All parents want the best for their children, but when it comes to college admissions, “the best” seems to come with an ethical cost. In recent years, issues around inequitable resources and test preparation, the hiring of private college advisers, and stories of parents writing their child’s essays or paying someone to inflate their child's standardized test scores have circulated in the news, along with reports of the tremendous anxiety that teens undergoing the application process can feel.
In a recent report that looks at how parents and schools can improve the college admissions process and help young people build ethical character, researchers at Making Caring Common observe that “many parents — particularly middle- and upper-income parents — seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.”
To help refocus the conversation, Making Caring Common offers practical resources for families to help their children ethically navigate college admissions.
Ask Questions — but not just about school performance
Engaging in conversations around what have been the most meaningful activities or classes in your child’s high school experience helps make space for reflection on what your child values in a school. These kinds of conversations can lead to a more holistic decision about where to apply, rather than focusing only on what the “best” option may be.
Talk About the College Selection Process — but with trusted confidantes
Everyone has blind spots, especially when it comes to assumptions about “good” colleges. Having honest conversations about the process with other adults who don’t feed into competition can allow parents to distinguish their own lingering desires from their child’s interests. Be aware of the ways in which you may be conflating your own wishes with your child's, the report says.
Encourage Service and Involvement — but make sure it’s authentic
Students may feel pressure to load up their application with extracurriculars and community service work to make themselves more competitive — often at the expense of their mental health or their authenic interests. These commitments, especially community service work, can end up being superficial. It’s more important that your child is involved in an activity or project they care about and would pursue even without the added pressure of college.
Remember: You are still a role model for your child. Teens are developmentally attuned to hypocrisy and inauthenticity in the voices of adults in their lives. Be honest and authentic about the conflicts that you, as a parent, are facing. Consider opening the discussion to include your child. Then shift the focus back to your child.