Attack of the helicopter parents of MBA applicants

April 10, 2014, 9:25 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — The call came in at midnight on the eve of Harvard Business School’s round two admissions deadline this past January.

Stacey Oyler, an MBA admissions consultant for Clear Admit, was used to getting late-night calls from clients. After all, over the years, she has worked with prospective MBA students in time zones all over the world.

But what made this phone call different was that it was from the mother of an MBA applicant Oyler had been working with for weeks. The mother explained that she had been copied on all the emails between the consultant and her client from the start of the engagement.

“I’m just a lawyer,” the mother explained. But she disagreed with Oyler’s advice not to include in her son’s application a transcript that showed the grade of a Harvard extension course he had taken.

“She accused me of screwing up by not ordering a transcript,” says Oyler in disbelief. “That is the level of investment some parents now have in graduate admissions.”

The last-minute phone call, the mother noted, was prompted by her husband, who, says Oyler, “was tired of hearing about every detail of their son’s application and urged her to call me.” Before the woman hung up, she asked the consultant not to tell her son that she had intervened. Another time, Oyler recalls, she received a call from a mother who wanted her to know that her son wouldn’t be available after sundown just before Yom Kippur.

Helicopter parents, of course, are not a new phenomenon. For at least a decade, parents have become deeply involved in their children’s undergraduate admissions process. They help prep them for the SAT. They edit — and sometimes write — their essays. They play a key role in selecting the schools to which their children apply. And they almost always accompany them on campus tours.

Ten years later, those same parents are now equally invested in the decisions of their grown children — from 25 to 28 years of age — to go to graduate school. Admission consultants say they have noticed a significant increase in parental involvement in recent years. In some cases, parents are tagging along with their adult children to campus for informational sessions, admissions interviews, and even admit weekends. “They’ll go to campus and walk around while their son or daughter is being interviewed,” says Oyler.

“I don’t know if it’s just this generation or what,” adds Oyler, who recently left MBA admissions to join an executive search firm. “They’ve been propped up their whole lives, and these are the ultimate helicopter parents. Every major decision has to involve the moms. Rarely are they helpful.”

No matter the intentions, parents are often ill-equipped to be helpful. Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, an MBA admissions consulting firm, points out that the admissions process “is very different than undergraduate admissions, in which parents are expected and encouraged to participate.” Bauer says that in some instances parents have actually pretended to be their sons and daughters in email and telephone communications with his firm and with the schools (see his recommended Do’s and Don’ts for Parents).

Caroline Diarte Edwards, MBA admissions director at INSEAD from 2005 to 2012 and now an admissions consultant for Fortuna Admissions, says, “Given the slightly older age group at INSEAD [average age is 29], we in the administration observed this evolution with amusement, as well as concern about how independent these young professionals really are.”

Then, there are the rather awkward questions that parents ask. “As admissions coaches,” adds Edwards, “we have also been approached by parents who have asked, ‘If I donate $x million to the school, will my child be admitted?’ The answer, she says, is forget it.

More often than not, however, parental involvement is less noticeable to business school admission officials because applicants are often embarrassed to fess up to it. But sometimes, the issue does crop up in subtle ways. Jon Fuller, who had been on the admissions staff at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, recalls a phone call from the mother of an accepted student.

“It was really weird,” says Fuller. “She said, ‘You didn’t know it, but I was blind copied on every message he sent to you. I read all his essays and talked about all the interactions he had with the school. I want you to know but don’t ever tell him I called you.’ She was calling to say thanks for admitting her son, but it was a little disconcerting to know that he had his mom approving all this stuff.”

Last year, Fuller notes, one of Michigan’s accepted applicants asked if she could bring her mother with her to the admitted students weekend. “She was an international student and she and her family were not comfortable with her making the decision on her own,” remembers Fuller, now an MBA admissions consultant for Clear Admit. “Her mom came and we treated her as a guest like anyone else.”

Fuller believes it happens more often than many realize. “For the most part, the candidates are still savvy enough to understand that the schools shouldn’t know, he says. After all, a hovering, over-involved parent may raise a red flag about an applicant’s ability to make it through an MBA program on his own and to thrive in a demanding post-MBA job.

Still, helicopter parents have become a fact of life. “It’s a necessary evil because the schools realize that the parents are not only acting as advisors,” says Fuller. “They are paying the bills. They are paying for test prep and tuition, so their opinions are going to hold a lot of sway in the process. Schools have to figure out how to work with it instead of against it.”

When parents call admission officials at schools, their children tend to be some years from applying — rather than active applicants. Dawna Clark, director of admissions at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, says she sometimes fields calls from parents whose children are still undergrads. “They want to know what they should tell their children to increase the odds of an acceptance at Tuck later on,” says Clarke.

That is also the case at Wharton. When Judith Silverman Hodara, now an admissions consultant at Fortuna, worked in Wharton’s admissions office, she would frequently get calls from parents of kids who were making the decision about what school to attend for undergrad. “They would be very concerned about how that choice of school would affect their eventual MBA plans,” says Hodara. “Keep in mind that these kids were 18 years old at most, and the MBA would not be for another six to eight years.

“Perhaps more concerning were calls from parents of middle school [children] to see what activities the kids should be involved with if they eventually wanted to go to Wharton,” laughs Hodara. “So this was planning out about 12 to 15 years in advance, at least.”

How intrusive is parental meddling to a hired admissions coach? “I am always glad to chat with parents at the start of the process,” adds Hodara, “but I do not believe that they need to be editing the essays or giving coaching tips for the interview…. With this much support at every step of the way, how is the student really going to navigate their own academic and professional careers when they need to?”

One mother was apparently so offended at her son’s rejection from a business school that she felt compelled to weigh in. When Edwards was director of MBA admissions at INSEAD, she received an email from the mother who actually thanked the school for the rejection because otherwise her son would have “unnecessarily postponed having children.” Besides, the mother added, “given the talent and political connections of the family, he doesn’t need an MBA anyway.”

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