Talking to parents of admitted students

One of the roles I have in the dean’s office is to talk to parents at admissions events. This week I talked with three different groups of parents of admitted students the day before their students registered for the fall. I wanted to take some time to get down some of the things we talked about.

Helicopter versus snowplow parents

Right at the beginning I talk about my view of helpful parents for college students. As the director of the First Year Seminar I think a lot about this, and one of the great things about working in the dean’s office is getting to know the awesome work that my colleagues in Student Affairs (like the Dean of Students) do. They’re the ones who have really taught me to value the supportive role that parents can play.

Here are my definitions:

  • Helicopter parents
    • Emotionally supportive
    • Help students understand the nature of the choices students have
    • Ultimately help students make decisions
  • Snowplow parents
    • Clear the path of anything in the way
    • Determine the direction of the path
    • Make decisions for the students

I recognize there’s a lot of nuance and gaps in those definitions, but they get me pretty far when talking with (mostly nodding) parents. Some people like “lawn mower parents” in place of “snowplow parents” but, coming from Minnesota, I really think about those times when you’ve gotten a foot of snow and only have time for a quick path. You define not only where you are going to walk, but where your mail carrier is going to walk, where your kids are going to walk, and even where the pets are going to walk. My colleague rightly points out, however, that snow plows often follow defined paths whereas lawn mowers can create very strange but well-defined paths. Regardless, the big deal is who makes the decisions.

As I talk about various signs of success that parents can watch for, I like to contrast how a helicopter vs snowplow parent might respond. If the student asks for help in deciding what to register for, the snowplow parent might say “you did well in biology 3 years ago, you should register for that” while a helicopter parent might ask “why did you do so well in biology 3 years ago?”

What problems do you enjoy solving?

Students at this point in their life are innundated with questions like:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you care about?
  • What are you good at?

Those questions and others like them start to morph into “what are you going to major in?” While I find that question to be a part of interesting and useful conversations, I’ve started to use a different one: What problems do you enjoy solving?

Another way of asking that is to encourage students to reflect on times when they’ve looked up and been astounded to see it’s after midnight. What were they working on? Why were they so focused? Did they enjoy it?

What’s particularly interesting is how that question contrasts with the 3 above. A student might be passionate or care about something but not enjoy the work it takes to follow those passions. The simple example I use is “world peace.” People can be passionate about that, but many don’t enjoy the work it takes to achieve it. And the “are you good at it” one is particularly significant: If you know of problems that you enjoy solving, higher ed is a fantastic place to get better at doing it. Getting better then leads you to even more interesting problems! It’s not like we get you to the point where you’re awesome at something and everything is easy from that point on. How boring!

Parents can be awesome at helping students answer the question, which can then help them make all kinds of academic decisions. It can also help with the mid-October phone call that goes like this:

  • “How are things going?”
  • “Ugh, I’ve got 20 more calculus problems to do tonight.”
  • “Shoot that stinks”
    • This part is important. I learned a great parenting lesson from my sister-in-law: deal with your kid’s emotions first, then the logistics of the problem. It only has to take 10 seconds.
  • “Is this getting you any better solving problems that you enjoy solving?”

Ok, I know, it wouldn’t happen quite like that. But something close to it could happen.

Multiple doors

I also talk with parents about the delicate balance students have to achieve in keeping some doors open, shutting some, and diving through others. “What kind of problems do you enjoy solving” can be helpful with that, but I know the paralysis of wanting to keep everything open. It’s important to recognize that you have to dive through at least one and find whole new sets of doors. But if things go south and you have to back up again, are those other doors rusted shut?

My best piece of advice is to change the paradigm. Change them to windows, prop some open, whatever. Think about, for example, non-academic ways to explore those other pastures. At my institution you can take 4 classes, play in the Jazz Ensemble, play a sport, and volunteer at the elementary school across the street all at the same time. What can those non-academic experiences do to help you understand your door environment?


I’ve written a little about the SEEC paradigm before, but I’ve found that it really helps when talking to both students and parents. Quickly, students should:

  • SEE that all ideas are connected
  • EXPLORE those connections
  • EVALUATE those connections
  • CONTRIBUTE new connections and ideas

Encouraging parents to talk to their students about this paradigm is useful, I think. Every course they take should add to the student’s “lenses” to look at the world. Every new lens helps you SEE whole new connections for an idea. Seeing them is always the first step to EXPLORING, EVALUATING, and, most importantly, CONTRIBUTING. Is that calculus homework going to help you SEEC knowledge?

