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At some colleges, parental recommendations welcome

By Justin Pope
AP Education Writer / March 3, 2012
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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.

And colleges are mainly concerned with evaluating candidates academically. For that, a parental letter offers little credible guidance.

But perhaps the biggest worry, which Hawkins shares, is "advantaging the advantaged," to use the catch phrase in admissions. The question is whether the practice discourages lower-income applicants from applying, particularly those from non-English speaking families, or places such students at a disadvantage if they disproportionately decline to do so.

"Asking the parents to contribute an essay to their children's application may be a barrier for some populations," he said.

Shaver doesn't have data, but says she's confident Smith's parental letters span a broad range (Smith, in fact, has a strong record attracting low-income students; 22 percent receive Pell Grants, meaning they come from low-income families. That's a higher proportion than at virtually any other highly selective college).

Often, it's lower-income families who make the most meaningful efforts to participate in the process. One mother submitted a video; her daughter translated. One father drove several hours to campus and walked into the admissions office without an appointment, demanding to see Shaver.

"He said, `I don't know English very well and you asked for this recommendation, so I'm going to talk it to you,'" she recalled.

Nanci Tessier, who worked in Smith's admissions office in the mid-1990s just after it started the practice, has been a kind of missionary for parental letters, taking the practice with her first to St. Anselm and later to the University of Richmond, a school of about 3,000 undergraduates where she's vice president of enrollment management.

Parental letters are often the best window into a student's soul, she said. She recalled one letter recounting an applicant's response to the death of her father in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nowhere else in the application had that come up.

Most stories and letters are less dramatic. But sometimes even mundane ones can offer something to help a sympathetic admissions officer make a case before the committee.

"She is honest to a fault (and I mean to a fault), the least pretentious vegetarian and recycler I've ever encountered," reads one of several letters Richmond provided as examples, with names redacted. The letter went on to recall the girl as a precocious 3-year-old who proclaimed, "Dad, I dance to the beat of a different drum."

Who exactly are such letters for? It's hard to say.

Applicants, of course, get one more way to make an impression in a crowded field.

Colleges like Richmond and Smith can get a fuller picture of a prospective student. By inviting such letters, they also signal to applicants that they're the kinds of schools that care about students in all their dimensions. Their admissions officers, glassy-eyed after a winter spent slogging through thousands of applications, get often-moving essays that can remind them why they're in the field (Shaver keeps a box of tissues by her desk for particular tear-jerkers. The most memorable for her was a father's poem).

But parents also seem to feel grateful for the opportunity. Often they feel shut out of the admissions process, either through lack of familiarity or -- at the other extreme -- warnings to give their kids space. Yet many crave acknowledgment that, yes, it's may be their children who are applying, but by gosh they had something to do with making those kids who they are.

"When she basically said, `I'm going to be doing this college stuff and if I need your help I'll ask you,' I figured she'd be doing it on her own," Nancy Beasley said. "But I did like the fact that we at least had the opportunity with one of the colleges, Smith, to actually say something to them."

And sometimes, the assignment can force a moment -- and create a memento -- that will only be fully appreciated later.

In the spring of 2000, overwhelmed with applications to nearly a dozen colleges, Stephanie Soscia didn't think much about the simple, hand-written letter her mother Nancy wrote on behalf of her Smith application. But she kept it.

"Ever since she was very young, Stephanie has understood responsibility," the letter reads. "At the age of 8 she proposed that in order to receive an allowance she would get up earlier in the morning to help with the pre-school children I cared for."

It probably made little difference in Smith's decision to admit Stephanie. But after she graduated in 2004, when her mother began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, Stephanie reread the letter and realized how much it meant to her. Two summers ago, she carried it with her on a 350-mile bike ride to raise money for Alzheimer's research.

"She never went to college, and my father never graduated from high school," said Soscia, who earned a doctorate in neurobiology and now works on Alzheimer's research at Harvard. "She wanted to be part of the process but she really didn't know how to contribute."

When Stephanie rediscovered the letter, "I loved reading it," she said. "I cry every time."

"When you lose a parent either because of death or in my case a debilitating brain disease, sometimes there are things that go left unsaid," she said. "I find I can get closure through that letter. I know that during our time together her love for me was strong, and she really put her all into it."

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