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

Most of us want our kids to go to “great” schools. Often we equate “great” with a handful of highly selective, or “name,” colleges.  That is understandable.  But those schools may not be a good fit for your child.  What we loved as undergraduates may not be right for our offspring.  

Your child will have a much better college experience if you allow—indeed, encourage— him to explore lots of different types of schools.  Even those you had thought of as “wrong.”

Remember, you’re not going to be spending four years there—he is. It is not how you feel about a place, it is how comfortable or excited he is.  To that end, if your child wants to visit a college that is not on your radar screen, indulge him.  In turn, be helpful in recommending (realistic) places you think he should at least explore. During visits, you will be shocked to see how finely attuned his sense of “fit” is.  Kids can often walk onto a college campus and “know” in minutes whether the place is right for them. 

Whenever possible, schedule an on-campus interview for your child.  These interviews require advance planning and are important.  (Many larger universities, along with the Ivy League colleges, do not do one-on-one campus interviews.  They do, however, conduct alumni interviews in or near your hometown.  Make sure you schedule these as well.) Do mock interviews with your kid before the real ones, or make sure she practices with others. Get her to come up with thoughtful comments and questions specific to the school, based on her research and her campus visit.

When you show up on campus, do not say, “We’re here for our interview.”  That sends the worst helicopter mom message.  Once you arrive, let your child take charge.

Keep a journal.  As you visit more and more places, and talk to more and more people, colleges will start to blur in your mind.  Was that the school with the freshman seminars, or the one with the winter intercession?  During or just after your visit, jot down pertinent differences between this school and others; your reaction to the school; and your kid’s comments while on campus.  Not only will a journal help you make better-informed and well-reasoned decisions, it will be something you and your child will enjoy sharing in later years.

Don’t let the process dominate your life or conversation.  Yes, the admission process can seem overwhelming.  Don’t let it become all-consuming.  Have a place in the house where conversation about it is off-limits. Some families find that the dining room table is the perfect place not to allow talk of colleges or chances of getting in.

Do smarter research.  There are lots of guidebooks and websites devoted to college profiles and admission strategies.  (Obviously we’re partial to our own.)  The best resources, however, are often hidden deep in the college’s own websites.  Whether it is the student newspaper, the campus schedule of events, or course/teacher evaluations that you peruse, you can get a much clearer sense of a school than you will elsewhere.  You want there to be a real “fit” between the college’s “personality” and your child’s.

Don’t “tweak” your kid’s essay.  The essay is a very important part of the application.  It is the best window a college has into your child’s personality, interests and aspirations.  Some admission officers at top colleges say they read the essay before they look at grades or SAT scores.  

We all have the desire to read our kid’s essay, correct the grammar, check the spelling and, well, make suggestions.  It is OK to do all of these things.  It is not OK to rewrite your kid’s essay—or even “tweak” it.   

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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