For Families: Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process
Parents and other primary caregivers shape their children’s moral development in myriad ways. They also often influence every phase of the college preparation, search, and admissions process.
Yet the troubling reality is that a great many parents are fundamentally failing to prepare young people to be caring, ethical community members and citizens. That’s true in part because of the degree to which parents have elevated achievement and demoted concern for others as the primary goal of child-raising.
In the following seven guideposts, we explore specifically how parents can guide their teen ethically, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and promote key ethical, social, and emotional capacities in teens in the college admissions process.
1. Keep the focus on your teen
Why? The college admissions process, a key rite of passage in adolescence, can be a wonderful opportunity for parents to get to know their teen in a deeper way—to understand what they are drawn to, hope for, fret about, and value in others and themselves. It is also a vital opportunity for parents to express and model the empathy in their relationship with their teen that supports their teen’s authenticity and is so crucial for teens to develop in their relationships.
Yet our hopes, anxieties, and needs in this process can cause us to misunderstand or subordinate our teen’s needs. We may, for example, tacitly pressure our teen to attend a college to live out our dreams, compensate for our shortcomings, or reproduce our own college experience. When parents compete with other parents or view their teen’s college choice as a public marker of their success as parents, they can both sideline their teens’ needs and flood their teen with fears of shaming them if their college options don’t broadcast success. A high school student told interviewers at the Education Conservancy that the most helpful change that parents and colleges could make in the admissions process is to send the message that “you're a perfectly good person—maybe even a better person—if you don't go to one of the top ten colleges.”
During the college admissions process, parents also face their teen’s impending separation from them. The admissions process is often a rite of passage for teens and for parents, a time when parents’ role and center of gravity shifts in ways that can shake loose feelings that can undermine parents’ ability to act in their teens’ best interests. Some parents may cling to their teens more tightly than they should, anxiously asserting what remains of their control of their teens’ life and hampering their teens’ ability to think independently—the infamous “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” or “lawnmower” parents. Other parents, eager for their teen to move on, may prematurely back away.
How? It’s important for parents to undertake the often subtle, difficult work of disentangling their wishes from their teen’s wishes. Because we all have our blind spots, parents can often benefit a great deal from talking to those they respect and trust about the places where their own and their child’s views about colleges conflict, and about how to handle these conflicts.
Parents, too, can be alert to moments when they may be conflating their interests with their teen’s. It should be a red flag for us as parents if we find ourselves peppering admissions staff on college tours while our teen stands idly by, constantly assessing what our teen’s course and activity choices mean for their college applications, find ourselves consumed with poring over commercial college rankings, or feel our self-esteem plummet if a child is rejected at a particular college.
At the outset of the process, parents might ask their teen questions that enable them to better engage in the complex choreography of following and guiding their teen. In the whipped-up, frenzied atmosphere of the college admissions process, parents often need to pause and listen. We might ask our teens whether they feel stress in this process and what is causing it. We might ask whether the process is causing them to compromise their values or making them feel less like themselves, and we might invite feedback on our role: “What role would you like me to play in this process?” “Will you tell me if I’m involved in ways that are making this process harder for you?”
2. Follow your ethical GPS
Why? The college admissions process often tests both parents’ and teens’ ethical character. A small fraction of parents engage in outright unethical practices to give their children advantages: getting psychiatrists to falsely diagnose their teen as having learning differences so their child is granted more time on standardized tests, threatening to sue guidance counselors who write poor recommendations, buying college essays online, or writing anonymous letters to admissions offices that seek to sabotage the admissions chances of other students at their teen’s school. Far more commonly, parents may slip into more subtle forms of dishonesty—allowing their own thinking or voice to intrude in college essays, for example, or looking the other way when hired tutors are over-involved in applications, a trend that appears to be growing (Jaschik, 2017). There’s good reason to believe that many teens lie or at least exaggerate on their college applications, and parents may also either condone or half-consciously overlook these violations. According to several studies, a whopping 80 - 95% of high school students report some form of cheating in the last year, and many of these students view cheating as trivial or don’t see it as a problem at all (Challenge Success, 2012; O’Rourke, Barnes, Deaton, Fulks, Ryan & Rettinger, 2010; Wangaard & Stephens, 2011). In a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (2012), 57% of high-schoolers agreed that, “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Some parents also give their children advantages without any consideration of equity or fairness in the college admissions process, such as paying private college counselors $40,000 a year (Berfield & Tergesen, 2007)—practices that also constantly fuel other parents’ anxiety that they are short-changing their own child. Some parents discourage their teen from sharing information and resources with their peers, fearing that their teens might end up competing with those peers for the same colleges.
