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Articles / Preparing for College / Five Favorite Movies about College

Five Favorite Movies about College

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 23, 2015

Summertime is a good time to go to the movies. If you're into mingling with the general public, then head to the mall, where it's cool and you might even watch one of those 3-D features that makes you jump out of the way of danger.

More likely, you'll stay at home and view feature films on your computer, iPad, or even iPhone (if you're into squinting). Most home viewing these days, though, is done on big-screen TVs using streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and others. Regardless of where you watch your movies, I thought that I would make some quick comments about five of my favorite movies that are based on college themes or set on campus.

I just wrote here about college visits, so it might be entertaining to see what Hollywood thinks about college campus life. Of course, the silver screen and reality are many times worlds apart. Anyway, here are a few comments from my perspective about entertaining, at least in my view, college-based movies.

The Paper Chase

This was one of my earliest encounters with college-based movies. John Houseman and Timothy Bottoms star. The performances are top shelf and the aura of academic (law school) pressure hovers everywhere. The critics loved it. Here's an excerpt from a Rotten Tomatoes review:

This filmization of John Jay Osborn Jr.'s novel Paper Chase ended up one of the surprise hits of the 1973-74 movie season. Timothy Bottoms stars as the Minnesotan Hart, a brilliant but naive first-year student at the Harvard Law School. Like most of his fellow aspiring attorneys, Hart is in fearful awe of his demanding, ego-deflating instructor, Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman). He is not so much intimidated by Kingsfield, however, as to resist falling in love with the professor's pretty daughter (Lindsay Wagner). ...

Don't forget that The Paper Chase became a critically acclaimed TV series, also anchored by Houseman. The TV series tried hard to imply that the law school where the action took place was Harvard, but much of the architecture and other outdoor details suggested West Coast locations. That didn't detract from the series' impact, though. By all means see it.

A Beautiful Mind

If you're a fan of Ivy League settings, this film will make you want to visit Princeton University. Russell Crowe has always been a favorite of mine. Here, in these beautifully filmed locations on the Princeton campus, we see "the heights of notoriety and the depths of depravity, experienced by John Forbes Nash, Jr. He's a mathematical genius, who made an astonishing discovery early in his career and stood on the brink of international acclaim. But the handsome and arrogant Nash soon found himself on a painful and harrowing journey of self-discovery once he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After many years of struggle, he eventually triumphed over this tragedy, and finally, late in life, received the Nobel Prize." Nash recently passed away, but this film is a lasting tribute to his tortured life, accomplishments, genius, and the unfailing support of his wife and friends.

While my son was at Princeton, I subscribed to the Daily Princetonian newspaper. During the filming of A Beautiful Mind, one edition of the paper had an unforgettable picture of Crowe, shot by a student from a second-floor dorm window. Crowe was in costume (a trench coat) and appeared annoyed at the student's photographic venture. How do we know he was annoyed? Well, the prominence of his upraised middle finger left little doubt. I still love him as an actor, though. You'll love Princeton after you see this film.


This movie is not only one of the more realistic looks at college life, in this case at Notre Dame, but it is also a film that never fails to inspire, even upon repeated viewings. The story of Rudy is real. "Since he was a little boy, Rudy Ruttinger (Sean Astin) has idolized the University of Notre Dame and its football team. However, he is a small boy who will inevitably grow up to be a small man. Not only that, but he is not an outstanding student or even a particularly good athlete. His blue-collar family is convinced that he is only asking for heartache by aspiring so far beyond his abilities. For a while Rudy grudgingly accepts this assessment and goes to work in the local steel mill. His dream just won't die, and he eventually wins admission to the college of his dreams.

In his junior year he tries out for the football team, but is able only to serve as a live tackle-dummy. Bruised and battered though he is, he is proud to have any connection with his team. By his senior year, the team has grown so fond of the boy that on the day of the final game, every member shows up at the coach's office and offers to give up his place on the squad in order to give Rudy one chance to suit up as a team member. The coach, moved and impressed, allows Rudy to suit up and lead the team to the benches. Then, once victory is assured, he lets Rudy participate in the final [moments] of the game. Rudy acquits himself well, and his loving friends hoist him onto their shoulders and carry him off the field."

Rudy provides a wonderful look at the Notre Dame campus with especially candid insights into their nationally ranked football powerhouse's operation and politics. I guarantee that you'll love Rudy, both the person and the film.

National Lampoon's Animal House

Anxious parents of high school seniors don't care much for this movie. It's easy to see why. It extols most all the negative stereotypes of college life: drinking, sex, drunken driving, wild fraternity pranks, classroom cheating, and other fun stuff (not that I advocate any of this!).

