Admissions Turns Into a Family Affair

Parents are taking an increasingly active role in admissions to Penn

Daily Pennsylvanian
March 22, 2011

By Seth Zweifler

When College freshman Dylan Petro was applying to schools last year, he had to worry about the usual application elements – GPA, essays and test scores.

Along the way, though, Petro ran into an unexpected obstacle – his parents.

Today, parents play “more of a role than ever before” in the college admissions process, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said. Since he graduated from the College in 1987, Furda said he has seen college admissions evolve into something of a “family affair.”

“Given the uncertainty around the college process and the amount of attention now paid to it, that’s certainly raised the level of involvement among parents,” Furda said. “I think the nucleus of it all is still simple, though – you want the best for your child.”

With college admissions rates at all-time lows and college tuition levels at unprecedented highs, Steven Goodman, an educational consultant at Top Colleges and co-author of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family, said it is only natural for parents to want more control in the process.

But that, then, begs the question: how much parental involvement is too much?

“It’s important to have family input, but it’s also important to make sure that it’s the student applying, not the family,” said Goodman, who received a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education in 1989. “The student should be the quarterback of the process, with strong support coming from all sides.”

In Petro’s case, he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his parents in the admissions process – particularly when it came to deadlines. For Petro, the main problem was an issue of timetables – when his parents wanted him to finish application materials versus when he wanted to do so.

“It sometimes got to the point where I would feel like they were beating it to death a bit,” Petro said.

Though neither of Petro’s parents attended Penn, the issue of parental involvement can become even more amplified – and even more sensitive – for students who are legacies.

College freshman Katie Gansler, whose mother, Jill, is a 1975 Wharton graduate, said her parents “pushed very hard” for her to apply to Penn. From an early age, Gansler said her parents would always dress her up in Penn gear. The expectation was simple – she would one day attend Penn.

At the start of Katie’s college search, however, Jill Gansler said her daughter did not want to apply to the University.

But despite her daughter’s preference, Jill still wanted Katie to consider Penn. Along with visits to schools like Harvard and Princeton universities – both of which Katie said she was never interested in attending but was “made” to look at by her parents – Jill and her husband took an active role in walking their daughter through the process.

Jill said she strategically planned for Penn to be the last stop on the family’s college campus road trip, as she had heard that “students are statistically more likely to connect with the final school that they see.”

When Katie ultimately came to consider Penn her top choice, Jill said she had her submit her application in the early decision cycle.

“We weren’t pushing that decision off another four months,” Jill said.

Back when Jill was selecting a school, she said her father’s only requirement was that she attend a university where she could earn a “practical” degree. When Katie submitted her application to Penn, “my level of involvement was so much higher than what my parents did with me,” Jill added.

Though Katie said the admissions process was sometimes fraught with tension, she is ultimately thankful for the role her parents played. In particular, she credits her parents for encouraging her to submit the first version of an application essay – against the advice of a high school guidance counselor.

“Had my parents not been involved, I might have turned in a much less poignant essay,” she said. “I might have never been at Penn.”

Wharton junior Marc Bortz – whose parents both attended Penn – said he also knew in the back of his mind that his mother and father wanted him to end up at the University.

However, at the beginning of his college search, Bortz sat his parents down and told them that he wanted to approach the process objectively.

“I said that if the right fit happened to be Penn, it would be great,” he said. “If not, we’d have to move on.”

Though Marc’s mother, Ellen – a 1980 Wharton graduate – does not feel that she crossed a line during her son’s college search, she admitted to getting “swept up in the intense tide of college admissions.”

“Back when I was a teenager, I’m not even sure if my mom knew where I applied to college,” she said.

While a great deal of pressure falls on applicants in college admissions, Ellen added that the pressure also extends to parents.

“The peer pressure among parents can be palpable,” she said. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to be around any parents with students who were also applying.”

In a 2010 Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions survey of admissions officers at 386 of the nation’s top colleges, 77 percent reported that parental involvement in admissions has increased over recent years. While experts like Goodman agree with these general trends, some students offer different stories.

Though College junior Jenn Gamarra said her parents were supportive throughout the admissions process, she said they took a “very hands-off approach” in general.

Likewise, College junior and Kite and Key tour guide Ariel Rosenbaum said her parents were very deferential when she was looking at schools.

However, during her campus tours for Kite and Key, Rosenbaum said she has noticed a “good deal more questions” come from parents rather than students.

“Students are often embarrassed to ask in front of their parents, and it’s unfortunate if they don’t get their questions answered because of that,” she said.

At the end of the day, Furda said parental involvement in admissions can foster a “healthy relationship” as long as there is a proper balance.

“You’re not going to be a parent for 18 years and then suddenly flip that switch off,” he said. “This is one of the most important decisions in an applicant’s life.”

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