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March 11, 2013

Meet the Real Portia Nathan

Tina Fey may play a college official in the upcoming Hollywood film “Admission,” but what is it really like to work in a college admission office? Smith College officials share their experiences.

1 NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—This month, as movie theaters nationwide schedule the opening of “Admission,” a comedy starring Tina Fey as a Princeton University admissions officer, real-life college officials are scheduling the mailing of admission decisions to hopeful applicants.

The film, which also stars Paul Rudd, will first hit theaters on March 22, coincidentally the same day Smith College admission decisions will be sent out to first-year applicants.

“You are all interested in the secret formula for getting in,” says Fey’s character, Portia Nathan, in the film, reflecting the real anxieties of prospective college students and their parents. Indeed, much attention has been given in guidebooks and the media about how to get into the college of choice.

But “Admission” is a comedy made in Hollywood, and may not thoroughly portray the reality of a college admissions officer’s job.

“My eye doctor gave me exercises to follow,” notes Sidonia Dalby, an administrator in Smith’s admission office for 32 years, who is quoted in the guidebook “College Bound and Gagged” by Nancy W. Berk, which makes an appearance in the film. “Our eyes get tired during reading season.”

Smith admission officers are reading 4,402 first-year applications for the Class of 2017, the largest number in school history.

1Application files range from “slim”—about two dozen pages—to 50 pages, of teacher recommendations, transcripts, essays and other supporting materials. Each paper that arrives is date stamped and placed in a file affixed with a barcode so that it can be tracked. 

At least two officers read every application at Smith and, depending on a student’s interests, a faculty member may read the application, too. “Each reader brings her own experiences to the table, we interpret things in slightly different ways,” according to Karen Kristof, senior associate director of admission.

After March 22, the tables will turn and college officials will wait for May 1, the deadline for the prospective students to respond to their offers of admission. During the weeks in between, the admission office hosts events for accepted students and their families that showcase the campus, courses and house life.

One challenge in the admission business is the anxiety parents have about the process, said Smith Dean of Admission Debra Shaver.

“I tell parents that they need to acknowledge their anxiety, understand where it comes from and then get over it,” said Shaver.  “Our kids are under enormous pressure and need our well as a reality check concerning the hype around the process.”

The storyline in “Admission” includes Portia Nathan going on an annual recruiting trip. During the fall, most Smith admission officers spend about six weeks traveling to high schools around the nation and world. Typically, officers recruiting domestically spend a week on campus for every one or two on the road. But, officers who recruit international students may be abroad for three or more weeks at a time.

“A colleague told me, ‘Admission is more of a lifestyle than a career,’ ” said Dalby. “But just when you can’t bear packing your suitcase one more time, you get to stay home and read folders.”

The most emotional part of the life of an admission officer is reading the essays, which are often intensely personal, Smith officers attest.

Like many peer institutions, Smith uses the standard “Common Application,” which offers a few ideas for essays but adds that students can write about any subject as long as they do so in 250 words or more.

“The best essay is the topic that comes from that individual,” said Kristof. “It has got to come from the heart.”

Tears are not unusual for admission officers or prospective students during their interviews. Tissues are always close by, and Dalby keeps a stash of candy on hand for interviewing students who become emotional.

In the “Admissions” movie trailer, Fey’s Portia Nathan announces, “Of course, everyone thinks we’re sadists, that we like saying ‘no.’” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Deb Shaver, Smith College Dean of Admission  

“It's all about fit…it's about the match,” said Shaver. “My favorite quote is by Frank Sachs, a college counselor: ‘Admission is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.’”

In deference to the amount of work that students put into their applications, Shaver personally signs every admission letter and often adds a note. For an applicant who wrote about knitting, she mentioned the downtown yarn store.

The knitter was also an application Dalby read.

“A hard part of being in admission is that you get attached to the candidates. You get to know them in a special way through the application process and then you have to let them go and move on to the next class,” she said.


Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the U.S., Smith enrolls 2,600 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.

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Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
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