Wrong Answer
When parents can't take rejection

By Marjorie A. Schiff
Sunday, April 2, 2006

The admission office phones rang off the hook after the decisions were posted online. Between 8:30 a.m. and noon on the morning of April 5, 2005, I answered 18 decision-related phone calls -- 16 from parents, one from a guidance counselor and only one from an actual applicant. The parents were upset, wanting to know why "we" had been wait-listed or denied admission. Several were graduates of the University of Virginia with an inflated sense of what legacy status might do for their children. Others had not attended college or were recent immigrants who felt betrayed by the competitive nature of the process.

The 11th call I answered was from a father whose daughter had been denied admission. I tried to convince him that the decision was less a reflection of a deficiency in his daughter's application than of the very competitive pool of prospective students. When such generalizations inflamed rather than soothed him, I offered to put him on hold while I pulled his daughter's application file.

I walked back to my office, file folder in hand, while scanning the evaluation of the young woman's course selection, grade-point average and SAT scores. When I turned to the narrative summary, I recognized my own handwriting, and my heart sank. "After a long battle with bipolar disorder and countless medical interventions, [this student's] mom, a once-energetic, impulsive, brilliant woman, committed suicide last year," I'd written. I dreaded picking up the phone.

When I took the father off hold, I made no mention of my assiduous documentation of his wife's final act. Instead, I explained that although his daughter was a fine student, she was not as academically competitive as most of the candidates offered admission. She had earned mostly B's while taking only a few of the top courses offered at her school and was in the second decile of her graduating class. At the mere mention of course selection and grades, however, he grew angrier -- not, apparently, because the admission committee hadn't factored in the personal circumstances that might have affected his daughter's academic performance, but because he was convinced that if he had sent her to her public high school rather than to the private school she had attended, "she would have made straight A's" and been offered admission.

This emerged as a popular refrain throughout the morning. In several conversations, parents seemed unable to remember what must have been, at some point, good reasons for sending their children to private schools. They were certain that public high schools were a breeze where top grades grew on trees, and seemed to view an offer of admission to U-Va. as the sole acceptable return on their private-school investment.

One mom, an alumna, was dismayed that despite her daughter's "extraordinary record of community service" and legacy status she was not offered admission. When I pointed out that not even steady participation in community service or a legacy tie could offset a decline in grades between sophomore and junior year, or two C's on a midyear grade report, the mother became enraged and threatened to stop contributing to the university.

EVERY YEAR ABOUT 16,000 STUDENTS seek admission to U-Va. Many of them don't get in. About 50 percent of the students who apply from within the state are denied admission. For out-of-staters, the odds are worse: 75 to 80 percent don't get in.

In the admission department, a dozen full-time employees along with eight or so part-time evaluators sift through the mountain of applications. It's an agonizing process that involves weighing all kinds of factors: course selection, grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, essays, recommendations of guidance counselors, teachers and club advisers, personal circumstances, etc.

We are acutely aware that as we decide who will be offered admission and who won't we will leave some students crestfallen. Yet they almost never call to protest an admission decision; to vent about how disappointed they are in the institution; or to threaten to sue because someone in their class with a lower grade-point average was offered admission, and they weren't. Most have realistic expectations when it comes to selective college admissions. They remember who got in where the year before and see who was deferred by Ivy League schools during early decision. They understand that being qualified or high-achieving or even the apple of mom's eye is no guarantee of admission to a top school.

It is the parents who call. Even before decision day, they call seeking advice regarding high school, or even junior high school, course selection. Or they need help with the online application. They do not find it strange that they are working on the application in the middle of the afternoon -- at home or from the office -- while their sons and daughters are at school. Increasingly, they show up to information sessions sans sons and daughters, who are apparently too busy with homework, soccer practices, drama club rehearsals or volleyball games to research their college options.

This behavior is not unique to U-Va. When I talk to my colleagues at Brown, Duke, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and other selective schools, they all marvel at the way many parents have hijacked the application process. Most of us were admitted to college before the advent of private college counseling, how-to guides and endless SAT prep. Our parents were as mystified as we were by the offers of admission and the rejections we received, and it never occurred to them to question, let alone protest, a decision.

