What Drives Parents Crazy?

Marion Franck offers tips for colleges on how to infuriate (and not to infuriate) applicants and their families.

April 3, 2006

When my children were applying to college three and six years ago, I sputtered and railed against the College Board, which seemed to talk to my children like a scolding grandparent.

Don't know where you're applying at test time? No free score reports for you. Want scores forwarded promptly? Costs extra. Think you're ready for the test? Better buy one more manual from us. This was Little Red Riding Hood's grandma with big teeth.  

I'm over that now. The College Board has softened some policies and offered free guidance, but more to the point, my kids are settled in college. The college application process would be out of my life entirely, except that I was asked to help write a book on the subject. Because of that project, I'm still curious.

What bugs parents now?

I report to you from the front lines of a town that produces many good applicants. Davis, California, is an educated, affluent community, a college town, where 65 percent of our high school graduates go on to four-year institutions.

Interviews of parents for my book, plus a dozen conversations with parents of this year's seniors, yielded some frustrations I anticipated and one real surprise.

Dealing With Organizations

Like parents all over the country, my interviewees are nervous about the new essay required by the College Board.

"What's a good score now?" is a typical question. "And how much do colleges count it?" Parents would like a real answer, something more specific than "we will consider each applicant’s best composite score, and - where available - their writing score" (Dartmouth College Web site).

The Common Application (which is not produced by the ubiquitous College Board) provokes parental anxiety, too. You'd think that an application that allows students to fill out the questions only once and write only one essay would inspire nothing but joy and gratitude. Indeed, some of the remarks I heard from parents sounded like testimonials ("wonderful" "easy to use"), but one problem surfaced repeatedly.

It might be called "miss-labeling" The common application is "common" because 300 colleges use it, but it is not common in the sense parents expect. It is not used identically by all colleges. For example, some institutions require application fees to be mailed in separately; sometimes you can pay online. This can be confusing, but it's a relatively minor detail.

More serious is the significant amount of additional material required by many institutions. They request extra essays, some short, some long. Some can be submitted via computer, some not. Students often fashion careful answers and then discover they won't fit in the space provided.

The most serious discomfort parents feel about the Common Application comes when they note discrepancies between the college's "own" application and the Common Ap. This is not the sort of thing that agitates teenagers, but it puts parents into a conundrum. Is it better to fill out the college's own application? Might that indicate greater interest? (Tuned-in parents have heard that "demonstrated interest" may count.)

Pushing their children to do the work of a second application, on nothing more than the hunch that it might count more, is not the sort of task that endears parents to children, or the reverse.

Still, the problem wouldn't have loomed large back in the days when most students applied to only a few places. Now, thanks to a growing population of college applicants, U.S. News rankings, and other factors, competition for "name" schools has become intense, leading to the grim advice, "Since you may not get in, apply widely."

When a student is filling out five applications to "reach" colleges, five to "good possibilities" and at least two to "safeties", extra essays, disparate payment systems, and space-limited Web sites can provoke the sort of blow up that parents dread during the last year at home with their child.

And the tension that fills homes during the month of April is palpable as students try to make up their minds which college to attend and parents (let's admit it) try to influence them. It doesn't help that colleges have greatly increased the size of their waiting lists, in many cases without informing applicants. How many parents and students get their hopes up when they shouldn't?

Seeking a "Good Fit"

I see no way for test makers, common application designers and colleges themselves to end college frenzy, but I believe they could make it easier to help parents and students find the elusive "good fit."

As one parent put it, "It's hard to discover what I need to know. Like when I'm buying a car, I don't know much about it so I say, 'we want low mileage', but is that really the most important thing? How do I get that next tier of information? For example, my son and I know the college has a psychology department, but is it average, good, or exceptional? How do we find out?"

Colleges should never stop recommending the visit, even though it forces some families to stretch. Says one counselor I interviewed, "If you want to discover the best fit for your kid, it's hard without hitting the road and looking. The Internet has put people into a passive viewing situation. They think they know the college, and they don't. Kids need to visit and look. They need to say, 'this feels right to me.'"

Colleges also need to be honest about what distinguishes them from others. The one thing I remember from the glossy brochures my children received was that they all looked alike.
Of course, adding college visits to the already jam-packed junior and senior years can be an additional burden, not only financially, but it in terms of stress and time. As I spoke with parents, the cry I heard most often was for something colleges can't be expected to provide: empathy for the pressures parents and children face in their last years of high school.

"Everything happens at the same time," said one parent.

"What about the college application process drives me crazy?" asked another, rephrasing my question. "Dealing with my son."

The Big Surprise

But if parents complained about inconsistencies in the application process, pressure on and from their students, and the vagaries of applying for financial aid, all of which I expected, what surprised me?

Not a single parent said that he or she was angry at "the whole system", complex, demanding, and full of pressure as it is.

Why not?

One interviewee provided an important clue.

"At the information session for parents at Davis High School, the big message from the counselors was 'you have to let your student do it', meaning that parents should stay out of the application process. I was sitting next to parents who had been through this with older kids. They sputtered. They rolled their eyes. They told me there was no way they could leave this to their kids to figure out. Too complicated. Too much at stake. Can students manage it all by themselves? No."

Parents today expect the process of applying to college to be difficult for their children and they expect to help.

That last part pleases them.

They're happy with a system that requires them to be involved because that's what they want in the first place. They want to be able to influence the child in what they view as the best direction. This may not be an ideal way for children to grow up and assume adult responsibility, but that's the situation we've got.

Interestingly, the enthusiasm parents have for being involved leads them to an insight they might not have reached in any other way.

"My heart goes out to those kids who are first-generation college," said one parent. "I don't know what happens to those kids."

As they madly participate in efforts to increase the chances that their own children get in, some application-savvy parents are aware of who gets left out.

Colleges, it's still up to you to find and help those students.


Marion Franck is a freelance writer and co-author with Sally P. Springer of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know about Getting Into College (Jossey-Bass, 2005).


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