Originally printed in The Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet”
One of the hardest parts of a college admissions officer’s job — if not the hardest part — is dealing with some of the entitled or unrealistic parents of students who are trying to figure out where to apply to college. Here is a piece on things that college admissions officers say they would like to tell some of the parents with whom they deal — if they could be as blunt as they want — or things they actually say but that fall on deaf ears. This was written by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6-12 in Manchester, N.H., who asked some of his colleagues for contributions.
By Brennan Barnard
“Tell me how you really feel,” I responded sarcastically after listening for 10 minutes to a colleague unleash his frustration about parents at his school.
“Don’t they realize what they are doing to their kids?” he said. “Why won’t they hear the truth? If only I could bluntly tell them what I know from years of counseling students on college admission!”
The job of college counselors and admission officers is to support families as they navigate this period of transition and opportunity. Part of our role as educators is to provide feedback and guidance at a precarious time when often students and parents feel uneasy, vulnerable, reactive and skeptical. Sensitivity and tact are the coins of our realm, but even so, young people and their parents can benefit from hearing the unvarnished truth.
I asked fellow counselors and admission officers to provide straight talk on the college admission journey and here is what they came up with — some of which they wish they could say.
“This isn’t your journey; you aren’t going to the school. Students have to pick a school where they will be happy and successful, not relive your college days or fix what you think you did wrong.”
“If you focus on your kids’ reach schools, no matter how you couch it, you will send them a hurtful message that they have disappointed you. Whether you choose to believe it or not, the messages you send your kids about the colleges on their lists, whether overt messages or subliminal, will make or break the process for them.”
“Don’t get your kids Ivy League sweatshirts in 9th grade. Don’t put down other schools. I have seen many kids get into and want to go to the schools parents thought were unsuitable. Every kid wants to please their parents whether they show it or not.”
“What do you want for your child? Does success look like prestige and wealth, or it is about something more? Did your college define who you are?
“They are human beings and not human doers.”
“Let your kid make mistakes, take responsibility for the failed test, missed deadlines and deal with the consequences. High school is a forgiving and soft pillow for these experiences. The world and college are not!”
“Are your kids happy and healthy? Tell them you love them and are so proud of them. Please prioritize your child’s happiness and growth over the prestige of their college choice.”
“The most stunning comment I have ever heard was, ‘I understand that he isn’t in the top half of the class but I can’t believe you are telling me he is in the bottom half.’”
“Colleges don’t admit based on how badly the applicant wants to go there; they admit on talent and skill. Therefore, just because your child worked ‘so so so hard in school’ and wants to get in ‘so so so badly’, that is not enough of a reason to be accepted, even if the GPA is 4.0.”
“Your kids know what speaks to them, what makes them happy and fulfilled, what inspires them, and what gives them a sense of purpose. Allow them to follow their own dreams, to make their own mistakes, and to forge their own paths. Stop fighting their battles. This is not your life; it’s theirs.”
“In your child’s junior and senior years, be sure to have many conversations with him or her about something other than the college search and application process. Many families fall into a vortex of all-college-all-the-time, and that’s not healthy. Here is a simple guideline: for everyone one college chat, have two about something else.”
“College is not the end point. It’s just the beginning. Your child should be in a place where they can continue to explore their interests and grow academically, civically, and personally.”
“Your children are terrified of disappointing you. The only thing you need to say throughout this process is ‘I love you’ and ‘I am already proud of you.’”
“At the vast majority of colleges a driven student who takes advantage of internships, career services, and alumni will be totally fine. A school can be a right fit to fully empower a student, but a driven student can achieve great things almost anywhere.”
“The four years of college are a time for students to discover who they are and what kind of person they want to be. So much in higher education has shifted towards vocational training, and understandably so given the price tag, but let your son or daughter entertain that interest in the liberal arts, music, theater or a major to which it is difficult to tie a career. They will end up just fine!”
“Figure out whether you can afford X and Y college, before your child spends months agonizing on essays, applications, and waiting. Be honest with your child about what you can afford. It’s irresponsible to say to your kid ‘apply where you want’ and when they get into the college they want, parents say, sorry honey we can’t afford it.”
“Merit awards are selective. Appreciate them if your child is awarded one, but don’t expect or demand them. Just because your child was admitted doesn’t mean they are entitled to a scholarship. Sometimes just being admitted is the merit award.”
“Not wanting to take out loans is a personal choice. It is not up to the college to make up the difference. Do not expect that any college will cover the full cost for your child to attend”
“If you would like to ask questions about financial aid at the college meeting for parents, please leave your Chanel outfit and Tesla at home. Please do not ask me if colleges will look at your second homes and boat slips. And no, I will not help you hide your money when you apply for financial aid.”
“Unfortunately, your second home/vacation home, does not provide you with instate tuition for the state that it is located in.”
“A parent would be appalled if their kid woke up on Christmas morning and said, ‘what else am I going to get?’ It is appalling to see the lack of gratitude parents have toward colleges’ aid packages and the ‘what else’ mentality. You are not buying a car, you are investing in your kid’s future.”
“Ask colleges early what percentage of need they meet for families. Knowing this early on should help you guide your kid in the appropriate direction to which schools to apply.”
“A family’s ability to pay is such a huge x-factor in the college admission process. If the public at large understood just how much of a role money plays in admission decisions and in the recruitment process, they would be appalled. If you think college admissions is a meritocracy, think again. The reality is scandalous. This is the most closely guarded secret in higher education.”
And One More Thing…:
“Don’t call a college pretending to be your kid. We know. Don’t write an email pretending to be your kid. We know.”
“Confront your own ‘branding’ needs. How important is prestige to you? Are you blinded by it? How important is name-dropping on the cocktail circuit?”
“Stop micro-managing your child.”
“Listen, listen, and listen some more.”
“Please stop over-editing your child’s essay. A 17-year-old-male should not sound like a 50-year-old woman!!”
“When you accompany your child on a college tour, let your son/daughter be the one to ask questions.”
“Could your 17-year-old self handle the pressure that you’re putting on your student?”
“Help your child to learn how to live in the day to day and to deal with uncertainty- it is the best thing you can teach them.”
“Take a silent meditation retreat the week before the start of your child’s senior year. Better yet, do this every year of high school.”
“First, do not approach the effort of searching for and applying to college as a ‘process’ – doing so robs this rite of passage experience of its luster and makes it only about an outcome.”