It’s fun to talk to parents about what to watch for by Thanksgiving in the fall. Have they CONTRIBUTED a new idea? They should have. Either in a discussion or a paper or even a homework assignment. Certainly they should be CONTRIBUTING “big” ideas by the time they’re ready to graduate, but even in that first semester they can do it. But they have to S-E-E first, and that’s what our curriculum is all about (FYSEM, General Education, and Majors all do that).

Signs of success

Here are a few of the “signs of success” I encourage parents to watch for:

  • Being able to articulate what they’re up to using the SEEC paradigm
  • They should have had at least one personal conversation with every instructor they have by Thanksgiving. Typically at my institution the biggest class they’ll have is around 40 and I know my colleagues can handle this.
  • Are they owning their education? Do they turn the lights on in the classroom or wait for the instructor to do it. Are they EXPLORING cool connections that a new lens they’ve developed lets them?
  • They should average a new faculty or staff member name on their “forever list” every year.
    • “forever list” is my shorthand for that list of people you keep contact with. It’s your holiday card list, or the list of people you’d consider inviting to your wedding. I encourage parents to ask students if they’ve added one to the list around April of their first year. They really should be making that strong of a connection with a faculty or staff person every year. Admittedly Facebook has changed this equation a little, but mostly people get what I mean when I say this.

In addition to those signs, it’s helpful to talk to parents about the W curve. It’s a plot of how settled/happy/adjusted students are at college in their first term and it looks like a ‘W’.

Your ideas?

Thoughts to add or subtract? Here are some starters for you:

  • Thanks for this, it really helps me. What especially resonated was . . .
  • What a waste of time. I could have written this myself, but I would have changed . . .
  • Helicopter parents are the bane of my existence. Why are you praising them. Please take this post down.
  • Here’s a few more descriptions that can fill out your parent spectrum . . .
  • What did that last commenter mean by “parent spectrum”?
  • I think “follow your passion” is a much better way to talk to students and here’s why . . .
  • I think “follow your passion” has harmed some students. I’m not sure I like your approach any better but that last commenter was a little over the top so I just stopped by to say thanks for giving me something to think about.
  • I liked what you said about balancing open doors. Here’s what’s helped me with that . . .
  • Students should know the one door they want to go through before enrolling. It makes things much easier.
  • I think it should be SEECC with the second C being “communicate”
  • SEECC is really hard to pronounce. What was that last commenter thinking?
  • I like your “signs of success.” Here’s a few that I use as well.
  • Your “signs of success” are way off the mark. Instead you should use . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in dean. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Talking to parents of admitted students

  1. John Burrell says:

    This is really one of the best articles/posts on what following ones passions look like and better yet how to support someone in finding there’s. Our culture is full of cliches about passion and dreams. Disney is incredibly good at this. However, your criteria of what types of problems one enjoys solving is on point. It is both action oriented and about one’s own comfort level and enjoyment; most criteria simply are about what makes you feel good. This past school year was such a growth year for me. It was this year that I realized

    1. I am not comfortable and do not genuinely managing classrooms of 30 teenagers.
    2. I am deeply passionate about figuring out how to adapt learning for the outliers at a traditional high school. This might be because of personal experience and it might because these types of challenges provide a puzzle I genuinely feel good about solving.

    And strangely once I figured this all out, I found myself job working, next fall, at Arete Academy for twice exceptional learners in St. Louis Park- a Private School for kids for kids I relate very well to.

    By the way, you are on my forever list.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      Wow, John, thanks for this great comment. I’ve been watching and cheering on your journey since I’ve had the pleasure of teaching you.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    Here are three takeaways for me:

    1. “What problems do you enjoy solving?” This was exactly the sort of process I ended up using to figure out what I wanted to major in. I would have been really helpful if a professor/advisor would have asked me this early on in my college career.
    2. “Do they turn the lights on in the classroom or wait for the instructor to do it.” I love this so much. This is basically part of my definition of what it means to be an adult: If there is a problem that affects you and you have the ability to solve it, you solve it.
    3. This is the first time I have encountered “helicopter parent” in a non-pejorative sense. It is clear that I would rather be a helicopter parent than a snowplow parent, but shouldn’t there be a third way? I don’t necessarily want to hover over my kids all throughout college.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      There probably should be a third way to talk about parents. I’m looking for a way to continue to leverage parents in my students’ success without risking them not owning their education.

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