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

How much better?  The regular acceptance rate at Brown last year was 8 percent  Under early decision, 20 percent of applicants were accepted.  For Cornell it was 15 percent in the regular pool and 33 percent in the early decision pool. For Colgate it was 33 percent regular and 68 percent early.  And for Rice 22 percent regular and 34 percent early.  You get the picture.  

The typical excuse for not applying early decision is that Junior hasn’t made up his mind about where he wants to go.  If he has visited the school—along with several others—and done a reasonable amount of research on colleges, he can’t really make too serious a mistake.  And the choice does not have to be forever.  Transferring to another school is very common.  Push him for a decision—now!

One more thing about applying early: It also works to students’ benefit to apply as early as possible to schools that have a rolling admissions process.  

In rolling admissions, applicants are evaluated—and usually decided on—as soon as their application is complete.  As the admission season wears on, there are fewer openings and more applicants who’ve procrastinated on getting their paperwork in.  For these laggards, the competition is tougher.

Keep a master schedule.  Every college has slightly different requirements and deadlines.  Keeping everything organized is a challenge, and a perfect outlet for the helicopter mom.  Your kid will have essays to write (and rewrite!), recommendations to solicit from teachers, and portfolios to compile and pare down.  Keeping your child on track—without nagging too much—can make the difference between admission and rejection.

Compiling an accurate master schedule and ensuring that things get done on time makes you a real asset to your child’s college counselor.  If you think about how many kids the typical guidance counselor is responsible for—how many different colleges each of those kids is considering and then applying to—the number of required forms and deadlines is mind-boggling.  Important dates can be missed.  

Share your calendar with the college counselor, and don’t criticize him or her for not knowing about a required form or deadline.  You want the counselor to be your child’s advocate right up to the moment the kid sets foot in that college dorm—and even after that.  Should your child want to change colleges after a year or two, the high school counselor can still be an important ally.  

Don’t miss deadlines.  Colleges receive applications from many more qualified kids than they can possibly accept.  So, unfortunately, admission officers look for reasons to reject kids. They aren’t sadists, and they don’t take pleasure in it.  But a missed deadline—even a misspelling or two—is enough to weed out otherwise terrific kids.

Keep a master file.  In the old days of just a few years ago, the homes of college-bound students would be inundated with glossy four-color brochures, view books and assorted handouts from colleges.  That is still largely the case, but more and more college marketing is digital.  Instead of a corner of your kid’s bedroom piled high with college materials, come up with a filing system that works for you and your child.  Important materials will be less likely to get lost, or required submissions overlooked.  In addition, keep a digital file of college websites and reviews.

Keep a digital backup.  Computers do crash.  And the last thing you want is to lose the latest version of her college essay—the night before it is due.  Keep a backup of every draft—and every document submitted—on an external hard drive, flash drive or secure server.

Visit as many colleges as possible. Schools like students to show an interest in their campus. More important, a personal visit can be decisive for students choosing a college.

First Published September 14, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


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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