"Helicopter," "hovercraft," "hummingbird." They're terms used to describe parents who micromanage their children, especially during the college application process. Although the slang is not meant to be complimentary, some parents take pride in their helicopter status. "I acknowledge that there is a very fine line that separates a parent who is 'involved' from one who is 'overinvolved," confesses Sally Rubenstone, a self-professed helicopter mom to be and senior counselor at College Confidential. "And, often, it is better to err on the side of the latter, rather than to not provide adequate guidance and support to kids who need it.... A student who is a brilliant scientist or an amazing artist isn't necessarily a super secretary."
The question is at what point does a parent go from "helpful" to "helicopter"? If secretarial help is acceptable, is it OK to work on the essay? How extensively? To come up with the essay topic? It's hard to know where to draw the line.
When admissions officers decide that a parent has done too much work on behalf of an applicant, there are penalties. "A too obviously involved parent, almost always a mom, hurts a kid in the admission office," says Bruce J. Jones, assistant director of admission at Whitman College. Jones says this year he has already downgraded one applicant because the majority of early contact came via E-mails from the applicant's mom. And last year, when penmanship discrepancies made it clear that one applicant's parent had filled out most of the general information on the application, the applicant, who normally would have been admitted, was asked for additional information.
"Parents should realize that admission folk are experts at reading applications and can recognize when an essay has been written or edited heavily by a parent," says Marilyn Emerson, a New York-based college admissions consultant. "For example, a 17-year-old would not use the word 'relish' except in reference to a condiment on a hotdog."
Many parents do realize this and have become more subtle and strategic. These savvy parents, sometimes referred to as "Stealth Fighters" or "BlackHawks," know better than to leave their managerial fingerprints on an application. Instead, they contribute covertly. A helicopter parent who "does not 'show up' on paper, in the admissions office, in the E-mail in-box of the admissions officer, or on the caller ID ... offers their child a decided advantage," says Joseph M. Connolly, a guidance counselor at New Oxford High School in New Oxford, Pa. "That is neither fair nor equitable, but it is reality."
Some high schools try to rein in helicopter parents by educating them. At New Oxford High School, for example, parents are briefed on the transitional period their kids are approaching and asked to take a quiz to find out whether or not they have helicopter tendencies. If all else fails, some counselors will notify the college with a note or even a phone call. "Sometimes I will use a sticky [note] that I attach to a letter of recommendation," says Matthew Mumma, a counselor at Kahuku High and Intermediate School in Oahu. "On the sticky I might write, 'Mom filled out the app' or 'Mom had three grades changed' or 'Watch out for Mom!' " But often counselors do not report to colleges, either because they feel it would be a breach of trust to do so or because they fear litigation.
There's also a worry that students who get into college with help from their parents will suffer after they arrive and are left to sink or swim. But far from abandoning a child in college, the quintessential helicopter parent hovers all the more. In fact, the ubiquity of cellphones—sometimes referred to as "the world's longest umbilical cord"—makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. A recent study gathered for the National Survey of Student Engagement suggests that helicopter parents do more good than harm. The survey sampled 9,162 students from 24 colleges and universities. And even after controlling for parent education level, the data show that "compared with their counterparts, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience, gained more in such areas as writing and critical thinking, and were more likely to talk with faculty and peers about substantive topics."
Nevertheless, experts stress that there's a big difference between guiding and directing. The key is to learn the difference and do the former. If parents can learn to walk the line, their kids have a valuable resource that extends far beyond the academic realm. Melinda Kopp, a Denver-based independent educational consultant, explains: "I think we need to recognize that a student who has involved and caring parents does have an advantage—not just in the college application process but in life."