Preparing for College

How Often to Contact Admission Offices

Question: We were told to keep in touch and correspond frequently with the colleges we visited. (For example: tell them how much we enjoyed the visit and how much our child is looking forward to attending that school) How do we accomplish this without being too pushy/gushy?

You ask a good question. I don't know who told you to "keep in touch and correspond frequently" but such advice is certainly in vogue these days. A decade or so ago, it was indeed considered good form as well as a sound admission "strategy" for applicants to make their interest known not only to admission staff but also to faculty members. The idea was to get on admission committee radar screens with periodic correspondence, and many students were also advised to contact an appropriate faculty member ("I'm very interested in your area of expertise ...blah, blah, blah" ) with the hope that the prof would champion the candidate's cause at decision time.

Now, however, such advice is so prolific that admission staffers--and, increasingly, faculty members, too--are beleaguered by overflowing mail boxes, bulging with well-intentioned but frequently unnecessary "suck-up missives," as I've come to call them.

So how much is too much ... or what is "too pushy/gushy" as you so aptly put it? Here are some occasions when contact is called for:

-A thank-you note after an interview or information session, but only if it says something of substance.

When I interviewed at Smith College, I routinely received what my mother used to dub "bread and butter notes." I cringe when I imagine the amount of parental nagging that was behind many of them, but most were cast aside with little regard. Why? Because all the notes said was something like, "Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me" (as if I had a choice!). "I enjoyed talking to you and seeing the beautiful Smith campus." (Yawn, yawn). Every now and then, however, I received a letter that had more pizzazz and sounded as if the author had actually put some thought into it. ("Professor Krause was in his office, as you said he might be, and he took the time to tell us all about his freshman seminar on Media and Culture in India. Wow! My parents couldn't believe how nice he was to someone who hasn't even been admitted yet. Afterwards, we stopped at Sylvesters', as you suggested, and had a great brunch. The banana-bread French toast was amazing ...") In those cases, I'd actually scrawl something like, "Nice note" across the top of the page and stick it in the applicant's folder. While such stamps of approval would hardly shunt an application from the "Out" pile to the "In," they certainly didn't hurt and probably sent a positive, albeit perhaps subliminal, thumbs-up to the applicant's evaluators.

-Kudos to anyone who went out of their way for you.

If an admission officer did you a special favor, be sure to say thank-you. The note should come from whomever was the beneficiary ... student or parent. If the person who helped out was a receptionist, secretary, tour guide, etc., still send the note to an admission officer but offer praise for the underling who assisted you, by name if possible.

-Genuine--not contrived--questions for your regional rep.

Most admission offices have a staff member in charge of your part of the country and your child's school. Your child can write to him or her and say something like, "Will you be in Cleveland this fall?" but only if the information isn't clearly listed on the Web site. If it is, you still may have additional questions (e.g., "I see you'll be in Cleveland in early October but the Web site doesn't list the specific schools you'll be visiting during the day. I'd like to meet with you, if possible ... ") Similarly, many admission offices have designated staff members who oversee minority recruitment, athletic recruitment, and international student recruitment. If your child falls into one of these categories, it's fine to get the name of the appropriate staff member and suggest that your child write an introductory note to him or her.

-Genuine--not contrived--questions for faculty members.

If an applicant has a very specific area of academic interest and/or expertise, sometimes it's a good idea to contact professors via e-mail with questions about a college's offerings that aren't obviously answered on the Web site, in the course catalog, etc. Sure, there can be a fine line that separates real queries from those that have been trumped up to curry favor. One way to know the difference: If your child suggests writing the message himself, then he may truly be genuinely excited about the subject matter. But if you have to do all the urging, then it's probably just "for show," so let it go.

-Responses to mailings.

Students are often flattered when they receive encouraging letters from colleges. Often these letters mean little--only that your child has met some minimum requirement (e.g., SAT score, GPA, demographic) that will help satisify the college's quest for ever-growing applicant pools. Although high school students should take such mass mailings with a grain of salt and not start packing their duffels just yet, it never hurts to write back directly to the individual whose name appears on the letter or--if there's not one name--to your regional rep.

While usually correspondence should come from students, sometimes it's appropriate for parents to write as well, especially if a thank-you for a special accommodation is in order. I also recommend that parents write a letter of reference for their child. At Smith, it was an optional part of the application process, and all parents were invited to participate. Occasionally, overwhelmed admission offices ask parents NOT to do this. (Check all application instructions.) But usually, a note from Mom or Dad can help admission adjudicators to see a side of the candidate that other materials may not reveal. The best parent letters tend to be full of anecdotes and not merely a string of laudatory adjectives.

Bottom line: Go with your gut but try to let good judgment prevail. Don't feel that admission officials are off limits if you have legitimate questions or concerns, but don't use a letter-writing campaign as a way to promote your child's bid for admission.