience isn’t all about flash cards or existential papers. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!) It’s about roommates, relationships, mentors, dining hall disasters, the parties you go to, the ones you skip in favor of pajamas and popcorn, and above all, friends.


Myth #2: Love Story

An epic (and epically maudlin) romance is brought to life (and then spoiler alert: death) by Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in the 1970 college flick, Love Story. Traversing snowy quads and social classes to be together, the pair falls deeply, saccharinely in love. And sure, while the movie might be fibbing a little when it suggests that MacGraw’s perfect, lush hair is even remotely attainable in Cambridge’s strand-frying winter weather, its real crime lies in spawning this lame excuse: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Nowhere is this pathetic, enabling maxim less relevant than in college, where drama runs high and whimpering is generally frowned upon. My sincerest apologies, Jennifer Cavilleri, but to quote John Lennon, “Love means having to say you’re sorry every 15 minutes.”


Myth #3: Accepted

Let’s start by pointing out the obvious: Justin Long and Blake Lively? Suspect. And never mind that no Board of Education would approve the existence of a school whose acronym spells SHIT, much less one with a curriculum that boasts “Bumper Stickers,” “Doing Nothing,” and “Walking Around Thinking About Stuff” as legitimate classes.


Oddly enough, of all the half-baked representations of campus existence — remember Animal House? Sydney White? The House Bunny? — Accepted’s version rings truest. For most of us, college really is a process of discovery. Fun fact: Did you know that a lighter roast of coffee has higher levels of caffeine than your favored inky, bold brew?

While students, we take classes under the banner heading of “Theoretical Linguistics” or “Philosophy During the Enlightenment.” And sometimes we do nothing at all, and it’s those afternoons of sloth that we remember and relish most. Your parents may have slapped a bumper sticker touting your chosen institution on the family car, but that window cling does about as thorough a job of describing what school is really like as the studio heads in L.A. do.
The movies may have stretched the truth, but they didn’t pull a total Pinocchio. South Harmon Institute of Technology (SHIT, naturally) flaunted “Walking Around Thinking About Stuff” as a semester offering. In 2008, at Centre College, in Kentucky, Professor Ken Keffer taught a class that he called “The Art of Walking.” When do we enroll?

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