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Parents and College Admissions

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Last month colleges sent out their acceptances to high school seniors, and the news at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country was not good for those trying to get in. At six of the eight Ivy League schools, fewer than 10 percent of the applicants were admitted, but other colleges were not far behind.

The result is a tense time for students worried about their futures. These days even the winners of the race to get into college feel exhausted. I saw their exhaustion first hand when I went to Admitted Students Day at the college where I teach.

The students I spoke to were in the enviable position of being able to choose between us and wherever else they had been accepted. They were happy about their good fortune, but when I asked them about how the admissions process had gone, most just shook their heads. They were like runners who had just completed a marathon -- filled with aches and pains. Completing their application forms, going for interviews, then waiting to be judged added up to an experience that they were glad was behind them.

I have not spoken to the students who were rejected by us, but when I think of the strain on the winners in the race to get into college, I can easily imagine how difficult these days are for those students who did not get the college acceptances they wanted.

For them and their parents, this is going to be a rough spring. In this regard I have special compassion for the families in which a son or daughter applied to, but did not get in, the group of colleges that give parents the option of writing student reference letters.

The schools that follow this practice, which range from Smith and Mt. Holyoke to Holy Cross and the University of Richmond, are limited in number, but they deserve our attention all the same. They reflect a growing trend of colleges demanding more and more from prospective students at a time when the student population has grown faster than the openings at selective colleges.

The colleges who give parents the letter-writing option justify their decision on the grounds that parents know their children in ways nobody else does. That is true in any number of cases, but it is also beside the point. Caring and knowing parents are not necessarily articulate parents, especially if English is not their first language.

Great parenting begins with loving a son or daughter unconditionally. Great admissions decisions begin with a cool assessment of a student's strengths and weaknesses. The gap between the two could not be wider. The sons and daughters of parents who write well should not get a leg up when it comes to college admissions.

It is understandable why colleges may want extra parental input. In many high schools a teacher may have as many as five classes with 30 or more students in each class. For that teacher, writing a comprehensive letter about an individual student is often out of the question.

The paucity of high school college guidance counselors only adds to this problem. According to a 2010 Public Agenda study, the counselor-to-student ratio is on average 460 to 1.

But asking parents, many of whom have already ponied up for expensive tutors and SAT prep courses, to make up for this shortfall of unbiased, quality information borders on educational sadism. It is time to do everything we can to ease the burdens families face when their sons and daughters are ready for college.

Let admission officers struggle to make sense of the mountains of essays, transcripts, and references (imperfect as they are) that they already have before them. Let parents remain free to do what they do best: provide their sons and daughters with a safe haven from the terrible pressure to come out on top in the college admissions game.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.