Since the FBI revealed its "Operation Varsity Blues," charging a group of super-rich parents with massive college-admissions fraud, outrage has been widespread. But family income and other forms of influence have long played a role in college admissions. Meanwhile, the scandal has also spurred a broader conversation about the role of parents and other adults in the application process.
The following are highlights from a conversation with a private admissions counselor and a longtime teacher who joined The Exchange on Tuesday, March 19: Pulling Back the Curtain on College Admissions. The excerpts have been edited for clarity. Listen to the entire program here.
Many agree that the parents charged in the Operation Varsity Blues drastically overstepped, but the parental role is something to keep in mind at all income levels, according to Jessica Lahey, a teacher at Valley Vista in Bradford, Vt., and the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed. When she works with students on college essays, she sees a “really difficult line between helping a student craft a sentence and stepping in and crafting the sentence for them. My line is very clear: I don't ever write anything for students. But it's a very difficult line [for] parents."
- Encourage them to advocate for themselves: Lahey reminds parents that “this is really one of their last chances to learn these things [under your guidance]. Encourage your kids to get to know their teachers “because when you do that, you have someone who really has gotten to know you. Then they can [write recommendation letters]... You can really tell the difference when a teacher really understands where that student is coming from, what their home situation is, and the challenges that they face.
- Get another point of view: Lahey believes a teacher connection serves a few purposes, including acting as a trustworthy third party: “It can be really helpful for a kid to have an objective third party look at their essay, as opposed to a parent because there's so much emotional freight there.”
- Listen to your kids: Lahey believes you’ll learn what they want in a college or how they are learning to manage independent work, like filling out college applications. And Lahey thinks the college application is a good time to reflect on your parenting: “If you're referring to your child's college application as 'our application' maybe you need to pull back a little bit.”
The college application process is a good time to start creating distance between your child’s success and your own, says Lahey, who hears from a lot of parents, who are concerned about conveying a certain image: “I'm so concerned that if I don't do these things, that people are going to look at me and say, ‘I'm not doing enough, my parenting is not good enough, my kid is not good enough’ and that's not going to result in that sticker that we need on the back of our car.”
- Start letting go: “The bottom line is they have to begin...to take ownership of this process because...once they get to college...they will be the ones responsible for their experiences on these college campuses,” according to Maria Laskaris, Senior Private Counselor at Top Tier Admissions and the former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College.
- Help your children see beyond the top schools: Laskaris, who works as a private admissions counselor, says “all too often students may not realize the breadth of options available to them and so they fixate on a handful of schools.” She believes parents can paint a bigger picture and introduce considerations such as location, lifestyle and major.
- Consider community college: Lahey thinks it’s a great place to “figure out what the heck it is they want to do before they actually head off to a four-year university; and you can transfer many of those credits.”
- Teach them to take advantage of what’s available: "It's really what you make of the opportunities that you're afforded and how you develop as a student, as a person," says Laskaris. "Once you leave college, it's up to you to make the most of that opportunity and take that into the workforce.”
- Take it from a former admissions officer: Laskaris says: “They recognize that the playing field is not level, and they are actively working to find ways to create opportunities, not just to admit the students, but to then provide them resources so they can thrive. That knowledge can change how college applicants think of themselves compared to other applicants."
- The ideal student profile has changed: “The urban legend or mythology around the admissions process is that you have to have these sort of cool and unique internships...in order to be a competitive applicant,” says Laskaris, who wants to dispel that myth. Admissions committees are instead interested in whether students display genuine intellectual curiosity and whether they challenged themselves in high school. This can help committees assess a student's potential based on what resources were available, rather than economic advantages.
College is an expensive endeavor, but there are some free resources students can use for test prep, college essays, and earning an education.
- Khan Academy offers personalized SAT tutoring and a comprehensive guide to applying for college. Younger students can benefit from their full suite of tutoring programs in math, science and the humanities. And it’s free.
- The New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation, or NHHEAF, offers planning guides for every stage in higher education. This guide was designed for parents.
- Making Caring Common recently published some guidelines to help you consider the ethical and emotional aspects of the admission process: Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process. See the highlights for parents first.