There are many compelling reasons why parents shouldn’t let adults’ thinking and voices seep into college applications or allow teens to misrepresent themselves in other ways. Allowing these misrepresentations sends the message that ethical standards can be ignored if they’re inconvenient and that success doesn’t need to be earned. Adolescence is also a time when teens are both developing strong moral convictions and high ideals and are prone to deep cynicism. They can be razor-sharp alert to hypocrisy and often long for adults who are North Stars, who they can deeply respect and trust (Coles, 1986; Erikson,1968). When parents allow teens to misrepresent themselves, and especially when parents actively participate in that misrepresentation, they can stoke that cynicism and erode that trust. “I know kids,” says Denise Pope from Challenge Success at Stanford University, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed” (Miller, 2013). Letting teens misrepresent themselves can also send the message to teens that there is something wrong with them: Why else, teens might ask themselves, would my parents write my essay or allow me to misrepresent myself? (Miller, 2013). Misrepresentations can be self-defeating in another sense: They can land teens in the wrong college. When parents or teens try to justify misrepresentations by claiming that “everyone is doing it” or “the system is corrupt,” they also create a very slippery ethical slope that can simply reinforce teens’ conformist tendencies and deprive them of a key lesson in moral leadership— that morality often means going against the herd.
How? Rather than dismissing misrepresentations as trivial or finding ways to overlook them, we as parents ought to be willing to ask ourselves hard, fundamental questions about who we want to be and what we want to model for our children. We can consider whether getting into a particular college is really more important than compromising our teen’s or our own integrity. We can consider with our teens the exceptional cases when dishonesty is warranted in the service of a higher principle—when it means, for example, protecting someone’s life or advancing a vital cause—and discuss whether misrepresenting oneself to get into a college one prefers really qualifies as one of these cases. We can remind ourselves and talk to teens about why authenticity and honesty are critical—especially in this era of “fake news”—and about the necessity of acting in ways that we want to be precedents for others. Just as important, we can explore with teens why they might feel pressured to cheat or misrepresent themselves—do they fear disappointing or shaming themselves or us?—and think through with teens what role we might play in alleviating that pressure.
3. Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education
Why? Far too often, the college admissions process is eye-opening for young people in all the wrong ways. It’s a powerful introduction to the values of adult society, and many young people are morally troubled, sometimes deeply so, by what they experience. Many students across a wide range of communities are acutely aware that the deck is stacked, that there are vast differences in students’ access to counselors, tutors, and other admissions resources, and that college is simply unaffordable for staggering numbers of families. Many students bridle at the unfairness of favoring certain students in admissions, such as donor and legacy students, full pay students, and athletes. Many also struggle with how much they can embellish their applications and “play the game” without compromising their own authenticity and integrity.
How? It’s clearly critical to create greater equity and fairness in the college admissions system. Talking about these ethical concerns is not a substitute for that. But these types of ethical questions and concerns provide powerful opportunities for helping students take multiple perspectives and develop more mature ethical understandings. Parents can engage their teens in thinking about why well-intentioned people create and participate in unfair systems and to consider the crucial question of how one participates ethically in systems that one may view as unethical in significant respects. Is it ever ok to cheat in a system that one views as cheating you? Parents and teens might explore the many inequities in this process. Why do they exist? What might be done to remedy them? How can one affect change? They might analyze from various vantage points—including from the perspective of college admissions staff or financial aid officers—the case for and against favoring athletes and children of donors and legacies. Students might be asked to imagine an admissions process that they view as fair and high-integrity and to consider who and what needs to change for this system to exist. All of these conversations, of course, need to be guided by key ethical principles-- for example, honesty and fairness are important to strive for in all our interactions and honesty should only be compromised when it is outweighed by other ethical considerations, such as protecting others or oneself from serious harm. Parents might also speak directly with students about the reality that there is in, in fact, a certain “game to be played” in this process, but discuss with students both how to play this game—presenting themselves in ways that are likely to be attractive to college admissions offices—while also presenting themselves authentically. It’s a difficult skill that they are likely to need in various settings throughout life.
