Parents in the college selection process: allies or adversaries?

Clark Undergraduate Admissions office hosts professional development symposium for guidance advisers
May 2, 2017

It’s spring, and soon parents at high school graduation ceremonies will be beaming to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Not so long ago, many of them sat anxiously in school guidance offices, driven to ensure their children chose the right colleges, filled out the proper forms, wrote the best essays, took enough advanced-level courses and documented volunteer service. The pressure and stress of transitioning to college seemed like life-or-death decisions at the time.

Now those parents may wonder, what was all that fuss about?

It was about love, Clark Psychology Professor Wendy Grolnick would answer.

“In our genes we have the mechanism that makes us want to protect our kids” and that can be “sort of a setup” for parents, Grolnick (pictured above) told guidance counselors and college selection advisers from around the country who came to Clark for a professional development symposium organized by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. The symposium theme was “Parents in the College Selection Process: Allies or Adversaries?”

Dean of Admissions Don Honeman and his staff welcomed 40 advisers who visited April 22-24. They came from private academies and public high schools and from as far away as Colombia and Hong Kong to explore common questions around best practices for working with parents. Topics included how to educate parents about the balance of prestige, affordability and fit; how to support students when parent behavior becomes a challenge; and how to prepare students and parents for the coming change in their relationships.

Clark University Associate Director of Admissions Shaun Holt
'13, answers questions at the symposium for guidance
counselors and advisers.

“Throughout the year, most Admissions interactions with college and guidance counselors happen on the road when we visit schools,” said Shaun Holt '13, associate director of admissions at Clark. “So, it was both refreshing and productive to have active dialogue and conversation over a topic that was meaningful to everyone. It was great to hear their perspectives as well as talk with them about Clark and our mission.”

During an engaging keynote titled “The Challenges of Parenting in a High-Stress World,” Grolnick shared her extensive research on the challenges of parenting adolescents in competitive environments. Participants each received a copy of her most recent book, "Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With the Competition While Raising a Successful Child."

Grolnick outlined theories on intrinsic motivation and how feelings of autonomy or “choiceful” behavior trump external motivators, including money.

“You can’t make somebody want something,” she said.

However, you can promote feelings of autonomy by providing structure, guidelines and predictable consequences. Being involved and investing time, attention and energy are also necessary. Adults need to be mindful of the contagious nature of pressure and the urge to control outcomes. She shared her own experience as a young researcher watching parents interfere in infant motivation studies, thinking, “I would never do that!” Almost every parent succumbs to controlling behaviors at some point, she acknowledged.

One counselor asked about what he called the "doomsday" approach to the college selection process. “Parents think that if there’s no college decision by May 1, it will affect the rest of their child’s life. How do we fight that all-or-nothing fear?”

“Because of the pressured parents phenomenon, people tend to catastrophize things,” Grolnick answered. “We can have faith in our kids’ abilities to be resilient. There are many paths to take.”