Parents Get Application Apoplexy

December 26, 2004 | By Sandra Yin

College applications are keeping parents up late.

It was about 3:30 in the morning when a mother squinted at the glow of the computer screen and e-mailed a consultant for help. She worried that her daughter’s application essay took too many risks.

Another mother this fall told her daughter to send a college pictures of herself in third grade to show how much she had matured.

One parent smuggled even her child’s application essay into a holiday party. She then pulled an educational consultant into an empty room for tips on how to improve the essay.

High school seniors are scrambling to meet Jan. 1 deadlines for many college applications—and some overprotective “helicopter” parents are hovering over them each step of the process. Mary Ann Maimone is an application reader for the College of William and Mary and a member of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board, and she has some simple advice for these families.

“Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed,” she says. “You’re not getting married.”

Parents are getting more involved in the college application process, says educational consultant Samuel Barnett. He’s worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova and the U.S. Naval Academy. He is now based in Vienna, Va., and works with students and their parents as they prepare college applications.

“I often have parents who make suggestions that are counterproductive,” Barnett says.

He still remembers the father who was a retail marketing specialist. The man made his son send each application in a folder with the school’s name labeled with press-apply letters and a digital printout of the college logo. Sometimes, Barnett said, it seems like parents are convinced that the more suffering that goes into an application, the better it is.

Other parents offer more practical help. Warwick High School senior Camil Liceaga says her mother sorts through her mail and reminds her to get parts of the application in. The 17-year-old is ranked No. 1 in her class of 335. Warwick senior Kristina Harris counts on her father to fill out her online applications after she hands him completed hard copies.

Author Neil Howe calls these involved parents “helicopter parents” because of their tendency to hover over their children. Howe is co-author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

He says there’s been a shift in our society’s sense of what we owe our children that’s made parents more protective. The child protection movement that boomed in the 1990s and spawned child car seats and Megan’s Law was one sign of the change. In contrast to latchkey Gen-Xers, the kids born after 1982, who are far more likely to have after-school hours that are scheduled and chaperoned.

To be sure, the hovering parents’ involvement can offer perspective. And like generations of parents, they want their kids to have better opportunities than they had.

Heather Chapman, a senior at Jamestown High School, said she doesn’t want to go to college. She’d rather go to Australia to sing and be near her band and recording studio. Her mother wants her to have the four-year experience that she didn’t have.

After a tug of war, Heather found it easier to go along. She took the SATs for the first time in October. Her father, Philip, said they pushed her to apply to schools to keep her options open, in case the Australia option vanishes.

The months or weeks of college application work can be nerve-wracking for parents. It’s the first time they can’t absolutely control the outcome for their children. Often enough, students who are legacies or whose parents donated a few million to a school are able to leapfrog over others more academically qualified for a coveted spot in the entering class.

Consultants say that parents do not always realize that the application process is when they should begin to let go.

“They have to know when to back off,” said Maimone, who has also been assistant dean of students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a school administrator at a private school.

Too often, high school seniors and their parents get stressed out by assuming there’s just one perfect college, and the fear of not getting in either paralyzes them or makes them manic.

Maimone counsels students to remember that there are different paths to the same place.

“I’ve never known anyone’s life to be ruined by not getting into a certain college,” Barnett said. “If I had any piece of advice for families, it’s this: Take a breath. The sun will come out tomorrow.”