Three Tips on Managing Parents' Responses to Admission "Deny" Decisions

For those of us in the secondary school admission world, March means decision letters, and of course with it comes the inevitable--sometimes emotional-- responses from parents regarding “Deny” letters. These conversations can be difficult, especially when we are dealing with the parents of an enrolled sibling or any family with whom we have developed a strong bond during the admission process. Here are some tips on how to navigate the tough ones:

  1. For deny decisions for a sibling, consider making a phone call to the candidate’s parents in advance of your letter mailings or electronic notifications. While these conversations can naturally be a bit awkward, the parents will respect you for it and appreciate your personal touch. You are letting them know that they are family.
  2. For all candidates and their parents, do not allow them to press you for specific details regarding an admission deny decision. There are simply too many moving parts to an admission committee decision, and pointing to one or two specific reasons for the denial will compromise the confidential aspects of your committee’s work. A firm statement (delivered with a soft touch) such as, “It was a difficult decision, but we had a very competitive pool of applicants this year” is the best way to go.
  3. You will often be pressed by parents to prescribe ways that their child’s application in the future will result in an acceptance. Don’t go there. While you understandably want to soften the blow after a deny decision, there are too many moving parts and unknowns in the coming year, and you will be inferring to the parents that a few improvements will in fact increase chances for this child's future acceptance.

I’m reminded of a difficult Deny decision in my early years as an Admission Director: The parent pressed for the reason, and I wanted to be helpful. I agreed that the student’s testing was in line with our averages, his report card was quite good, and his interview was strong. The parent immediately went to the child’s teachers and bullied them about their “weak teacher recommendations”! In sum, Admission Directors and staffs should always be warm and caring, but when it comes to Deny decisions, it is far better to avoid specific reasons because you want to bring closure to the situation and protect the integrity and highly confidential nature of admission decisions. Parents have an agenda--to push as hard as possible for their child. Your agenda in Admission is to be firm-yet-kind in advancing your school with mission-appropriate acceptances that will define the school’s culture and support its programs.

Fred McGaughan is a 30-year independent school admission and marketing professional. He is the Managing Director of Gowan Group, an educational consulting firm that specializes in Strategic Enrollment Management.