4. Be authentic
Why? Many parents fail to have authentic, honest conversations with their teens during the college admissions process, diminishing their role as trusted guides and mentors and eroding their capacity to support their teen in expressing themselves authentically. We have talked to many young people in middle- and upper-class communities who report that their parents, for example, say that getting into a highly selective college doesn’t matter in one sentence but then badger them about grades or SAT prep in the next. One parent we spoke to told us without a hint of irony: “My husband doesn’t care whether our daughter goes to a high-status college. It’s fine with him if she goes to Swarthmore (a highly competitive and high-status school).” Other students report that their parents play down high-status colleges only because at some level their parents know that they live in a neighborhood and attend schools that will do the muscling for them. “My parents don’t have to say anything about how important it is [that I go to a high-status college] and I’m still going to feel a lot of pressure in my community to go to one of those places,” a 17-year-old from a town outside Boston says. “The only reason they can tell themselves they’re not pressuring me is that there’s already huge pressure on me.” Still other students view their parents as showing their hand when they protest too loudly about other parents’ intense focus on selective colleges. As one high school student wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “My mom delights in anecdotes about the ridiculous activities of ‘psycho moms,’ her name for mothers who are overly anxious about where there children will attend college. This is how she assures herself that she is not as crackers as these women” (Karlin, 2005). Some parents themselves are aware of their hypocrisy: “We tell our children one day that we just want them to go to a college where they’ll be happy,” a Boston parent tells us, “and the next day we tell them they should go to the best college they can get in to.”
How? As parents, many of us need to reckon with these conflicting feelings and talk to others both about these feelings and about how to discuss them authentically with our teen. We also can try to understand what’s “in the water,” scanning the many school and community factors that may be influencing our teen’s college considerations so that we can talk to our teens in ways that acknowledge these realities. In addition, we can simply ask our teen to alert us if they think we’re sending mixed messages.
Finally, many parents may underestimate what a relief it would be to their teen and the extent to which it would support their teen’s maturity and secure their respect if they stopped dodging and spoke honestly, including at times sharing their own irrational feelings. For example, while it’s important for parents to try to manage their disappointment when their teen is rejected at a college, if parents are visibly disappointed in the presence of their teen, it might help teens a great deal if parents explained why. A parent might explain that they always wanted to attend that college or that they were too caught up in the status of that college and that they recognize that these are their issues to work out.
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5. Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways
Why? High school students in some communities are caught up in a kind of community service Olympics, a contest to see who can get an edge in their applications by tackling the most formidable problem, often in a distant country. “In my school you can’t just give flowers to sick people or the elderly,” a student in an affluent community told us. “You have to wipe out AIDS in Africa.” Yet the scale of the problem and the location of the service don’t determine its value. Nor are these factors what’s prioritized by admissions deans. What is most important to the colleges endorsing Turning the Tide and the Deans Commitment Letter is whether an experience is immersive, sustained, chosen based on authentic interest, and provides students opportunities for reflection with both peers and adults. Research suggests, in fact, that students may engage in service for the “wrong reason,” because it’s required, or because they believe it will strengthen their college application, but still benefit from it if it has these characteristics (Hart, Donnelly, Younnis, & Atkins, 2007; Metz & Younnis, 2005; Youniss, McLellan, Su, & Yates, 1999).
How? Parents can explore with teens what kind of community service or contribution is likely to be meaningful. Especially given our bitterly fractured society, Turning the Tide recommends that students have community experiences that increase their ability to take other perspectives, including the perspective of those who differ from them in terms of race, class, political ideology, religious orientation, and other characteristics. Because service can be unintentionally patronizing to recipients and often doesn’t develop in students a rich understanding of other perspectives or cultures, parents can emphasize the importance of “doing with” rather than “doing for.”
