Among the nearly two dozen comments this post has generated this morning is one from Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor of College Confidential, who describes her typically positive reaction when “parent letters” arrived in her in-box when she worked in admissions at Smith College.
Admissions officers are inundated with information about prospective students. For many, an importunate letter from an applicant’s parents would quickly be consigned to a dusty filing cabinet, if not the wastebasket.
But a handful of small liberal arts colleges actually solicit recommendations, if you can call them that, from the families of applicants — as another window into an applicant’s character.
Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Richmond, said the university began soliciting letters from parents in 2008 because the letters help provide a more “holistic view of the student.”
“It’s the things that won’t come across on a transcript or a letter of recommendation from an A.P. chemistry teacher,” she said. “It helps admissions officers get a better understanding of the student.”
The letters are optional, and Ms. Tessier estimated that about one-third of parents write them. She said she first encountered this kind of parent outreach at Smith College in 1994, but said that to the best of her knowledge the practice was not commonplace.
Cathy Nabbefeld, the co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, agreed that parental submissions are rare.
“I’m sure not many colleges ask for this kind of rec,” Ms. Nabbefeld wrote in an e-mail. “It’s obviously quite biased, and unlike counselor and teacher recs, there’s no context really to compare the applicant against.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Nabbefeld said the parent letters she had read “were always wonderful and insightful and actually quite touching.” Ms. Tessier said the letters were also incredibly varied, and that parents did not simply use the letters as another opportunity to lionize their child.
“Sometimes they talk about difficult situations,” she said. “They talk about the death of a parent, or a difficult divorce, or financial struggles and about how applicants have really helped or responded to the situation.”
Ms. Tessier described memorable letters from a mother who found different opportunities for her daughter when high school peers enjoyed activities their family could not afford; a poignant note from a mother who had lost her husband in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and one in which a father compared his son to a mango, because of his ability to thrive in spite of harsh conditions.
The request for letters also demonstrates to parents that the institution is truly concerned about their children as individuals.
“As a father, there are things that I wish I had been able to tell admission officers about my own son and daughter,” Edward L. Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, writes in his note to parents requesting the letters. (You can read the full request by clicking on the upper left corner of the box below.)