Beyond telegraphing to students that it’s okay to cheat, the message these parents sent to their children was: You know all that hard work you did in high school? None of it is good enough.
Admittedly, the college application process can be overwhelming, and kids could use some assistance navigating it all. But if the college application process feels like it’s gotten out of hand, we parents—with our resources and connections, degrees and expectations—are at least partly to blame.
“Can we just say how crazy it is that we even have to have this conversation in the first place?” says Macy Lenox, a mom of two and an associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia. “As a parent myself, I don’t come to this from a place of judgement, but from one of understanding. We’re drowning our kids in our best intentions. We’ve lost sight of our job, which is not to be the applicant, but to be the best supporters of the applicant we can be.” This means demonstrating confidence in their abilities, says Lenox. “By doing things for them, you’re saying I can do this better than you. Part of our job is empowering them to be advocates for themselves; to be successful in college, you’ve got to be able to use your own voice.”
Yet when we hear stories from friends or read posts on social media about all the hoop-jumping necessary to get into college these days, it’s understandably crazy-making. Even the most stalwart defenders of their kids’ independence can lose sight of the line between supporting and doing the work for them. And while most parents would rightfully balk at the idea of, say, rigging their kid’s SAT score, or Photoshopping their child’s face onto the body of an athlete in a sport their kid doesn’t play, the writing of college essays—with their lack of oversight, benchmarks or guarantees—remains a gray area.
Shawn Felton, senior director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University, stresses how essential it is that kids don’t leapfrog over the opportunities for introspection intrinsic in writing essays. “Applying to college is a milestone marked by an applicant’s commitment to invest in further engaging, understanding and communicating themselves [to people] beyond those who have always known them,” Felton tells me. “Colleges ask applicants to take a look inside themselves and consider who they are and what they want. My hope is that individuals invest in better knowing themselves during this moment, and that they bring a real authenticity to communicating with colleges when writing their essays.”
Parents can, however, support their kids through this process, which includes encouraging them to do the challenging and ultimately gratifying work of telling their story on the page. Here, college admissions experts offer four reasons why parents should take a step back—and one way we can lean into the moment.
Writing their college essays helps kids gear up for success after high school. “The admission experience is a precursor to life in college—parents are