Helicopter Parents Hover Over B-Schools

HelicopterThe call came in at midnight on the eve of Harvard Business School’s Round 2 deadline this past January to apply for a seat in the Class of 2016.

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 sun down just before Yom Kipper.


Helicopter parents, of course, are not a new phenomenon. For at least a decade or more, parents have become deeply involved in the undergraduate admission process of their high school children. They help to 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 becoming 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, admission 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 consulting to join an executive search firm. “They’ve always been given everything. Everyone gets a medal. It makes it hard for people to stand out. They’ve been propped up their whole lives, and these are the ultimate helicopter parents. Every major decision has to involve the moms. There are the same moms who were over-involved in their college decisions. Rarely are they helpful.”


However well-intentioned the involvement, parents are often ill-equipped to be helpful. Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm, points out that the MBA 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 who is now an admissions consultant for Fortuna Admissions, says, “We observed a big change from virtually no involvement of parents approximately 15 years ago to a gradual increasing involvement, with parents accompanying their offspring to visit the campus, alumni parents contacting the admissions office to get information or to try to influence their kids’ chance of admission, and parents dropping off their kids on the first day of school. 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 inevitably are asked by the parents who cosset their adult children. “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.