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Accurate college portrayals 101: These college movies, TV shows get it right

HBO Max's "The Sex Lives of College Girls" is one of the most relatable shows in a sea of unrealistic college-based media. – Photo by The Secret Sex Lives of College Girls

The lazy, hazy days of August have slowly turned into the crisp and lively days of September. Taylor Swift's “Folklore” and “Evermore” are on repeat across Spotify accounts everywhere, and football tailgates are being planned meticulously, signaling the start of the school year.

The start of a new school year at college is a time of excitement that’s often chronicled by movies and TV shows. Whether you turn to school-oriented shows for comfort, motivation or even fashion inspiration, there are plenty of options to choose from — some of which are more realistic than others.

"The Sex Lives of College Girls"

“The Sex Lives of College Girls” is a newer HBO Max series created and produced by Mindy Kaling, which is evident through the relatability of its characters and the frequent laugh-out-loud moments it gives audiences.

This show follows the lives of four first-year roommates at the preppy, prestigious and fictional school of Essex College, which is based on Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth. Each character is dealing with their own struggles with their sexuality while also trying to make it at college, and the result is both hysterical and tender.

The show follows the four girls through their first few months of college, and viewers see them realistically endure school sports, campus jobs, sorority recruitment, parents weekend and, my personal favorite, fraternity parties.

The girls’ dating drama and academic struggles are so real they feel tangible, and their hardships with more serious topics like financial instability and sexual assault are played out supremely well.

“The Sex Lives of College Girls” is the most modern, realistic and fun show on this list, making it a triple threat. Not to mention, one of its leads includes Timothee Chalamet’s sister Pauline, who is equally as talented and has a knack for comedic timing.


“grown-ish” is a series created by Kenya Barris within the “black-ish” universe on ABC, which follows the lives of a wealthy Black family, the Johnsons. “grown-ish” follows the Johnsons' oldest daughter Zoey as she embarks on her college years at the fictional university of Cal-U. 

Zoey starts off as an overly confident first-year student who thinks she's more than ready to juggle difficult classes, nightly parties and the shark tank that is college dating. While she quickly realizes that her new life at college is going to be a lot more challenging than she thought, she never loses her zest for life, making her a great character to follow.

Throughout the series, viewers follow Zoey’s tight-knit group of friends and, between all of them, there are myriad stories told that audiences can empathize with. 

“grown-ish,” like its parent show “black-ish,” keeps the topic of race at the forefront while also integrating hot-topic, college-relevant issues into each episode. Although it can at times be cringy, especially during the later seasons, and Zoey often makes Carrie Bradshaw-level bad decisions regarding her love life, the show is nonetheless a captivating look of college life and, if the storylines aren’t enough to grab your attention, Zoey’s iconic fashion choices are reason enough to watch.  

"The Social Network"

“The Social Network” is, at its core, a film about the rise of Mark Zuckerberg and, thus, the popularization of Facebook. But a focal point of Zuckerberg’s journey to the top is his time spent at none other than Harvard University, which this movie spends a great deal of time on, making it an outstanding college-centric film.

“The Social Network" follows Mark, played by Jesse Eisenberg, and his best friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield. The acting is flawless, and the storyline is entrancing, but the best part about this film is how college life at elite schools like Harvard is painted.

One of the first scenes in this movie sees Mark mercilessly dissing his girlfriend for going to Boston University. Next, we see Mark and Eduardo trying to gain status in elite organizations at Harvard that are similar to fraternities, but instead are 100 percent secretive and cutthroat. When the two strike up a business connection with the Palo Alto-based Sean Parker, audiences get a glimpse of Stanford and the postgraduate tech world.

“The Social Network” is at times dark, but it always retains a sardonic humor. Additionally, it showcases the world of elite universities in such a realistic and entertaining way that it gives anyone on the outside more than a realistic peek into that world.

"Dear White People"

“Dear White People,” like the name implies, is a Netflix series dedicated to educating audiences on racism still prevalent in the U.S., using the setting of a college campus to do so.

“Dear White People” takes place on the fictional campus of Winchester University, which in the show's universe, is the eighth Ivy League school. Therefore, most students at Winchester are pretentious and elitist — yet highly intelligent — which makes the show fun to watch.

Each episode focuses on a different character, so audiences get an intimate look into each student’s storyline.

At the center of the show is the podcast that the main character, Sam (played by Logan Browning) hosts on campus called “Dear White People,” where she vents about the racism and microaggressions that occur on campus. Each season follows topical storylines like sexual assault, clout chasers and “slacktivism” while doing so in both a humorous and thoughtful manner.

Although the last season of the show was bumpy and did not live up to its predecessors, the northeast quintessential college vibes are immaculate throughout the show, and it does continue to maintain its provocative and thought-provoking themes. 

"Gilmore Girls"

Would this even be a college show guide without the incomparable “Gilmore Girls?”

“Gilmore Girls,” for anyone who just arrived on planet Earth yesterday, is about a mother and daughter duo named Lorelai and Rory Gilmore who reside in the fanciful Connecticut town of Stars Hollow. During season four, Rory begins her college career at her grandpa’s alma mater Yale, and viewers get to witness all of her trials and tribulations in New Haven, Connecticut.

“Gilmore Girls” is hands down the best college-based series. Yale is an alluring backdrop as we see Rory on the picturesque campus, working for the “Yale Daily News,” getting involved in her future boyfriend’s centuries-old secret society and making friends with eccentric smarties similar to her mom’s circle back in Stars Hollow. 

No other show could even dream of portraying college how Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of the show, does. Some highlights include Rory’s fateful spring weekend trip to Fort Lauderdale where she realizes college ragers are a lot more disgusting than they are divine (haven’t we all been there?) and her slew of questionable random roommates — like when her best frenemy from high school, Paris, physically kicks her out after Rory beats Paris out of being a newspaper editor. 

In typical “Gilmore Girls” fashion, the college seasons are witty beyond belief and envy-worthy, especially if you have ever had the desire to date the cute blonde son of a New England newspaper magnate whose family came to the country more than 100 years before the Mayflower. If you haven't, trust me: After watching this show, you will.

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