College Corner: How The Film “Barbie” Sheds Light On Cracks in the Facade of Elite College Admissions

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College Corner: How The Film “Barbie” Sheds Light On Cracks in the Facade of Elite College Admissions
Rob Lamb
Portrait of Director of College Counseling Rob Lamb

What does it mean to be outstanding, extraordinary, or rare in a post-pandemic-AI era, to stand out as exceptional and worthy of admission to the most prestigious and selective colleges in the country, many of which admit fewer than ten percent of their applicants in pools of tens of thousands of qualified candidates?

Insight from the summer film sensation “Barbie”: In a marvelous monologue meant to empower and empathize with disheartened women and Barbies, human character Gloria (America Ferrera) delivers an impassioned speech that inspires them to take back their agency. 

Here is an excerpt from Gloria’s speech that reminded me of the pressures and uncertainty that college applicants may feel as they try to gain access (hope against hope) to the most selective institutions in the country: “...always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.”

Upper School students applying to college can embrace joy and gain perspective in this stressful but special time by remembering these things: 

  • "Exclusivity equals success" is a myth promulgated primarily by elite institutions and the corporate gatekeepers, directors, investors, and financiers who run them.

  • As noted in this brochure by Colleges That Change Lives, “Choosing a college because of where it ranks on a list does not take into account who you are and who you will become. College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. Finding a good fit requires time and introspection.”

  • You are more than your test scores, GPA, awards, and college admission offers, much more. You may know this intuitively and, as The Education Conservancy affirms in their Student Guidelines, these are “not measures of your self-worth.” Human achievement metrics provide helpful data for setting standards, goals, and expectations, for decision-making, professional development and advancement, etc. but they can also lead us down the paths of entitlements, narcissism, or hubris, and in the end…

  • Where you go to college is not who you’ll be in life. It’s not what defines your existence, calling, or sense of purpose. On this point also see Frank Bruni’s NY Times best-seller Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

  • Your future employers will care more about your applicable skill sets and subject mastery–what you can bring to the table to hit the ground running when you start your new job–than they will care about the reputation of the college you attended as an undergraduate. Data supports this (see graph below).

  • Adopt a growth mindset. The whole of you is greater than the sum of its parts, however fragmented you may feel on a Monday morning. You will face obstacles and failures and setbacks of all kinds and you can still decide to show up the next day and move forward with your objectives/plan. Make a plan, and try to stick with it. Try new things if that plan doesn’t work out. Be flexible and affable to that end, knowing that what you may be after is what came after you first. Believe in yourself and something greater than yourself, even if that is a support group, your friends, your cat, dog, snake, or hamster, and the bond that ties us all together.

So, as our nuanced, reflective, and courageous seniors package themselves into and prepare to submit their Early Action and Early Decision applications, I offer this short verse of poetry to the admission committee members reading, assessing, and comparing their coming-of-age stories to those of hundreds of thousands of other living and breathing teenagers seeking to stand out to Harvard, Stanford, and the like:

Note to the gatekeepers of CalTech and Brown
And other institutions of great renown,
Please forgive the snarky quasi-enlightened frown 
On the faces of “Barbie,” “Ken,” and that “Weird Barbie” clown.

Related footnote:

The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions (December 2012)

About the Study: The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace conducted a survey of 50,000 employers who hire recent college graduates in order to understand employer perceptions of the role of colleges and universities in career preparation. In the graph below (p. 24) on the “Relative Importance of Attributes in Evaluating Graduates for Hire” the attribute of “College Reputation” ranks last:

A version of this article was published in the "Galena Times" Winter 2023-2024 Issue. For a grade 8-12 student checklist and more information about Sage Ridge’s individual counseling with students and their parents and group meetings and programs on college entrance exams (ACT/SAT), college options, meeting college costs, application tips and tactics, and admission procedures, visit Sage Ridge College Counseling or contact Rob Lamb.