Ethical College Admissions: Trump and Other Parents Writing What They Shouldn't

Jim Jump writes that parents shouldn’t be finishing any part of their children’s applications.

September 18, 2017
President Trump

The most interesting story line thus far in the various investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a posse of Russians led by lawyer/lobbyist Natalia Veselnitskaya. Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, testified for five hours behind closed doors before the Senate Judiciary Committee several weeks ago, and it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that a date with special counsel Robert Mueller is in his future.

Last week The Hill labeled Trump administration attempts to spin the meeting as "evolving explanations." Depending on which explanation you choose to believe:

  • The meeting was, like an episode of Seinfeld, about nothing.
  • The purpose was making it easier for American families to adopt Russian orphans.
  • Trump campaign operatives attended the meeting with the expectation that the Russians could provide opposition research on Hillary Clinton that would help Trump win the election.

I trust that Mueller and his team will get to the bottom of whatever collusion or collaboration took place.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have questions. What interests me most is not the meeting itself, but President Trump dictating a statement while on Air Force One returning from the G20 summit for Donald Jr. to release about the meeting. How was Trump able to dictate a statement about a meeting he claimed to know nothing about?

It’s hard to imagine that intervening in your children’s lives begins when you are president of the United States.

So when did it start? The Trump dictation raises a question relevant to “Ethical College Admissions.” Did he also dictate college essays for Donald Jr. or his other children? Do their applications include excessive use of expressions such as “Believe me,” “Billions and billions,” “Tremendous,” “You’re going to love it,” and “Make Penn great again”?

If Trump were guilty of dictating application essays for his offspring, he wouldn’t be alone. According to a survey conducted this summer by several higher education consulting firms, 62 percent of parents of last year’s seniors admitted to completing part of their children’s college applications.

That number, if true, is staggering and troubling for those of us in the college counseling/admissions profession. It’s also not that surprising for those who work with today’s generation of parents. We are in danger of producing a generation of students who haven’t developed the skills they will need to succeed in college and in life because they haven’t been allowed to develop them.

What would lead a parent to complete part or all of their child’s college application? The easy answers are fear and irrationality, but there are more complex factors at work.

I tell parents that the college admissions process is harder on them than on students. The college application process tests one’s basic beliefs about parenting and about life.

Do you believe that college admission is ultimately rational and fair, or a game where the rules are unclear or nonexistent? Do you believe that your job as a parent is to prepare your children to be independent or to shield them from disappointment and failure?

How you answer those questions impacts how you approach your child’s college process. There are a number of metaphors currently in vogue to describe parenting styles. There is the helicopter parent and the tiger mom, but my favorite is the curling parent. Named for the winter sport, these parents race ahead sweeping aside all impediments to make their children’s lives smoother and easier.

One of the things I learned early on as a parent is that I derive more pleasure from my children’s successes and feel more pain from their disappointments than anything that has happened in my own life. I think that’s normal, but that can easily deteriorate into living vicariously through your children, or not allowing them to develop into adolescents and young adults with strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard to develop resilience if you never have to overcome any challenges or obstacles.

It is also the case that for many parents the college process becomes a report card on their success as parents. If my child goes to a “good” college, that becomes proof or reassurance that I wasn’t a failure as a parent. The danger is that we can send a subtle or not-so-subtle message to children that they are disappointments if they don’t end up at a certain kind of college and that we become more focused on the college decal in the rear window than our child’s happiness and well-being.

What can we as professionals do about parents completing parts of their children’s college applications? It’s challenging. I talked to a friend during the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference who reported that some parents in her school feel no shame about the practice, rationalizing that their child doesn’t have time to apply.

It starts with bringing the issue into the sunlight. In my presentations to parents, a consistent theme is that both the college search and application processes ultimately measure a student’s readiness for college itself, in that the same qualities necessary for success in college -- independence, maturity, self-knowledge, organization, persistence -- are also essential for success in applying to college. I even respond to transcript requests from parents by asking them to have their child make the request, as that is an important and simple way for them to take ownership.

I hear the “readiness for college” theme parroted back by parents enough to know that it is heard. Whether it is enough to overcome the urge to intervene is less clear. A couple of years ago, a mother vented to me, “I’m the only one who follows your advice.”

For our profession the larger issue is placing more emphasis on the developmental importance of the college search and application processes in the transition to adulthood. Applying to college should be about more than getting into college. It should encourage and require a process of discernment, of figuring how who you are and what you value. We give lip service to that premise, but it is too often drowned out by competing messages such as the myth of prestige.

Part of being a parent is childproofing the house. Can our profession develop a college admissions process that’s developmentally appropriate and parentproof?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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