04/08/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

Hollywood Goes to College and Oh, the Application Essays They Write!

I was afraid to see Denzel Washington's recent movie, Flight, because of the flying-the-plane-upside-bit that's at the heart of the story. But when I heard that it was only a brief segment in an otherwise character-driven movie, I gave in -- and kept my eyes shut tight during that scene. I'm glad I did.

Denzel is a joy to watch, even as an alcoholic in denial, and the final moments of the movie were a happy surprise. Denzel's son has come to visit him, after a long absence, but it's no ordinary visit. The boy explains that he's writing his college application essay, and he wants to interview the old man, a father he doesn't know very well.

Fast forward five months and the subject of applying to college is front and center in an appealing romantic comedy, Admission, starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, and Wallace Shawn as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton. Real universities, especially the Ivy Leagues, make frequent appearances in fiction, movies and television (everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels to Love Story, Gossip Girl, and Good Will Hunting), but what's new here is that the high-stakes drama now revolves around getting into schools, not about what happens once you're there.

Tina Fey plays a winning Princeton admissions officer whose personal and professional lives are about to unravel. I'll resist any more about the plot, except to say that the movie is more psychological obsession than rom-com -- the obsession being ours, with getting into top-tier schools, and all that goes into grooming and applying for these coveted slots. The high school students and their parents crave admission with a kind of frenzied ardor and competitiveness. The movie acknowledges this, occasionally mocks it, and leaves us understanding this brave new world a little better than we might have before.

As I watched the movie, and as I think about it now, I'm undecided whether to suggest it to the students and parents I work with on college application essays. As they face their own upcoming anxiety about applying to college in the fall, will they find it intimidating, illuminating, comforting -- or might they just enjoy the view through the admissions office keyhole that the movie provides?

And what about the notorious application essays that have become such a central part of the process? Does either movie, Flight or Admission, offer any tips about how to approach these high jumps? Yes. The lesson in Flight is to write about a subject that matters, that really matters. This the advice from all the admissions officers in real life. And this is the advice those of us who teach writing tell our students: Write what you know, write what you care about, write about what obsesses you. Passion and energy for your subject are essential.

The essay lessons in Admission are less specific, but they come down to the same ideas, and they echo the same advice from real college admissions officers. The essay is your chance to tell the decision makers who you are, to make your application come to life. But as the drama of the movie spells out, the essay is only one piece of the application process.

Are you a rising senior or the parent of a rising senior? Do you plan to see Admission? Have you seen it? Or will you save it until after the storm is over? I'm eager to hear your responses.

Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, journalist, editor and writing coach, whose company, Don't Sweat The Essay, helps those applying to college and graduate school with their essays and personal statements. She blogs about application essays and issues frequently here. Her newest book is the anthology What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. One of the contributors to What My Mother Gave Me is novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose novel Admission was the basis for the movie.