Animal House is a hugely successful cult film from the late Seventies. As Boston.com notes in its review of its Top 20 college movies, "By claiming over a quarter of the overall vote -- almost three times as many votes as the second-place finisher, "Old School" -- this frat classic easily ran away with the top spot in our poll of your favorite college movies. Led by John Belushi (center), the lovable Deltas' hilarious rebellion against an uptight dean and other fraternities is an underdog story that has directly influenced many movies on this list and, as our readers proved, remains the gold standard for college flicks."

Bruce Eder writes about some of the more detailed aspects of Animal House:

Director John Landis put himself on the map with this low-budget, fabulously successful comedy, which made a then-astounding 62 million dollars and started a slew of careers for its cast in the process. National Lampoon's Animal House is set in 1962 on the campus of Faber College in Faber, PA. The first glimpse we get of the campus is the statue of its founder Emil Faber, on the base of which is inscribed the motto, "Knowledge Is Good." Incoming freshmen Larry "Pinto" Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent "Flounder" Dorfman (Stephen Furst) find themselves rejected by the pretentious Omega fraternity, and instead pledge to Delta House. The Deltas are a motley fraternity of rejects and maladjusted undergraduates (some approaching their late twenties) whose main goal -- seemingly accomplished in part by their mere presence on campus -- is disrupting the staid, peaceful, rigidly orthodox, and totally hypocritical social order of the school, as represented by the Omegas and the college's dean, Vernon Wormer (John Vernon). Dean Wormer decides that this is the year he's going to get the Deltas expelled and their chapter decertified; he places the fraternity on "double secret probation" and, with help from Omega president Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) and hard-nosed member Doug Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf), starts looking for any pretext on which to bring the members of the Delta fraternity up on charges. ... [Read the rest of Bruce's comments for more interesting observations.]

Having attended a small Pennsylvania liberal arts college, I was immediately able to identify with Faber College's campus life. Thinking back across my decades of movie going, I cannot recall another instance of watching a film where I laughed so hard that I lost my breath. Yes, Virgina, Animal House is a breathtaking experience! If you're heading to college, you owe it to yourself to see this film, but don't tell your parents that you did.

The Social Network

If you want to see how Facebook came to be, this is the movie for you. Frankly, I found it inspiring. It shows the wisdom of the phrase "Find a need and fill it." Apparently, there was one of the world's largest needs that Mark Zuckerberg found. At current age 31, he is the ninth richest person in the world. As IMDB reviewer "Huggo" notes:

As told through flashbacks via deposition hearings for two concurrent lawsuits, the development and early days of the social networking website Facebook is presented. Harvard students Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin - officially listed as the co-founders of the website - were once best friends. Based on an on-line blog about his ex-girlfriend and a site he developed allowing its users to rate the hotness factor of girls on campus, Zuckerberg, who exhibited a streak of arrogance, was asked by fellow Harvardites, wealthy twins Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss, and their friend Divya Narendra, to enter into an agreement to develop a social networking website specifically for Harvard students, the attraction for people to visit it being its exclusivity solely to Harvard students. Zuckerberg agreed. Zuckerberg, with financing from his friend Saverin, decided instead to develop his own website without telling the "Winklevi" (as he calls the twins) and Narenda.

Zuckerberg's assertion was that he never used a line of code provided by the three in his work. As "thefacebook" as it was then called began to blossom, the twins and Narenda had to figure out what to do to regain what they believed their intellectual property without having to sue, since that's not what gentlemanly Harvardites do. As the site was brought to more and more university campuses, Zuckerberg and Saverin began to have a difference of opinion: Saverin wanted to sell ad space to generate revenue (as he had been the website's sole financier and he had profit mentality based on being an economics major), while Zuckerberg, never one interested in money, didn't want to go that route as the ads would make the site lose its "cool" factor, which made it popular. The site attracted the attention of the founder of Napster, Sean Parker, whose own dot com life had its spectacular ups and spectacular downs. As Parker ingratiated himself into Facebook's life (much to Saverin's chagrin) and as Zuckerberg began increasingly to side with Parker, Saverin slowly began to be phased out of both Zuckerberg's personal and professional life.

A highly rated film, The Social Network is something every Facebook user needs to see. The genesis of phenomenons is most always an interesting story. Here, you'll see how technical savvy, good timing, and fortuitous financing can lead to mind-blowing results. I highly recommend this film, even if the college aspect is somewhat muted, except at the beginning.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.


Admit This

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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