Now those of us who work in admissions swap stories about the parental outrage du jour. One friend, an admission counselor at an Ivy League university, recalls an alumnus who became furious when his daughter was deferred during early decision. Hours after the decisions were posted on the university Web site, he left hostile voice messages at the admission office, a coach's office and at the particular school to which his daughter had applied within the university. He barraged the university with angry e-mail. He was convinced of two things: that there must be a quota for applicants from particular high schools to particular schools within the university, and that another student at his daughter's elite, mid-Atlantic prep school -- a recruited athlete who was admitted during early decision -- had taken his daughter's "spot."

My colleague tried to assure the applicant's father that the decision to admit the athlete, whose GPA and course selection, as it turned out, were stronger than the daughter's, had no bearing on the decision about his daughter, and that there are no quotas for applicants from particular high schools to particular schools within the university. Although the father eventually cooled off and apologized for his behavior, he failed to see the irony inherent in his position -- that recruited athletes should not be given the admission boost so richly deserved by legacy applicants.

I've dealt with lots of parents just like him. A few weeks before the transfer application deadline last year, a father called me to inquire about the transfer admission process. He didn't introduce himself as a father, though. "I'm Doctor X," he announced. "I'm calling on behalf of my son, who is very busy. He's a freshman up at College Y." I wasn't sure how to break it to the doctor that if his son was anything like many college freshmen, he didn't stir before noon.

At an information session I conducted in Manhattan, a mother approached me to ask whether I had time to meet privately to discuss her son, a senior at a boarding school a couple of hours away. As it turned out, what she really wanted to discuss was not her son, but his licentious father, who had "traded in the family Buick for a new Corvette" the summer before her son's junior year. She asked a seemingly innocuous question: "Does the admission committee care about personal circumstances that might affect a student's academic performance?"

I told her that although we do care about special circumstances, often they are not enough to positively affect the outcome of an admission decision, given the very selective nature of an applicant pool. I also mentioned that many applicants experience divorce, or even the death of a parent or sibling, right around their pivotal junior year and that many of them continue to succeed despite such hardships. The admission committee would care that her son's world had been shattered the summer before his junior year, but there was no guarantee that this would translate into an admission offer.

Ignoring my words of caution, she recounted her husband's infidelity and detailed the debilitating effect it had had on her son. As she talked, it became clear that what troubled her more than her husband's betrayal or the dissolution of their marriage was his timing. The third time she mentioned how much better things would be if her husband had been unfaithful one year before or after junior year, I offered what I thought was a self-evident: "Or never."

She looked stunned, as if she had no idea how she'd come to spend the past 20 minutes of her life discussing her husband's indiscretions with a stranger.

WHEN I MANNED THE PHONES last April, I don't think I convinced many parents of the truth: that there aren't quotas for particular high schools or counties or states or countries; that we do care about special circumstances; that we evaluate applicants, not the secondary schools they've attended. I'm not sure I convinced any angry callers that their behavior was only exacerbating their children's disappointment.

But I did have one meaningful, satisfying conversation that day. It was the half-hour I spent on the phone with the one applicant who had called on his own behalf. He had been deferred during early decision and then denied admission to the university's architecture school. I suggested that, to the best of his ability, he should try to get excited about one of the schools where he'd been offered admission.

"That's the problem," he told me, "I haven't been admitted anywhere."

Unlike the sons and daughters of the outraged parents who had phoned all morning and who undoubtedly had been admitted to many fine schools, this kid had been placed on several wait lists but had not been admitted to a single college. One school apparently had lost his application. He did not have a parent or counselor to help him navigate the selective college admission process, let alone contest its outcome or advocate on his behalf. He was the only honors student at his high school without a single college option, he tearfully told me.

I urged him to go back to the university that had lost his application and press the admission office for help. He was well-qualified to go there, and the school might be willing to take a late application. If that didn't work, he could enroll in a community college and reapply to U-Va. in a year or two.

He was grateful I had taken the time to talk him. Thank you so much, he said over and over.

Marjorie A. Schiff is a former senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, where she now works as a strategic planning manager.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company