When colleges build a freshman class, they check the objective details of students’ high school lives: grades, test scores and the rest.

They get more personal with student essays and teacher evaluations.

And for still more, some are turning to parents.

A biased source? Sure. But also a revealing one, according to schools that use the practice.

Back in the fall of 2006, Leslie Tobakos of White Lake, Mich., was surprised to see in supplemental application forms that Centre College in Danville, Ky., wanted her thoughts on her daughter, Kelly.

The correspondence was optional, and Kelly, now 18, told her mom not to worry about it. But Tobakos, 48, felt drawn to the task.

The admiring parent disclosed her daughter’s smarts at a young age, her love of music and how Kelly – who ultimately picked Furman University in Greenville, S.C. – is driven to help.

“Her compassion has grown so much in the past few years, as her life experiences have opened her eyes to the poverty that results from the lack of opportunity,” Tobakos wrote.

Why would Centre – or any college – want to read zealous missives from an applicant’s biggest fans?

“We ask for the parent to assess their child’s strengths and weaknesses and often receive very thoughtful reflections that give us a bit of insight we would not have had otherwise,” said J. Carey Thompson, Centre’s vice president for enrollment and student planning services.

A parent may unveil passions, quirks, sweet moments, hardships.

John Young, director of admissions at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., offered a recent example. An applicant’s father explained that as a junior in high school his son contracted mononucleosis, a debilitating infection that can last several weeks. Young said the detail helped explain the student’s performance that year.

The elective parental recommendation “acknowledges in some way the unique perspective that parents have,” Young said.

Nobody seems to be keeping track of how many schools offer parents the option, but the sense among college-related organizations is that few do.

“Most colleges really don’t want recommendations from parents,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Such letters, he said, are unlikely to offer much more than “My kid is the best kid in the world.”

Not true, said Debra Shaver, director of admission at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., which has solicited parental input since 1994.

Often, Shaver said, parents balance the accolades. They may reveal that their kid procrastinates, or say “I can’t walk into her room because it’s so messy.”

Other schools question the practice.

“This tactic would likely disadvantage applicants from single-parent, low-income, first-generation American, first-generation college and international families,” who may feel unable to write articulately, said Gil J. Villanueva, dean of admissions at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., which had accepted parents’ letters before Villanueva’s arrival in 2005.

Admissions officers who accept parents’ comments call this assessment too grave.

“We don’t assign any particular weight to (the letters),” said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “We don’t give them a rating. … They’re part of the texture of the application.”

At the same time, the letters can touch how admissions officers perceive candidates.

“I would be naive to say that they don’t influence us one way or another … on some level, that plays a part,” said Nancy Davis Griffin, dean of admission at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

But Griffin stressed that a parent’s letter, or lack of one, would “never make or break an admission decision.”


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