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

You shouldn’t do it, for three reasons. First, it is wrong.  Second, a kid-written essay provides the admission committee with genuine insight into your child—her passions, fears and hopes.  A parent’s tweaks often cause that texture and candor to be watered down, or even lost.  Your kid is applying, not you.  Third, admission officers know in a heartbeat when an essay wasn’t written by the kid alone. 

Admission officers typically read 50 essays a night.  And even with applications to the most selective colleges, it is not hard to tell the difference between an essay written by an 18-year-old and one written by a 45-year-old. The slightest suspicion that the essay received more than proofreading help from a parent can knock a kid into the reject pile.

Don’t ask the “influential” business associate for a recommendation. There is a saying at many selective colleges’ admission offices: the thicker the folder, the thicker the kid.  Applications with even one extraneous, attempt-to-influence recommendation can backfire.  

If your child hasn’t worked for the influential person, or the big donor hasn’t known Junior since he was three, don’t ask for the recommendation.  It does no good, and can hurt.

Understand the “hook.”  Contrary to the widespread belief, good colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid—they’re looking for the well-rounded class.  That means they want a few super-students for each academic department; great athletes for each sports team; superb writers for the school newspaper and literary journal; actors, dancers, student politicos, etc.—the passionate kids who together make up a community. 

The “hook” is our shorthand for how your child will be “positioned” in the admission officer’s mind—what niche your son or daughter will occupy in that year’s group of applicants.

You want to make it easy for the admission officer to “hang his hat” on your child’s candidacy—to be able to say to his colleagues, “This is Sam Smith, the kid who…(fill in the blank).”

An "unhooked" kid is more difficult for schools to accept.

Go for the “right” school, not the “best” school.  Everybody pays attention to college rankings; we’d be lying if we suggested otherwise.  But there is a big difference between the right school and the so-called best school.  

Colleges are very different; they have unique personalities. Nobody who knows anything about colleges would claim that Brown and Columbia—or Wesleyan and Amherst, or Georgetown and Duke—are similar.  Brown and Columbia are both urban Ivy League institutions, and they are nothing alike.  Figuring out what is right for your child—based on her strengths, weaknesses, interests and ambitions—is the goal.  Making college decisions because a particular school is “ranked” higher than another is foolhardy.  Brand value of a college counts—but not as much as fit.

You’ll find that once you truly accept the value of “fit” over “name,” the admission process will go much smoother.  That approach will reduce tension and may even improve your relationship with your child.  (We don’t want to get in over our heads here.) Your willingness to focus on finding the right school—not just the “highest ranked”—demonstrates great concern for her happiness and is far more important than what the neighbors might think.

Helicopter moms certainly don’t love their kids any less than less-involved parents.  Simply wanting what is best for your child is perfectly normal.  And when it comes to college admission, there are right ways to help, in which everyone wins.

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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