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Parenting, Sabotage, and the College Process

The message was stern, no-nonsense, with the sort of tone that an adult might use to rein in a group of misbehaving teenagers. But the message wasn’t directed at teenagers.

“Dear parents of the class of 2019,” began the December email from Patrick Gallagher, director of college counseling at Sidwell Friends School, one of the country’s most prestigious private schools, with campuses in the District and Bethesda, Md. The note that followed, which was obtained by The Washington Post, was restrained and discreet — no names were named, no specific incidents disclosed — but certain transgressions could be inferred from a bulleted list of new policies that would go into effect “immediately.” Among them:

“The College Counseling Office will not answer phone calls from blocked numbers.”

“The College Counseling Office will not open any mail without a recognizable return address.”

“If a parent ever feels the need to inform me or my colleagues regarding the actions of a child that is not their own — I will ask you to leave my office or end the phone conversation.”

The message seemed to confirm the vague rumors that had circulated for weeks — murmurs about parents behaving badly, even going so far as to disparage other students, presumably to give their own teens a leg up in the high-stakes college admissions competition.

The intense pressure surrounding the admissions process — and the corrosive effect it can have on a parent’s tether to reality and morality — has been a hot topic in the aftermath of the recent college admissions scandal that led to indictments against 50 people, including 33 parents and two television stars. The alleged multimillion-dollar bribery scheme was said to be aimed at helping less-than-stellar students gain entry to elite colleges and universities.

Even among the most affluent and privileged families, such blatantly illegal acts are rare and widely shunned. But that doesn’t necessarily preclude other underhanded tactics, including attempts to sabotage students who are also competing for coveted spaces at the nation’s most selective schools.

“I can tell you that every single parent that I know who has heard about [these rumors] has reacted with shock and horror,” said one Sidwell parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject. “Whoever did this is a really good example of somebody who has lost all perspective and all sense of control, and I don’t think they represent our community, but I do think they represent the extremes that we’re seeing in the news — that absolute loss of any sense of normalcy around a process that shouldn’t be so intense.”

Officials at Sidwell emphasized that the incidents would not be tolerated: “Instances of disrespect are anomalous and often anonymous, but have nevertheless become increasingly intense and inappropriate,” Head of School Bryan Garman wrote in a January email to senior class parents, a message that Sidwell shared with The Post. “The circulation of rumors about students and/or the verbal assault of employees are antithetical to the School’s values.”

This sort of behavior is hardly the norm, school counselors and college prep experts agree — but neither is it as rare as one might hope.

Sue Moller, a high school guidance counselor in Long Island and president of the Nassau Counselors’ Association, remembers feeling skeptical in 2008, when she first heard a mother voice concern that other parents would comb through her son’s social history or tell college admissions officials about his jaywalking citation.

“I said, ‘Why would you think anyone would do that?’ And she said that one of their friends’ kids had been the target of an anonymous, disparaging letter; the admissions office had called them about it,” Moller recalled. “The parent in my office was petrified that someone was going to sabotage her kid, and I was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t actually happen.’ ”

But she wanted to be sure about that. So she posted a question on the message board for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, asking whether anyone else had heard of this type of behavior. And more than a dozen replies swiftly poured in to assure her that, yes, it does actually happen.

There were accounts of parents who had called admissions offices to spread gossip about another child’s bad behavior, parents who reported long-ago run-ins with law enforcement, parents who sent anonymous tips about potentially compromising posts on students’ Facebook or Twitter pages.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Moller said. But the stories kept coming. Just last year, she said, an admissions officer told her about a mother who demanded that her child receive scholarship money: “This woman said, ‘My nephew got in here, and he got scholarship money, and he’s not even that bright!’ This woman discredited her own nephew.”

Moller laughed incredulously. “You just want to say, ‘Look at what you’re doing! You’re harming another child in this process,’ ” she said. “Is that really what we’ve come to?”

Behind every symptom in the broad spectrum of college admissions madness — from the parents who hire an SAT prep coach for their ninth-grader to the parents who were accused of paying corrupt test administrators to fix their children’s answers — there is a common underlying cause.

“It’s an almost animalistic fear,” said Brennan Barnard, the college admissions program manager for Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that encourages students to develop a sense of empathy and commitment to the common good. “There is fear that their children will miss out, this fear that they won’t have opportunities because of the rank or selectivity of their college, and it’s just not reasonable. These parents lose all perspective.”

Barnard has spoken to admissions officers who told him of sabotage attempts by teens and parents alike: “It’s not common, but it’s more common than you would hope for,” Barnard said. These efforts aren’t usually successful, he added, and can potentially backfire on a student or their high school if a college is able to figure out from whom an anonymous call or letter came.

The toxicity of this behavior is contagious, added Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common.

“This is like an arms race, and people keep ratcheting each other up,” he said. “It fuels the constant competition that a lot of parents feel in this process, and it lowers the bar for unethical behavior. If you’re a parent who is just helping a kid on an essay too much, which is not a good thing to do, you might feel like, ‘Well, compared to these other parents, what I do is really benign.’ ”

These worst offenders are outliers, Barnard said, typically concentrated in the most elite schools and the most affluent communities. But there are subtler methods of sabotage that are more pervasive, such as what he refers to as “opportunity-hoarding.”

“Instead of embracing the opportunity to share resources with students who might not have as many resources, some parents are guiding their students to not reveal where they’re applying, to not talk about college visits, or not share information about summer programs or opportunities that might help other kids be stronger applicants,” he said. “I think that sends damaging messages to young people about individualism versus commitment to others.”

Ned Johnson, founder of D.C.-based tutoring service PrepMatters, is familiar with this phenomenon. Years ago, he asked the parent of one of the students he was coaching for an introduction to the teen’s school counselor, “because things generally work better when I’m on the same page with the child’s school,” he said.

The mother said she’d be happy to make the introduction — but only after her younger child had graduated from high school. “She said, ‘I don’t want other people to know about you,’ ” he said. She made the comment with a smile, he added, but it wasn’t a joke: “She was serious as a heart attack.”
Barnard wishes these kinds of parents would stop to question themselves and to listen to their children about what “success” really means.

“There’s tons of stories about students who have gone to community college, get a four-year degree, and are running companies and are super successful. They aren’t in debt, and they are thriving,” he said.

Parents should look to data about how school choice doesn’t necessarily determine students’ success, Barnard said. “And I would encourage them to also look at mental-health data and suicide rates and ask themselves: At what cost are they pushing this?”

It’s a point that was echoed in the follow-up email sent to Sidwell’s senior parents as they prepared to begin the year their children will graduate and head off to college.

“In this new year, I hope we will reaffirm our commitment to the well-being of our students and to the common good,” Garman wrote. “I hope that we will recommit to helping children understand that college is merely the next destination on a lifelong journey, not their destiny.”

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