Universities solicit reference letters from parents

Frances McInnis
Shine On

The rise of the "helicopter parent" has been tough on universities. Anxious parents have hounded admissions officers, wanting to check if their child's application has been received or hoping to put in one last good word.

But some colleges actually solicit input from parents in the admissions process, according to a recent Associated Press story. Several universities in the U.S. invite parents to submit letters on behalf of their children, including Smith College in Massachusetts, St. Anselm in New Hampshire, and the University of Richmond in Virginia.

According to Deb Shaver, Smith's director of admission, the school has accepted such letters for about 20 years, putting up with the extra reading in order to get a better sense of the personality of a candidate. Although parents are unlikely to be objective when it comes to rating their kids' ability, their input can add valuable context to the grades, test scores and letters from teachers, she says.

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While the practice does not appear to have caught on in Canada, American universities are more likely to make essays and interviews a part of the undergraduate application process than Canadian schools.

David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling told AP that the majority of schools who accept such letters are small liberal arts colleges that emphasize getting to know their students.

However, the motive may not be all about learning more about students. A columnist at CollegeConfidential.com who claims to have worked in the admissions office at Smith College writes, "Frankly, this began as a PR ploy. The idea was that mom and dad would say, 'Gee, finally a college that cares about US and what WE think' and then they'd encourage their daughters to attend Smith."

The practice of accepting parental letters has also been criticized because it may discourage or place at a disadvantage applicants from lower-income families or non-English speaking families.