9 Timeless Movies About the College Transition

Graduating from high school and entering college (or even not entering college) so often symbolizes the transition between adolescence and adulthood. It makes perfect sense that creatives would milk as many narratives from this incredibly reflective, emotional period as they possibly can, and it makes just as much sense that many would go on to stand as pretty memorable, if not outright influential. The following college films cover a few different perspectives regarding the big leap forward, looking at both senior year and the sometimes-dreaded, sometimes-welcome cycle back into freshman mode.

  1. Animal House (1978):

    Freshmen pledges “Flounder” and “Pinto” find themselves embroiled in the sound and the fury associated with stereotypical fraternity life; in fact, Animal House is probably single-handedly responsible for reinforcing and inspiring college (especially Greek) stereotypes. Crazy partying and shrugs toward the academic element aren’t the norm on all campuses, of course, but this quintessential comedy classic illustrates life on those that bask in following its lead. If you’re headed to a school whose reputation revolves around “great keggers, dude,” pop this in ahead of time to ease the inevitable overwhelming.

  2. Revenge of the Nerds (1984):

    Seeing as how nerds are actually super cool these days (just look how trendy The Avengers got), more contemporary audiences might baffle over how the subculture was once the butt of bullying. The whole plot of campus satire Revenge of the Nerds kicks off with a fraternity deciding to overtake the entire freshman dorm (populated by, well, see if you can guess), leaving the residents to start calling the gymnasium home. Until they exact revenge, of course, but you probably knew that already. A pair of freshman fronts the uprising, and while we don’t exactly recommend all of their strategies, we do applaud how marginalized viewers can live vicariously through them all the same. Bullying still occurs on college campuses worldwide, so films like this offer some semblance of comfort.

  3. Real Genius (1985):

    Most of us won’t head to a college as prestigious as CalTech (fictionalized as Pacific Tech here) at the impressionable and tender age of 15 like scientifically brilliant protagonist Mitch Taylor. But we will probably encounter a quirky cast of characters and sketchy professors! Real Genius offers up a just plain fun story about an awkward kid who starts his degree early and, while still feeling out of place amongst his fellow brainiacs, falls under the mentorship of a kooky graduating senior. While you probably won’t meet a Val Kilmer before he just stopped trying (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang excepted), take advantage of any services schools might offer pairing newbies up with more seasoned older students. Think a Big Brother/Big Sister program on a micro level. One of the best ways to transition from high school to college involves seeking the counsel of a grizzled veteran to teach you from their experiences.

  4. Back to School (1986):

    There probably aren’t too many real-life lessons to glean from one of Rodney Dangerfield’s most well-known comedies, but it’s a silly enough look at a nontraditional student when most films focus almost exclusively on the young’uns headed straight from high school. Bumbling central figure Thurston Melon heads to college to support his son Jason, who’s experiencing a few problems fitting in and enjoying himself. But he takes it to an entirely new level of helicopter parenting when he decides to enroll, eventually growing into an unconventional campus superstar because of his great wealth and outsized personality. To the point Kurt Vonnegut shows up to ghost write an English paper about Kurt Vonnegut, even.

  5. Dazed & Confused (1993):

    Based on writer-director Richard Linklater’s life in the largely uneventful (save for the prison, anyways) Texas town of Huntsville, this Gen-X classic takes place on the last day of high school. Before heading off to college or staying put, the seniors exert one last push to exert their power over the “lesser” classes. The now-iconic scene of not-so-hot paddling action mirrors the real-life helplessness many graduating students experience before heading off to something new and different. Depending on their future plans, the future might see them as naive and disoriented as the freshmen they delight in tormenting so. No wonder they lash out with such venom.

  6. Rudy (1993):

    Thanks to big dreaming and a little personality pluck, a Hobbit goes on to play football for Notre Dame. Rudy actually covers the eponymous hero’s entire collegiate career, beginning with his dyslexia diagnosis and start at a smaller, less prestigious school and eventual transfer to his ultimate goal. The movie certainly relays a sweet little story about the role of perseverance in education, and critics and mainstream audiences alike adore how Rudy Ruettiger’s success comes because of his own drive and audacity rather than being born at the right time to the right people in the right socioeconomic bracket. Life doesn’t always deliver happy endings, but it’s still awesome to see one that comes about because of character strengths rather than pure luck and plot manipulation.

  7. Election (1999):

    Tracy Flick is Rudy’s exact opposite — she certainly possesses the determination to succeed after graduating high school, but prefers cunning manipulation to an honest heart and hard work. Every kid entering college knows a peer or two whose drive outweighed their ethics, and the darkly comedic Election chronicles the last year of such a gem’s K-12 career through the eyes of a dorky teacher. Watch and be amazed as a senior’s ambition destroys the lives of multiple people around her, and she cheerfully ends up at Georgetown University all the same. As a commentary on how overemphasizing extracurricular success might lead to some less-than-lovely behavior, it definitely offers up food for thought the college-bound might need to consider.

  8. Ghost World (2001):

    Unlike most of the other movies listed here, Ghost World’s iconic Enid Coleslaw never makes it to college. Prowess in the art studio wins her a generous scholarship to art school, which she eventually loses thanks to a deeply offended administration. Already isolated from everyone else thanks to a blend of bullying and her own ennui, she can’t seem to find personal footing without an easy way out of the suburbs. Everything unfolds in the space between high school graduation and when the first college semester begins, shedding light on the reality some kids experience when their opportunities unexpectedly disintegrate.

  9. Orange County (2002):

    Deciding between proximity to loved ones and amazing educational opportunities stresses out many a college-bound high school graduate, and Orange County wrings a right fair amount of pathos from this common experience. Stanford — and a famous author who teaches there — offers a bored, unfulfilled California teen hope that there might be a place where his intellectualism and goal to launch a literary career are met with appreciation. But doing so means separation from the highly dysfunctional friends and family who so often rely on him to eke through life.

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