How Much Can Parents Help on College Applications?

If you have a high school senior in your house, he or she may be haunting the mailbox right now, waiting for college acceptance letters to arrive. It's the time of year when the college admissions ordeal reaches its climax. New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen answers a listener's question about how adults should help their children on college applications.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

If you have a high school senior in your house, he or she may be haunting the mailbox right now, waiting for college acceptance letters to arrive. This is that time of year when the college admissions ordeal reaches its climax. The cutthroat competition prompted our letter this week to New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen.

The letter comes from Malcolm Greenstein(ph) in Austin, Texas. We have him on the line now. Hello there.

Mr. MALCOLM GREENSTEIN (Caller): Hi.

ELLIOTT: And of course we also have Randy on the line from our New York studio. Hi, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So, Malcolm, share your letter with us.

Mr. GREENSTEIN: My girlfriend's niece is a high school senior applying to college, and she is writing an essay for the schools that she's applying, and my girlfriend, who has advanced degree, as does her sister and her mother, were all helping her in drafting this essay, and my question was, was that ethical for them to do that, especially in light of other high school seniors who do not have family with similar education and who are doing it on their own?

ELLIOTT: Now, did you see the finished essay? Was it substantially different from what you would think your niece's usual writing style would be?

Mr. GREENSTEIN: I didn't see the finished product, but I heard the input, and some of the input was theme input, some of it was grammatical, and some of it was substantive.

ELLIOTT: How did your girlfriend justify what they were doing?

Mr. GREENSTEIN: This, she is the child of a single parent; she has had a tough time her entire life; they have no money, and other families certainly help their children, people who have college graduates in the family, assist them.

ELLIOTT: Randy, what do you think? Isn't it normal for parents to sort of chip in and help with their children's work?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, it is, but what's key here is what kind of help and how much help. It's one of those cases where a difference of degree is a difference in kind. Unlike arson, say, where you're not allowed to burn down any size house, even a little house, a certain amount of help here is just fine, but it depends what kind of help you give.

For instance, what you can't do is you can't suggest specific wording. You can't do any of the actual writing. I know some folks actually go through it and mark all the grammar mistakes. I think that is over the line. Parents have a duty to help their children in this kind of situation, but that duty doesn't give them a license to kill. It's at certain limits.

Like you couldn't murder your niece's rivals for college, that you have to act honorably, and in fact by giving too much help I think you set the niece a very bad example of what integrity means. You know, and you can't use this justification, other people have an easier life, other people have more help. Their bad behavior doesn't justify yours.

So it seems to me there's two problems here if they go over the line. One is the ethical problem, and it's an ethical problem because by giving the niece inappropriate help, you hurt other people, the other kids trying to get into that school. And one is the emotional problem, that by doing too much you undermine the niece's sense that she can do this herself, that it's something she can take pride in.

ELLIOTT: So, Randy, where is that line?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah...

ELLIOTT: Is it just checking, okay, you've got some grammatical mistakes here. Let me mark them and you go and fix them? Or...

Mr. COHEN: This is one of those cases where it's very, very hard to set the line yourself, and by leaving it to individual families to kind of make up the line, to leave us all groping in the dark for this, that's really hard, and the real solution here is that there should be general guidelines so that all kids are getting about the same amount of help. Here are some guidelines I find. You can never do any of the actual writing. That you may not do. I don't know, Malcolm. Did they actually write anything?

Mr. GREENSTEIN: They may have rewritten as opposed to actually writing. In other words, here's a better way to say this.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I think that's over the line. Once you put, you know, the parents helping should never hold a pen at any point. Even marking particular grammar mistakes, I think, is over the line because it then misrepresents the niece's actual knowledge of grammar.

One cause for hope here is the admissions officers are actually quite good at their jobs, and they've seen a million essays, and they really do recognize the ones where suddenly the subjunctive is used with enormous skill by kids who you wouldn't expect that from the rest of their academic record. So you can have some confidence that admissions officers see through this thing.

ELLIOTT: Malcolm, thank you for writing to the ethicist.

Mr. GREENSTEIN: Well, I appreciate your answer. It was very thoughtful.

ELLIOTT: If you've got a question for Randy Cohen, write to us. Go to our website, npr.org, click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word ethics in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, thanks as always.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie.

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