Parents can also discuss with their teens why one does service. Discussions may be rooted in, for example, religious beliefs, a commitment to equity and justice, and/or a family ethic that underscores our inherent responsibility to help those who are struggling. To develop young people’s commitment to others and their awareness and skills in working with others, it’s also important for parents to talk to their teen about their service experiences. What are they learning? Are they finding their work gratifying? Do they feel helpful? Why or why not? What kinds of challenges are they facing and how might these challenges be overcome?
6. Advocate for elevating ethical character and reducing achievement-related distress
Why? When high schools and college admissions offices emphasize achievement and give little air time or thought to students’ ethical character, they often argue that they are simply meeting demand, catering to what parents want. Yet too often, all high school educators and admissions officers hear are the loud parents clamoring for an intense focus on achievement. Many colleges and high schools are unlikely to change unless other parents start “walking the talk” and become strong advocates for promoting ethical character and reducing stress.
How? Parents need to step up—respectfully but firmly—to advance a very different vision of high schools and the college admissions process. They can press for prioritizing not just academic achievement but ethical character, take a zero-tolerance stance on achievement-related distress, and advocate for greater equity and fairness. This advocacy is both vital to meaningful reform and is a powerful form of modeling for children.
For example, in their contacts with college admissions officers during college visits and in other settings, parents can ask whether ethical character, including concern for others and the common good, is weighed in the admissions process and, if so, how much and how it is weighed. They can inquire about whether, how, and what types of community contributions are valued and how those contributions are defined and weighed. They can work to reduce achievement pressure by, for instance, asking what percentage of students are admitted-- who are not athletes, legacies, or children of donors—who take only a few advanced courses or engage in only a few extracurricular activities.
Parents can also advocate with high school educators for changes that promote greater equity and collaboration rather than competition among students. Parents can encourage creating opportunities for students to share information about colleges with peers and for parents to share information with each other. In wealthier communities, parents can advocate for schools to share college search resources, including guidebooks, college planning tools, and admissions-related curricula, with less wealthy schools and districts. Parents also can directly support equity by, for example, supporting college access organizations with evidence of success. To counter the intense focus on high-status colleges, parents can press high schools to regularly and meaningfully expose students to a wide range of colleges and to stop touting the number of their students accepted at highly selective colleges, instead tracking and publicizing the number of their alumni who report satisfaction and academic engagement at college. Parents can ask schools to conduct simple surveys that provide data about how many students are suffering high levels of stress, and they can insist that schools develop thoughtful plans and concrete strategies for reducing this stress. Finally, parents can use the Dean’s Commitment Letter to mobilize other parents and to advocate for changes, such as limiting advanced courses and/or setting limits on the amount of time students devote to extracurricular activities.
7. Model and encourage gratitude
Why? The college admissions process offers many opportunities for parents to model and cultivate gratitude in their teens. A good deal of research indicates that gratitude is vital to well-being (Sansone & Sansone, 2010; Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). It’s also a powerful moral emotion. When we appreciate what we have we’re more likely to recognize and appreciate what others don’t have. That’s why gratitude is one key to young people becoming concerned, ethical community members and citizens.
But because they’re anxious, self-focused, entitled, or for many other reasons, many teens and parents never experience or express gratitude in this process. Any teen or parent of a teen who is applying to a four-year college that has a strong track record of graduating students should feel grateful for this tremendous opportunity—an opportunity that a great majority of people in the world simply don’t have and an opportunity that a staggering number of people in this country can’t afford. Only about 45% of Americans will attend a four-year college, and only about 60% of those students will graduate within six years (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018). Students who attend selective colleges have reason to be very grateful: Only about 25% of college applicants will attend a college that accepts less than half of their applicants (Casselman, 2016). Teens and their parents, of course, are far more likely to use their immediate community as their reference group in measuring their success in applying to college. But that metric doesn’t develop the broader moral lens that enables teens to either appreciate their advantages or to consider the larger questions of justice that these advantages raise.
How? In addition to being grateful for the opportunities presented in the college admissions process, teens should be expected to appreciate the many educators, counselors, and other adults—including their parents—who shepherded them to this point. Parents can ask their teen who they’ve appreciated in this process and why, and encourage their teen to consider people who may not be on their radar—a teacher, a friend, or a community adult who helped in a quiet, subtle way. As parents, we can also thank people we are grateful to and share that we are grateful to these people with our teen.