If you’ve ever applied to college, you know how it feels around this time of year. It’s a pivotal time in any young person’s life — working hard through high school (or not) to maintain perfect grades, write the perfect college essay, and get into your dream school. If you don’t, what follows is bitter disappointment, self-hatred, and tears. If you do, then you’ll be jumping up and down cheering. (That is, of course, until you realize just how much it all costs; here’s hoping you’re eligible for a scholarship!)
Of course, as we’ve learned recently, if you’re the child of a rich or famous person (see: Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin), it isn’t that hard. Still, while we all know college is an overpriced, nepotistic system that’ll rob you of most of your income for years to come, it’s still a very pivotal moment in your life, and one worth reminiscing about.
Here, we’ve collected a list of nine TV episodes that run the gamut of emotions when waiting for and receiving those college acceptance letters. From friend fallouts to poor finances, the agony to the ecstasy, the hope of receiving the “big” envelope to the fear of receiving the “little” one, it’s all here — whether you’re headed for a vaunted Ivy League institution or a humble community college.
Gilmore Girls, “The Big One” (Season 3, Episode 16)
From the very beginning of Gilmore Girls, it was Rory’s one and only dream to go to Harvard. With some road bumps along the way, she made it there, but applied to all of the Ivy League colleges, much to her mother’s disappointment. At the end of the episode, she receives a bundle of the “big” envelopes — naturally, she got into all of the schools she wanted. But the best part of this episode is Paris Geller not getting into Harvard and giving a speech about it, convinced that the reason she didn’t get in is because she’s being punished for having sex. “I had sex, but I’m not going to Harvard!” she cries in a classic Paris Geller meltdown in front of parents, teachers, and the TV. Her parting line — “Pack your chastity belt, Gilmore, you’re going to Harvard!” — shows that she still manages to be the funniest character, even at her most stressed.
The O.C., “The Day After Tomorrow” (Season 3, Episode 20)
One of the most difficult decisions that face young couples leaving high school is just what to do about college. Do you stay with your high-school sweetheart, FaceTiming across time zones? Do you go to the same school? Or do you do the right thing and break it off instead of delaying the inevitable? In this O.C. episode, Summer gets into Seth’s dream school, Brown, while he does not. His solution, naturally, is to lie, telling everyone that he did get in, while trying to force Summer to want to break up with him. Marissa tosses her acceptance letter in the trash, while Ryan gets into Berkeley — a roller coaster of emotions, which is only fitting for any big life event in Newport.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch, “The Four Faces of Sabrina” (Season 4, Episode 21)
Where young students go to college is ultimately all about them, but it’s rare that there aren’t other influencing factors. Parents want kids to follow in their footsteps or to get a job; boyfriends want girlfriends to stay close to them; and it’s easy to feel torn in different directions. This Sabrina episode deals with that issue in a magical (and literal) way, as it always does. With Harvey wanting Sabrina to go to Boston College, Josh wanting her to go to Emerson, Zelda wanting her to attend her alma mater Other Realm University, and Hilda wanting Sabrina to backpack across the universe, Sabrina is literally torn in four by her need to please everyone. Eventually, though, she manages to stick up for herself and pull all four of herself back together.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Choices” (Season 3, Episode 19)
Part of the heartbreak of Buffy is in the balance that she attempts to strike between her Slayer duties and her real life, and the reality that she cannot always have everything she wants. In “Choices”, the Scoobies are attempting to defeat the mayor while making decisions for their future. Buffy is accepted into Northwestern, and while Joyce is thrilled, Buffy knows that she cannot leave Sunnydale behind. Willow, too, has been accepted into every college she could possibly want — even Oxford! Giles and Wesley remind Buffy that she cannot abandon her post in Sunnydale, and after an attempt to bring the mayor down, she relents. She and Willow both decide to attend UC Sunnydale to be closer to home, a compromise that many students, even non-vampire-slaying ones, have to make.
Beverly Hills, 90210, “Commencement: Part 1” (Season 3, Episode 29)
Lori Loughlin, the Fuller House and later-state 90210 actress recently indicted for bribing a college $500,000 to admit her two daughters, appeared in the show’s reboot but wasn’t in the original run, so there’s no fun Schadenfreude-worthy connection here, sadly. Still, this episode deals with the trials of college admissions and major wealth in a much more … legal way. With 24 hours left to go until graduation, Dylan inherits his trust fund of $10 million and frets over going to Berkeley. Meanwhile, Brenda is accepted to Minnesota University, Andrea wants to go to Yale, and Steve panics over whether or not he’s allowed to graduate at all. Now, if only they’d got the memo that it was possible to just bribe your way in instead …
Modern Family, “Spring Break” and “Grill, Interrupted” (Season 6)
A great deal of Alex’s story over six seasons of Modern Family is centered on her performance at school and her attempted journey to Harvard, so it makes sense that there would be a fair amount of time dedicated to her college admission. In “Spring Break,” Alex’s mom sends her away to a festival with Haley to stop her from checking her emails. While away, Haley gets Alex drunk, when Claire tells her that Alex didn’t get into Harvard. Alex beats herself up, but Haley attempts to put it in into perspective for her — leading to the next episode, “Grill, Interrupted,” in which Alex decides to attend Caltech instead. The family again has to talk Alex down from her insecurities, but it’s a reminder to us all that these things seem much bigger when we’re up close to them.
Gossip Girl, “You’ve Got Yale!” (Season 2, Episode 16)
As we all know, the rich, mean, and good-looking high schoolers of the Upper East Side are wildly competitive with one another. Blair being Blair, she expects to just get into Yale, and her family expects it, too: They celebrate Yale Day, even buying her a bulldog of her own. She doesn’t get in, not quite — she is instead a reserve for a student (Serena) who has to give up her spot in order to let Blair in, provided she maintains perfect grades. After receiving a B, Blair messes with the teacher who gave it to her, but still gets in after Serena gives up her spot. After she’s caught, Blair’s acceptance is put on hold, and she’s placed in detention — a fair warning to rich people everywhere that you can’t always manipulate your way into college.
Pretty Little Liars, “Turn of the Shoe” (Season 4, Episode 2)
There’s something to be learned from all of the episodes on this list, but as always with Pretty Little Liars, the only lesson here is “trust no one.” Among all of the other dramas, mishaps, violence, and self-aware ridiculousness of this season, the Liars are attempting to get into college. Spencer receives a rejection letter from the University of Pennsylvania that says that while she is a “competitive” applicant, she can’t get in — and she didn’t apply to another school. She tells Ezra and no one else, and he tells her to apply to other schools and that she shouldn’t have been upfront about her experience in a mental hospital in her college essay. If there’s another lesson here, I suppose it’s (a) lie in your essay and (b) apply to more than one school! Please!
One Tree Hill, “Pictures of You” (Season 4, Episode 13)
As the One Tree Hill cast members start to approach the time jump, they’re all gearing up for senior year, graduation, and attempting to apply to colleges, among the usual stress about basketball scholarships, murder, and unwanted pregnancies. Sitting on the roof with Haley, Skills shows Haley where his dad works, telling her that if he doesn’t get into college, he will work there, too. Toward the end of the episode, she opens his college acceptance letter for him and tells him that he will be going to the factory — but only to tell his father he got in. While One Tree Hill is objectively ridiculous, this episode touches on a reality a lot of people grapple with: not having the privilege to go to university unburdened by their family life.