At the cross section of the high school and romantic comedy genres, which often blend into one, a mile-high stack of sprightly tropes amasses. Meet-cutes. Mean girls. Enemies-to-lovers. Nerds-turned-heartthrobs. These recurring motifs pile into a buffet of comfort foods, ready to be scooped into one narrative and consumed with a sigh of relief. They’re so appealing that they frequently flutter into the daydreams of one Miss Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), the girlish star of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Since the very first installment of the Netflix franchise, Lara Jean has always been clear about her intentions: She wants her life to be exactly like a high school romantic comedy, full of radiant montages and witty flirtations. And her story fulfills every beat, even up to the pertinent final gesture in her saga—the unexpected college plot twist.
It’s become a common trope in many high school films and series, usually rom-coms: A protagonist pines to attend one college, a fantasy enacted by prestige, parents or, in one case, the promise that all Princes abide at Princeton. In Gossip Girl, as a popular example, both Blair and Dan await the day they’ll become Yale Bulldogs, forming an entire personality based on the eminent university. Only, neither actually enrolls at Yale. They both commit to NYU: Blair because she was rejected from Yale, Dan because it was a cheaper option. Though it’s swirled around the high school film genre for awhile, this trend has recently made a massive resurgence in movies (especially Netflix originals) like Work It, The Perfect Date, The Kissing Booth and most recently, To All the Boys: Always and Forever.
In the third installment of Netflix’s sunny To All the Boys trilogy, Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) will attend Stanford University together. It’s presented as a fact: He’s already in, thanks to lacrosse, and she’s bound to be accepted, right? As she lingers in the Stanford portal for her fate, Lara Jean fills the time by traipsing into her daydream world, mapping out scenes from her future with Peter. They graduate high school, then reside in an electric blue apartment together. After college, they’ll settle down, have a kid together… But then, Lara Jean receives a rejection letter from Stanford. Her plan unravels at once. If they’re separated, the fate of their squeaky little high school relationship is doomed.
That hopeless feeling is short-lived, thanks to a college acceptance at UC Berkeley—just an hour drive from Stanford’s campus. They can make it work! And then, strange news arrives in the form of a smooth purple envelope: Lara Jean has also been accepted at New York University. NYU as in New York City, thousands of miles away from everything she loves. Immediately, her answer is Berkeley. It’s not Stanford, but it is Stanford-lite and it is close to Peter. But on a class trip, just like she fell for Peter, Lara Jean finds herself with glossy eyes for New York. Besotted by the Big Apple’s individuality, Lara Jean wrestles with her options: Stay close to her West Coast family and boyfriend, or journey to a city that would grant her a new sense of creativity? To All the Boys 3 allows Lara Jean to grapple with this decision, an incredibly tricky one that feels almost immoral to place on teenagers.
Though it may be worn thin, the college plot twist feels less like a tattered, itchy sweater, and more like a well-loved, cozy collegiate fleece. The dreaded college decision weighs on high schoolers just like Lara Jean, a hefty verdict that will dictate the end of their teenage years and the dawn of their 20s. Parents, friends, significant others, teachers, and guidance counselors clash into one amalgamation of pressure on one kid. This choice will, according to many, also select your job, where you live and who you live with, how much money you’ll make, and if you’ll go to grad school. Then, as a thank you, you’ll have to say goodbye to the majority of your childhood friends and family. Ah! It’s all a little too terrifying to digest.
Enter the college switcheroo, which manages to validate these anxieties and acknowledge the evolving nature of the decision. This trope pokes its nose into the rom-com subsection of high school films especially, as youthful couples are forced to either part ways or compromise on the same university. Parallel to To All the Boys 3 is the incoming Kissing Booth 3, in which Elle (Joey King) must decide between her lifelong dream of UC Berkeley with her best friend or Harvard with her boyfriend. Or Booksmart: Not a rom-com, but the college dilemma still wedges itself between two high school pals. By recognizing these difficult conversations between adolescent friends and couples, the college plot twist proposes that this huge decision is personal, individual. It’s no one else’s choice to make.
At long last, these films also reckon with the hollow idea of a “dream college.” Even under the glossy sheen of these teen rom-coms, a sense of realism still prevails: Rejection lurks everywhere. And yet, as they go on to prove, a rejection letter from the dream school is just a redirection elsewhere. Lara Jean needs Stanford—she even pitches the idea of transferring after a year at Berkeley, she’s so invested. But she soon finds happiness elsewhere, a sure sign that there is no clear, determined path after high school.
Or, the unexpected college trope can go in the exact opposite direction: A surprise acceptance letter. In A Cinderella Story, Sam (Hilary Duff) pockets tips at her restaurant gig to save up for Princeton. Then, she’s denied. Hope is lost. Fortunately, the rejection turns out to be a ruse staged by her evil stepmother, a twist that ends up in Sam’s favor. There’s Lady Bird (though not a rom-com), which throws young Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through a series of trials in order to attend college in NYC. Her mother deflects, arguing that it’s unreasonable, and her guidance counselor agrees. There’s hardly enough money to send her to school. She’s rejected from almost every college in New York, except the one where she’s waitlisted—and eventually, accepted. It’s a euphoric moment. These verdicts delightfully undermine the protagonist’s expectations, even though they’re the desired outcome.
This all being said, this trope still has room to grow. Almost all of these films and TV shows laud highly prestigious universities, rarely shining a light on any other type of school. Even the “less competitive” schools are hard to get into in real life. If one of the goals here is to make high schoolers comfortable with college rejections, rotating a sprinkling of the same prestigious universities doesn’t soothe that pain. This trope could still be employed with, say, a local college or a public university. Netflix’s The Perfect Date balances these two ideas: Brooks (Centineo, yet again) yearns to attend Yale University, while his father presses him to take a full-ride to UConn. After he schemes his way into Yale, it looks like he’s about to be Ivy-bound—until he isn’t. He selects UConn instead, reconciling with his father, who he realizes will be proud of him for attending either school.
So yes, the schtick is a little out of touch, overly prestigious and quite repetitive. But all in all, this trope should stick around and grow into its own, just like the age-old rom-com tropes that have towered over the genre for years. In To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean expresses her dismay about fulfilling these romantic comedy beats with Peter. “We are a terrible rom-com couple,” she pouts, upset that she and Peter lack a meet-cute or a couple’s song. What she doesn’t realize is that by facing this universal university dilemma, she and Peter have fulfilled a skyrocketing rom-com trope: The college plot twist. Lara Jean’s dream for a clichéd, comforting romantic comedy has, once again, come true.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fIetcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.