Pushy Parents and Other Tales of the Admissions Game

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, October 6, 2000

“We’re juniors.”

She was smiling at me with teeth as pearly as the single-strand around her cashmere-encased neck. She had yellow-white hair that could only have been called “coiffed.” Standing behind her and a little to the side was a sullen creature with stringy hair, a nose ring, cargo jeans, and a tanned puppy-fattish belly that peeked out from beneath a tight Abercrombie T-shirt.

“Excuse me?” Though befuddled, I was trying to be polite.

“We’re juniors, and we’re thinking about applying to Duke,” said the glamorous 50-something. “What can you tell us about your premed program? How many of your students are accepted by Harvard’s medical school? What major is most likely to gain a student acceptance?

“And tell me, please, do you have a chapter of Kappa Kappa?”

During the three years I spent as an admissions officer at Duke, lots of things surprised me: how competitive the admissions process at selective institutions really is, how decisions are actually made (and the “special” factors that are taken into account in those decisions), the cottage industry that has sprung up to prey upon the fears and anxieties of parents and applicants, and a host of other tidbits, savory and un, that you get to know only by being part of the process. But, in some ways, what surprised me most was the intense involvement of parents.

As another year of the college-admissions cycle gets under way, I find I’m still getting a lot of questions. Only, now, I can be more honest.

“We’re juniors,” I was told by middle-aged mothers at college fairs, during school visits, and in the lobby of Duke’s admissions office. Parents today tour the country with children in tow, looking for the right fit. Whose idea of what fits, however, is sometimes in question. More than a few times, I had the experience of asking questions of an applicant and being answered by a parent. Of having to tell parents they couldn’t come into interviews with their kids. Of calling for questions at the end of information sessions, and getting them, most often, from parents rather than applicants.

Once, after three long weeks of travel, I decided to experiment. I told a group in Northern California that we paid attention to who was asking questions. After all, I reminded them, the parents wouldn’t be the ones taking college calculus tests or writing term papers on Paradise Lost. That evening, instead of the usual mob scene, only one parent came up at the end of the session. I wished I’d figured that little trick out earlier in my admissions career.

The first time I was “on call” — answering the random telephone calls that stream into the admissions office — and I got the “elementary school” question, I was horrified. “We just moved to Durham,” said the mom. “Which elementary school should we send our son to if we want to get him into Duke?” The frequency of that question began to upset me. So did: “How can I best prepare my second grader for the SAT?” Those parents weren’t joking.

Back then, I wanted to respond: “It’s possible that, by the time your second grader is ready to apply to college, the class-biased SAT, which gives us little insight except perhaps into family income, will have been abolished. We will have found more interesting, complex ways to look at 17-year-olds.” My brother chose to attend Bowdoin, in part because the college didn’t require him to take the SAT. Mount Holyoke has just made it optional. Will the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges ever become so advanced? Probably not.

I didn’t say any of that when asked about elementary schools; I just muttered a vague answer about learning vocabulary.

On call, I also fielded “dad calls.” Dads tended to recite a list of achievements of their children first, before they got to any question. “She’s very impressive,” he’d say. “Has 1350, in the top 10 percent of her class — and it’s a very competitive high school. She’s captain of field hockey and president of debate. You’re going to want her.” Often, I was already thinking, “Poor kid, she probably won’t have a chance of getting in.” I’d still be waiting for a question. Which would turn out to be something like “Should she take A.P. statistics [which he thought would be useful] or music theory [which was what she wanted to take]?”

“Let her take what she wants.”

“Will that help her get in?”

Sometimes, parents called for an honest assessment. “He’s wanted to go to Duke for years, but I’m worried that he’ll be turned down,” the compassionate mom would say. “I don’t want him to be disappointed.” She’d rattle off some facts about his candidacy — test scores, grades, extracurriculars. I’d tell her there was no way of really knowing his chances without seeing an application. Then, I’d sometimes try to add, “But, in my candid assessment, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound likely.” If they were already that worried about their chances, they weren’t likely to be competitive. “Thank you,” mom would say, “that’s what I thought.”

