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.”


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.   

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.

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.   

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.

If you have questions about college admission, e-mail us at GettingIn2012@Gmail.com.   We’ll do our best to give you clear, honest answers. Steve Cohen and Mike Muska are co-authors of Getting In!

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First Published Tue, 2011-09-06 13:46

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