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How often are Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton mentioned in movies?

8 April '24 4 Comments on How often are Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton mentioned in movies?

My work covers a range of topics; some studies look at pressing issues of inequality or untangle the dense web of the film industry’s economic frameworks.

This article is not one of them. It’s one of the other ones.

By which I mean it’s looking at something pointless, like when I recruited a bunch of students to test cinema popcorn or used data to determine whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Today’s study is an offshoot of work I was doing for Guinness World Records which involved delving into the dialogue of 72,405 movies released since 1911. Given that I had built the dataset and systems to search the text of so many movies, I started to think of what else I could use it for. I have previously shared my work looking at which Bond movies mention their own title most frequently and which countries swear the most.

In the words of Harvard hero Tom Lehrer, this may prove useful to somebody someday, perhaps, in a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances. It’s simply tracking mentions of top US colleges in movies over the past 110 years.

Which college is most mentioned in movies?

Of the four colleges I looked at, Harvard came out on top, being mentioned in 3.9% of movies studied. Yale was second, featuring in 2.5% of movies, followed by Stanford (1.4%) and finally Princeton (1%).

Rather satisfyingly, The Social Network (2010) is the movie that mentions “Harvard” more than any other.

Was Harvard always the college of choice for screenwriters?

The only decade in which Harvard didn’t take the top spot was the 1960s, in which Yale just managed to get ahead.

What kinds of movies most often mention Harvard?

Unsurprisingly, biographical movies over-index in mentions of Harvard, with horror movies the least likely to utter their name

But what of the quality of the movies?

I thought I’d end by giving something for the folks from the three non-Harvard colleges to brag about (well, two of them at least).

When we look at measures of quality, Harvard drops to third place, according to film audiences. However, film critics disagree, still putting Harvard on top.


For this analysis, I looked at the English-language subtitle files for 72,405 feature films (released between 1911 and 2022) kindly provided by the lovely folk at OpenSubtitles.com. Metadata came from OMDb, IMDb, The Numbers, Wikipedia, and my own analysis.

I chose to study these four colleges in part because I could be sure I was getting accurate results. The names of other prestigious colleges like Dartmouth and MIT present problems for this quick and dirty system.



  1. Melissa de la Cruz

    Fascinating! Can you post the Yale data visually as you did with Harvard’s for “Genre of movie which mentions Yale” vs “% of movies in the genre which mentions Yale”?

    Thank you

    1. As a very rough calculation – about a sixth of all movies ever made. They heavily skew towards the biggest films and those popular in English speaking nations, due to the nature of subtitle availability.

  2. Fascinating! I remember watching “David and Lisa (1962)” with other students in Princeton. When David’s mother says, “I want him to go to a good college, like Princeton,” everyone in the room roared with laughter.

    In addition, I love to see locations that I recognize, regardless of the film quality. That’s why I am a sucker for ANY film that shows Berkeley (where I taught), San Francisco, or Princeton…

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