Now, from the perspective of most admissions offices, the answer I gave isn’t “right.” The job of admissions officers is to recruit, to boost application numbers. The more applications, the lower the admit rate, the higher the institutional ranking. Increasing application numbers is usually the No. 1 mandate of the recruiting season. Partly, that means trying to get the very best students to apply. But it also means trying to persuade those regular, old Bright Well-Rounded Kids (B.W.R.K.’s, in admissionese) to apply — so that the college can reject them and bolster its selectivity rating. Reject them because there are so many of them, and because they’re actually not as interesting as the “well-lopsided” kids — those who have shown real prowess and potential in a more focused manner.

I can understand how hard it is for parents to watch their children go through what is, in fact, a brutal process. In addition to the realization that they have little control over what’s going on, parents also face separation anxiety, recognizing that the nest will be a little more empty next year. And it’s not easy to see someone you love having to deal with rejection. The way application numbers are these days, most kids are going to face rejection from at least one college.

So I don’t in the least blame parents for being anxious. But I wonder about the mothers who called my office sobbing when their children were rejected or wait-listed. Or the fathers who screamed at me, claiming they would appeal this wrong decision. The truth is, there is no real appeal. Colleges can choose whomever they want, and there’s not much anyone else can do, particularly not screaming or sobbing parents.

How do these people console their children when they themselves seem inconsolable?

Most admissions officers also get “we’ve been admitted” calls. Last spring, I got one about “Jessie,” the daughter of two high-powered parents. She had not been a strong applicant, but her grandfather had been a strong Duke supporter. As admissions offices do for some weaker applicants in whom there is “institutional” interest, we had taken Jessie off the waiting list. When I called to tell her, she was, not surprisingly, ecstatic. She’d been turned down by a large number of colleges, including her own state institutions.

Jessie’s mom later called to ask if I would put together a package of additional materials. She wanted the information in our recruiting publications, in addition to the matriculating-student stuff already sent. The mom had clearly been involved in the application process — and had hired an independent college counselor to help out — and she wanted me to tell her why Jessie had finally been admitted. I stammered on that one, saying something about how, in reading Jessie’s application, I’d felt a gentleness and a humility come through. That was true. Mom wanted me to tell Jessie when they came to visit during the summer.

I agreed to meet with Jessie. Alone. When we got to my office, she unloaded her fears and insecurities. “I’m afraid the only reason I got in was because of my grandfather,” she said. “And I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to make it here.” The gentleness and humility that had been apparent in her application were real, and they made it hard not to like her. I tried to reassure her, and to let her know that, yeah, she’d have to work hard, much harder than she’d worked in high school. She talked about the resentment of friends who had not been admitted. When they’d heard she’d been taken off the waiting list: “You got in?” Anger. Incredulity. “I feel guilty,” she said. She’s a good kid. I wish her well.

I met wonderful people during my tour of duty in admissions. I had fabulously interesting conversations with parents, after having had stimulating interviews with their children. I’ve loved seeing the relationships in some families: mutual respect and real affection displayed without embarrassment on anyone’s part. One of the real pleasures was the e-mail messages that I got from the parents of enrolled students whom I had met as applicants. Often, I was thanked in May by a parent whose child had just had a wonderful first year. My favorite missive had the subject line “confidential.” It was a report home on the first week of school, describing in gushing terms how happy this young man was with his college choice — “I love you guys so much,” he said to his family, “but I don’t miss you at all!” The mom thought I would be gratified. She was right.

My first year in admissions, while traveling in Colorado, I met a strong and impressive young woman who had challenged her dad: “You don’t understand how stressful high school is. Come with me for a day, and you’ll see.” He had agreed to trail her. When I met them, they had just taken a calculus test. The dad, an engineer trained at M.I.T., was a bit tuckered out at that point, having been truly — and happily — surprised at the difficulty of his daughter’s high school. They were a cute pair, the daughter clearly calling the shots. I got e-mail messages from both “Katie” and her dad throughout the admissions cycle. Ultimately, we didn’t admit Katie and placed her on the waiting list. She ended up going to Hopkins. I’ve heard, from her dad, that she’s very happy there.