Grad Admissions: Helicopter Parents

By - Nov 19, 00:32 AM Comments [0]

The New York Times published an article this week "Letting Your Grad Student Go " on the phenomenon of helicopter parents in graduate schools admissions. Yes, I mean graduate, not undergraduate, admissions.

I have a dual perspective on helicopter parenting. I have been working in graduate admissions as a private consultant for the last fifteen years, and I also am the mother of five children ranging in age from 21-28. As the article reports my baby-boomer peers, the mothers and fathers of millenials, are playing more and more of a role in the application process.

As a consultant I have no problem with parents calling for information, footing the bill for Accepted's services, and providing advice and input to their adult children when the children request it.

As a parent, however, I cringe when parents insert themselves into the admissions process and attempt to control it in a misguided attempt to protect their children from possible disappointment or perhaps even perceived failure. While the desire to shield children from experiencing disappointment is understandable, it would be so much more constructive for their children, if the parents selectively support their children's goals and help them deal with disappointment when it inevitably comes their  way. Parents will neither always be able to prevent their children from feeling pain nor around to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. Kids need to learn how to handle setbacks.

Furthermore, parents who take over the application process are sending multiple negative messages.

  1. To the school they are saying, "We don't have enough confidence in our children to let them manage the application process (or their affairs) on their own."
  2. To the child they are saying "We don't have enough confidence in your ability to handle your affairs so we are going to take over this critical part of your life."

Regarding #1, if parents don't have the confidence that their adults children can manage their own affairs, why should school have confidence that they will be the leaders of tomorrow?

More concretely, I spoke today to an admissions officer at a top business school. She told me of parents and other older relatives coming to pre-application information sessions and to post-acceptance admit weekends. The older relatives were asking more questions than the accepted student.

That makes a bad impression.

If you are an applicant reading this post, then just as the NY Times says, set limits for your parents and older members of your extended family.

  • All communication with the school should be between you -- not your parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents -- and the school.
  • Consider carefully your parents' advice on school and professional options. They want wants best for you. However, parents are human too and they are not infallible. You are going to live your life, work in the profession you choose, and attend the school you go to. Not your parents. The decision is yours and you will bear the consequences -- good or bad.
  • Never take your parents to an admissions interview.

Parents, if you are reading this post.

  • Your child is an adult. Demonstrate confidence in his or her ability by letting them run their life.
  • Offer advice when sought and occasionally even when not, but respect your adult children's ability to run their life. It doesn't reflect well on your parenting skills if they can't make important decisions.
  • Help you child deal with disappointment -- be it a rejection or poor score -- by helping them to explore alternatives and examine the factors they can change to improve the outcome in the future. Don't play the blame game.

For more on these themes, please see:

  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol S. Dweck
  • Raising Resilient Children by Dr. Robert Brooks and Dr. Sam Goldstein (More for parents of younger children, but the principles still apply.)

By Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted.

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