Caroline Diarte Edwards, MBA admissions director at INSEAD from 2005 to 2012 and now an admissions consultant for Fortuna Admissions, says, "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 parents ask. "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.
More often than not, however, parental involvement is less noticeable to business school admission officials because applicants are often embarrassed to fess up to it. But sometimes, the issue does crop up in subtle ways. Jon Fuller, who had been on the admissions staff at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, recalls a phone call from the mother of an accepted student.
"It was really weird," says Fuller. "She said, 'You didn't know it, but I was blind copied on every message he sent to you. I read all his essays and talked about all the interactions he had with the school. I want you to know but don't ever tell him I called you.' She was calling to say thanks for admitting her son, but it was a little disconcerting to know that he had his mom approving all this stuff."
Last year, Fuller notes, one of Michigan's accepted applicants asked if she could bring her mother with her to the admitted students weekend. "She was an international student and she and her family were not comfortable with her making the decision on her own," remembers Fuller, now an MBA admissions consultant for Clear Admit. "Her mom came and we treated her as a guest like anyone else."
Fuller believes it happens more often than many realize. "For the most part, the candidates are still savvy enough to understand that the schools shouldn't know, he says. After all, a hovering, over-involved parent may raise a red flag about an applicant's ability to make it through an MBA program on his own and to thrive in a demanding post-MBA job.
Still, helicopter parents have become a fact of life. "It's a necessary evil because the schools realize that the parents are not only acting as advisors," says Fuller. "They are paying the bills. They are paying for test prep and tuition, so their opinions are going to hold a lot of sway in the process. Schools have to figure out how to work with it instead of against it."
When parents call admission officials at schools, their children tend to be some years from applying -- rather than active applicants. Dawna Clark, director of admissions at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, says she sometimes fields calls from parents whose children are still undergrads. "They want to know what they should tell their children to increase the odds of an acceptance at Tuck later on," says Clarke.
That is also the case at Wharton. When Judith Silverman Hodara, now an admissions consultant at Fortuna, worked in Wharton's admissions office, she would frequently get calls from parents of kids who were making the decision about what school to attend for undergrad. "They would be very concerned about how that choice of school would affect their eventual MBA plans," says Hodara. "Keep in mind that these kids were 18 years old at most, and the MBA would not be for another six to eight years.
"Perhaps more concerning were calls from parents of middle school [children] to see what activities the kids should be involved with if they eventually wanted to go to Wharton," laughs Hodara. "So this was planning out about 12 to 15 years in advance, at least."
How intrusive is parental meddling to a hired admissions coach? "I am always glad to chat with parents at the start of the process," adds Hodara, "but I do not believe that they need to be editing the essays or giving coaching tips for the interview.... With this much support at every step of the way, how is the student really going to navigate their own academic and professional careers when they need to?"
One mother was apparently so offended at her son's rejection from a business school that she felt compelled to weigh in. When Edwards was director of MBA admissions at INSEAD, she received an email from the mother who actually thanked the school for the rejection because otherwise her son would have "unnecessarily postponed having children." Besides, the mother added, "given the talent and political connections of the family, he doesn't need an MBA anyway.