When You Should Be a Helicopter Mom: During the College Admission Process

Don't decide to come in for a landing just as your kid is about to take off.

By Steve Cohen and Mike Muska
admissions office sign
Photograph: iStockPhoto

Headlines decry the overbearing parent.  (Let’s face it: We’re really talking about helicopter moms, because we dads are generally clueless.)  Moms’ over-involvement in their children’s lives will create—the conventional wisdom says—lifelong psychological problems for the kids.  Her hovering over homework will lead to adults who, as The Washington Post puts it, “lack maturity, self-reliance, self-esteem and good old-fashioned gumption.”

Maybe.  

But there is one time when being a helicopter mom is absolutely appropriate.  In fact, not being a helicopter mom then probably puts your kid at a distinct disadvantage.  And that time is during the college admission process.

Your organization, follow-through and steady hand during this period will be appreciated by both high school guidance counselors and college admission officers.  But you have to know how to work with (and through) the system.  

Getting into a good college has never been tougher, despite a very small decline in the number of high school seniors—from the record highs of the baby-boomers’-kids Class of 2009.

Six of the eight Ivy League schools (along with Stanford) had acceptance rates under 10%.  And more than 25 great colleges across the country admitted less than 20% of the kids who applied.

Today, choosing the right college—not just the “best” or “most prestigious” one—takes serious investigation.  And keeping the complex application and financial aid process flowing—to say nothing of meeting deadlines—requires real organizational discipline. Your child needs your help with both.

We’ve been involved in college admissions for over 30 years.  As Ivy League admission officers, interviewers, college-relations deans and counselors at top high schools, and as parents ourselves, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of parent involvement.  

Here are some time-tested tips to make the college search and application process more productive, less stressful and more successful.

Start early.  How early?  The beginning of your child’s junior year is an appropriate time to start the process seriously.  Unfortunately, most parents and kids get this advice too late, and they don’t really start until senior year.  If that describes your situation, don’t worry.  But don’t procrastinate a day longer.

If you are the parent of a sophomore or junior, one of the smartest things you can do is make sure she or he has a head start on testing.  Colleges often change, from year to year, the standardized tests they require applicants to take.  By checking the Web sites of colleges your child may be interested in, you’ll have a pretty good idea of which (and how many) SAT or ACT tests those schools require.  You don’t want your child to arrive at senior year of high school not having taken the right tests.  Moreover, if you plan on using a test-prep service—and we strongly recommend that you do—it is better to start earlier rather than later.

Give your opinion, then keep quiet—until asked again.  Believe it or not, kids actually want their parents’ advice and help.  A survey conducted by Zinch last year found parents were—by far—the most influential factor in the college selection and application process.  So even if kids don’t overtly acknowledge their parents’ advice, they are probably listening to it.

Apply early decision—and apply early.  The single biggest advantage of kids who go to fancy prep schools or whose parents employ expensive private college counselors is this: they know to apply early decision.  They know that their odds of getting in under early decision programs—but not early action—are significantly better.   

First Published September 14, 2011

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H. 09.19.2011

Some kids need parental help getting into college, and others don't. It really depends on the student. My parents didn't care if I went to college or not and were totally hands-off. I asked for college brochures, I filled out all the forms, I wrote the essays without their stamp of approval. All my parents did was give me the application money. I knew that if I didn't apply, they weren't going to do it for me! Neither were they going to encourage, beg or bribe me to apply for college. They let me do it all, and that was a good thing. When you do something on your own steam, it gives you a real sense of accomplishment, not "Oh, I really needed someone to help me."

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