In the ever-competitive college application world, parents are not just taking their kids on college tours and signing a few checks. They're researching schools, helping write essays, and asking the tough questions. Exactly when is it time to let go?
DURING THE 2006 COLLEGE APPLICATION SEASON, ALEX DALY'S parents became the envy of his friends - not because they left the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student alone to make his own choices without any pressure, but rather because they didn't. His mother researched schools for him online, kept track of application deadlines, helped brainstorm essay topics with him, and made travel arrangements to see all the campuses that piqued his interest. "A lot of my friends, their parents weren't as involved," says Alex, who's now a junior at St. Lawrence University in New York State and who wants to become a history teacher one day. "They weren't visiting schools or going online all the time. By not having the same family situation I had, a lot of people were jealous."
There has been a lot of talk about parents today being too involved, of not letting go of their kids, but nowhere is that more visible than in the increasingly competitive college admissions process. A Google search of the phrase "helicopter parent" - that rather derogatory nickname for Baby Boomers who hover incessantly over their kids - turned up 2.5 million hits. Yet according to a 2007 College Board survey, students themselves seem to have no problem with all that hovering. Even though 95 percent of college students say their parents played a significant role in the application process, 28 percent wish Mom and Dad had been even more involved. Just 6 percent would have liked their parents to back off a little bit.
"We had fun doing everything we did," remembers Alex, now 20, who says his parents were careful not to push him toward any particular campus. His younger sister, Heather, a 2008 Lincoln-Sudbury graduate, agrees. "They were really supportive of what I wanted," says Heather, 18, a freshman at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She wanted a liberal-arts school where she could explore diverse interests like archaeology, psychology, or astronomy.
Heather's only complaint about her parents' role? They weren't active enough. "When I wanted to write my essay or my resume, I felt sometimes like I could have used a little more help at home," she says. "Getting that personal element into the essay was harder to do by myself, because I didn't know what [admissions officers] were looking for. My mom helped me out a little, just checking for grammatical errors, but not much."
We all know that just because kids (or adults) want something doesn't mean it's good for them. Finding that balance between helping and, well, doing it all for the kids is tough for many parents, and college applications up the stakes - and the anxiety. In this context, "good for them" can mean two things: good in the sense of their overall human development, and good in the sense of getting them into the college of their (or Mom's or Dad's) choice.
I write often about education and youth, and for this article I had more requests for anonymity than any other in recent memory. Why? Parents were afraid of being labeled as "involved" - which they saw as code for "controlling, neurotic, and the true author of her kid's college essays." Plus, I suspect, they feared some admissions official might read this article and think, "Susie Q. needed her mother to remind her to put her Social Security number on every page? REJECT!!!"
IT WOULD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT TO SAY THE COLLEGE application process can send rational people around the bend. I spent much of the last decade teaching prep-school English, and the anxiety - paranoia, even - seemed to increase each year as elite schools became more competitive. Everyone was always certain other people's parents or paid college coaches were writing essays and doctoring audition tapes. Yet in the same 2007 survey, in which respondents were anonymous, just 3 percent of students admitted their parents wrote some or all of their applications. That's 3 percent too many, sure, but not an epidemic. That means most parents are offering what college counselor Adam Goldberg of Braintree calls the right kind of assistance: acting as a sounding board and providing support with transportation, money, and research. For the most part, their kids like it and want even more.
April Chase-Lubitz of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, is serving as chief researcher as her daughter Lily heads into her senior year at the Moses Brown School in Providence. "I am on the computer looking up schools, what programs they offer, what extracurriculars, and what the review sites say about them," says April. For the schools in which Lily expressed interest, April created a chart showing the student body size, the percentage of students with Lily's SAT scores who got accepted last year, and Lily's impressions after a visit.
April acknowledges taking a keen interest in the research - sometimes, keener than her daughter. She says she's had to catch herself a few times from crossing into helicopter realm, and makes a point of keeping her mouth shut on college tours until after Lily has registered an opinion. "She doesn't usually interject during the tour," says Lily, 17, a lively, dark-haired girl who loves the theater. "Afterward, I tell her how I felt and she tells me how she felt. But she doesn't sway me." Lily likes discussing the pros and cons of each campus with April and appreciates her mother's keeping track of deadlines. "She keeps me in line," Lily laughs. Yet like Heather Daly, Lily says she's envious of classmates whose parents push them harder - or, perhaps more accurately, she envies the results of the pushing. "When they say how far along they are [with the college process], I'm kind of jealous. Because of their parents, they've completed a lot more than I have."
There's a lot about parenting and college that can prompt the condescending "in my day" from those not in the throes of it: In my day, we went to the school closest to home. We didn't expect our parents to chauffeur us across the nation comparing the organic produce in student centers. We were just happy if we could afford college at all.
It's true that in my day - that would be 1992 - I didn't have a lot of heart-to-hearts with my parents about my college goals, and I don't recall much input from them on my applications. Those were the halcyon days of the Baby Bust, when a kid with good grades and SAT scores didn't need a published novel, Olympic medal, or her own charitable organization to get into the Ivy League. There was, I think, less anxiety. College didn't seem as weighty a decision for me as it does for the teens I know now. My parents didn't treat it as a life-defining moment. We didn't have endless Internet research available.
Yet I find myself not so much nostalgic for those days as a little envious of kids like Alex, Heather, and Lily. See, I didn't make the wisest choice. Brown University was too freewheeling for the kid I was at 17, even though I so wanted to think of myself as a student who didn't need structure. Had my mother done all the research and told me which schools would suit me best, I might have found a better match. Of course, that's if I'd listened to her, which is unlikely. In 1992, it wasn't kosher for a teen to admit that her parents might know more about her needs than she did. But in 2008, when I ask Lily for her advice for other kids choosing and applying to colleges, she says this: "Your parents are the ones who know you best."
Alison Lobron is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.