At some colleges, parental recommendations welcome

By Justin Pope

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 10:25 a.m. MST

In this March 1, 2012 photo provided by Smith College, Debra Shaver, dean of admission, sits next to stacks of applications to the Smith College Class of 2016 from prospective students in Northhampton, Mass. Smith is among just a few colleges that invite parents to submit letters on behalf of their children (either as part of the application itself, or in a follow-up invitation after the application is received). "You might think they do nothing but brag," Shaver said. "But parents really nail their kids. They really get to the essence of what their daughter is about in a way we can't get anywhere else."

Smith College, Samuel A. Masinter, Associated Press

The letter recommending Christianne Beasley for admission to Smith College didn't come from the most unbiased of sources. But there was no disputing the writer knew this applicant as well as anyone.

"Christianne and Smith seem to be a perfect match," wrote Nancy Beasley, four years ago, on behalf of her only daughter, now a Smith senior. She described Christianne's "grace and dignity," and explained why she thought the prestigious and diverse Northampton, Mass., women's college was the perfect fit for the girl she'd raised.

Smith is among just a few colleges — among them nearby Mt. Holyoke and Holy Cross in Massachusetts, St. Anselm in New Hampshire, and the University of Richmond — that invite parents to submit letters on behalf of their children (either as part of the application itself, or in a follow-up invitation after the application is received). At Smith, finalizing this month the 640 or so members of the Class of 2016 from more than 4,300 applications, a little less than half include a parental letter. The college takes pains to emphasize such letters are optional and won't make or break a decision.

What do parents tell colleges about their flesh and blood? Rarely anything bad, to be sure (though sadly, it does happen). A fair share burst with predictably over-the-top pride in their children's virtues, which are dated back to infancy, and in some cases, utero (a few years ago, Smith decided to impose a single-page limit).

But there's a reason Smith has stuck with the process for about 20 years now, despite the extra work, says Smith's director of admission, Deb Shaver. Sometimes parents offer just the kind of color that can bring to life a candidate whose full personality is hidden in a portrait painted only with grades, test scores and traditional recommendations letters from teachers and guidance counselors.

"You might think they do nothing but brag," Shaver said. "But parents really nail their kids. They really get to the essence of what their daughter is about in a way we can't get anywhere else."

It's also an acknowledgment that in the backlash in admissions against (admittedly epidemic) helicopter parenting, the pendulum might have swung a little too far.

After all, it's parents who may have the best view of what's really great about their children.

"We get to this point and say, 'You can't be driving the bus, you need to be in the backseat,'" Shaver said. "It's all true, and yet I think parents can provide texture to those applications that can't be found anywhere else.

"Who knows a kid better than their mother and father?" she asked.

For Christianne Beasley, a letter from Mom was the perfect closing argument to her case that Smith was the place for her.

"Sometimes there's that bad connotation of the overbearing parents who feel the need to control their kids' decision," she said. "In my case, it was the opposite. It was to make sure I had the best application possible and Smith saw the best part of me."

For her mom, it was a chance to participate, but also share something she knew nobody else would have seen: the way her daughter lit up when she first visited Smith's campus.

"You know how they say when you see your wedding dress or your house, you just knew it's the one? She just knew it was the one," said Nancy Beasley, of Westbrook, Maine. "Nobody else would have known."

David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said there are reasons why very few colleges solicit parental letters. One is sheer logistical burden; most colleges don't have the staff to do more than execute a fairly straightforward admissions formula of grades and test scores. It's no accident that the practice is found only at small liberal arts colleges which take special pride in getting to know their students.

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