“Parent Etiquette” During the High School and College Application Process

By Bonnie Raskin

Bonnie is the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship Program Coordinator at IEA. She has extensive experience working with gifted students and supporting them through the high school and college application process.

Applying to high schools and colleges

In an attempt to be supportive and helpful, many parents are too involved in their child’s application process, doing much of the work themselves.

As the program coordinator for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship, I have been fortunate to get to know, work with and be guided by the experiences and expertise of independent school, college and university admissions deans and directors throughout the United States. This blog is a composite of what I have learned from dialoguing with them.

Last April, a few weeks after sending the acceptance and rejection letters to college applicants, a dean of admissions at one of America’s most selective universities told me the following story:

“Two days after we announced our incoming freshman class, I received a reply from an applicant’s father. It was curt and written on his corporate letterhead: ‘You rejected my son, he’s devastated. See you in court.’ The very next day, I received another letter, but this time from the man’s son. It read: ‘Thank you for not admitting me. This is the best day of my life.’”

All threats aside, receiving a letter like this never warms the hearts of anyone in admissions. It is the consensus of admissions professionals from preschool through college that more and more, today’s parents are getting too involved in their child’s school admissions process – and not merely at the college level. High school and middle school admissions staff have expressed horror stories about parental actions and involvement so completely out of hand that it seems impossible and implausible for otherwise rational people to behave in such off-putting ways. And this behavior never serves the applicant in obtaining the desired positive outcome.

The increasingly bad “parent etiquette” that admissions officers are seeing right now comes from a confluence of several characteristics of our boomer generation: our sense of entitlement, our suspicion of authority and our bad habit of sometimes living too vicariously through our children. It all adds up to some pretty ugly parental behavior often played out in front of our children. A college admissions dean told me, “Today, parents call the admissions office more than the student applicants, often faxing us daily updates on their children’s lives or asking us to return an application already in process so the parent can double-check his/her child’s spelling.” A high school admissions counselor noted a parent who asked whether they should use their official letterhead when writing a letter of recommendation for their own child. It’s not unusual to know parents who openly write their kids’ essays and even attempt to attend their interviews. They make excuses for less than stellar grades or tout athletic promise as “Olympic team potential.”

With many high school and college applicants averaging 6+ extracurricular activities, parents have assumed a new role in their children’s lives: parent-as-manager. Most kids are so busy now that they rely on their parents to attend to the many details associated with being a student, including applying to the next level of their education. Parents need to realize that their many efforts to be helpful are often misinterpreted by admissions officers and can actually be detrimental. When parents visit a high school or college campus and ask all of the questions on the tour, in the information session or at an open house, they may think that they are modeling positive, assertive behavior for their child. Instead, admissions officers may see a passive kid who is too lazy, bored or uninterested in the school to think of any pertinent questions. Ultimately, when parents dominate in any way through the admissions process, in attracting attention to themselves, they are detracting from the perception that their child is mature enough to handle this process on his or her own, whether it’s at the high school or college level. Parent over-involvement can also rob a child of a chance to develop resilience and self-confidence, two key components for a happy, fulfilling life that should begin to be developed in adolescence.

Students should be directed to do all of their own work on their applications, including calling for application materials, setting up interviews and asking questions on campus/school tours—yes, even at the high school level. It is a cop-out for parents to assume these roles with the argument that their son or daughter is “too busy.” Initiative is crucial for young adults because it is the act of trying their wings and acquiring a sense of personal accomplishment as the primary navigators of their high school or college paths.

Here are some “etiquette” tips for parents during the high school and college application process:

  1. Ensure decision-making about applying to any prospective school is a two-way street, made by you and your child together. Ultimately, it’s your child who will be attending the school. Listen to your child’s pros and cons about a school and have a frank discussion, adding your thoughts after you’ve heard your child’s overview.
  2. Don’t micromanage the whole process for your child or nag him or her about deadlines and tasks to do. If you absolutely can’t leave this area to your child, perhaps create a calendar in easy view or with easy access for your son or daughter listing due dates, etc. You can also put important deadlines into your child’s smartphone calendar or create a Google Calendar and set reminders that will come through to your child but not to you—there’s a big difference in the dissemination of this information.
  3. Set a good example by being courteous and polite when you communicate with admissions officers. Thank them if they spend time answering your questions or meet you in person. Greet them with their proper titles. Encourage your child to research the schools before visiting and ask questions that show that he or she has put thought into them reflective of a particular school.
  4. Let your child be himself/herself. Don’t try to overly “package” your child into something that you think admissions officers want to see. Schools value individuality and a student pool with a diverse range of experiences, passions, learning styles and accomplishments.
  5. Don’t add your voice to your child’s essays or personal statements. You can review the essays by offering suggestions and offer to proofread for grammar and spelling, but do not try to control the content. Your voice is not your child’s voice, and more often than not, it will come off as wooden and lack the nuance and passion that counts more in the overall picture of who your child is than the more sophisticated vocabulary or syntax you are trying to add.
  6. Self-advocating is an important part of life. Allow your child to be his or her spokesperson on all school tours and interviews.
  7. Never make this an overly competitive process by comparing your child to friends or siblings. Provide your 100% support and encouragement. Your role as parent and primary adult figure is to help guide your child through the ups and downs, the stresses, successes and setbacks of the application process from first thinking about schools to ultimately enrolling. During this time—in between ongoing school, test prep, extracurricular activities, school visits and compiling the many parts of an application—do your best to help your child maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay focused on all that’s positive in the here and now—not only what lies ahead.
  8. If a letter from a high school or college—or a highly competitive program such as the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship—brings sad news, the appropriate response for frustrated parents is to realize that the decision is not a reflection on their parenting, nor is it a value judgment on the worth of their child. Most often, rejections are due to too many excellent applicants and too few available spaces. It’s that basic. The support and encouragement of parents are especially important when their child isn’t accepted to the school or program that they’ve set their heart on…and feel they deserve. Helping your child focus instead on other options and moving forward in a positive direction is the best way to model good adult behavior for the next generation of adults.

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