Family Matters

The Latest Trend in College Admissions: Parents Write Letters of Recommendation

Some colleges are starting to ask Mom and Dad to put in a written plug for their progeny in the college admissions process.

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We’re coming up on a super-stressful time of year for high school seniors: some already have learned via early admission which colleges accepted or rejected them, but many more will find out in April where they’ll be spending the next four years of their lives.

Increasingly, their parents may have played a role in whether the news calls for celebration. In an era of helicopter parenting, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mom and dad may be penning letters of recommendation for Junior. Recently, the Associated Press reported on a handful of colleges — including Smith College, Mt. Holyoke and Holy Cross in Massachusetts, St. Anselm in New Hampshire and the University of Richmond — that welcome parents to write letters of recommendation for their children who are applying.

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It’s unclear to me what a parent could possibly have to say that could serve to both enlighten and come off as semi-objective and thus semi-useful. According to the AP:

What do parents tell colleges about their flesh and blood? Rarely anything bad, to be sure (though sadly, it does happen). A fair share burst with predictably over-the-top pride in their children’s virtues, which are dated back to infancy, and in some cases, utero (a few years ago, Smith decided to impose a single-page limit).

But there’s a reason Smith has stuck with the process for about 20 years now, despite the extra work, says Smith’s director of admission, Deb Shaver. Sometimes parents offer just the kind of color that can bring to life a candidate whose full personality is hidden in a portrait painted only with grades, test scores and traditional recommendations letters from teachers and guidance counselors.

“You might think they do nothing but brag,” Shaver said. “But parents really nail their kids. They really get to the essence of what their daughter is about in a way we can’t get anywhere else.”

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For now, the trend appears pretty self-contained. Perhaps that’s because, as the “Ask the Dean” guru at College Confidential explained, the majority of admissions counselors didn’t seem to be big fans when the topic came up on the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) listserv.

I was amazed by how many college admission folks made disparaging remarks about parent references. It was as if I could almost seeing [sic] them rolling their eyes in cyberspace. The general consensus seemed to be that, of course, parents are going to support their kids, so the letters will inevitably lack credibility. Some college staffers even called the letters pretentious, their authors pompous or misguided.

Wisely, it turns out that those admissions officers who sanction the practice aren’t really seeking objectivity from parents; they’re seeking texture. And who better to offer that than the people who’ve been there from day one? Still, it does seem a little strange. Parents, do you think you could write a useful college recommendation for your flesh and blood?