Open day: how parents can play a key background role

Parents have a vested interest in offspring’s course choice but must not dominate

Choosing a college is a big deal - and a big ordeal - for both students and parents or guardians. Will they pick the right course? Should they choose a nearby college? How much will it all cost?

Parents have a huge vested interest in making sure their child goes to the right institution and, with more colleges now holding their open days on a Saturday to avoid missed school days, they’re making their presence felt.

Joachim Barnett, deputy admissions officer at the University of Limerick, says they are seeing a growing number of parents at college open days. "There are more parents on the Saturday open days than those held during the week, although we have noticed more parents coming along to them too. Parents want to be involved in some way and there can be a benefit for them to either see the higher education environment for the first time, or to refamiliarise themselves with it."

Advisory session

Third levels are recognising that parents play a crucial role in their child's decision. At DCU, the student recruitment office runs an advisory session for parents which includes information on the costs of college and how to approach their child's path to third level, as well as how to deal with any issues that arise on the way. UCC provides information sessions for parents and actively includes them in the open day. DIT has advice sessions for parents which are well-attended. NUI Galway runs a special talk for parents. UCD even puts on a spread for parents in O'Reilly Hall and will be hosting a talk by career guidance teacher and Irish Times writer Brian Mooney at its upcoming event.

But isn’t it all a bit mortifying for a young person to have their parent – and anecdotal evidence suggests it’s more likely to be mum – tagging along?

Ellen O'Rourke (18) is international officer with the Irish Second-Level Students Union and a first-year student at Trinity College Dublin. "I went to the open days in Trinity College, UCD and UCC. They were all on weekends. My mam came with me to the UCD event, but we both agreed that she would drop me off and then attend a talk for parents on how the CAO works. This was useful for her, but we both agreed I should go exploring by myself. So I told her to call me in four hours."

Independent student

O’Rourke says that college is about spreading your wings, and open days are the first taste of what it could be like. “You don’t want a parent stuck to your side when everyone else is there with friends. It’s also important that the student makes their own choices and isn’t pressured, subtly or otherwise, into a particular course. It can happen that a parent, who has been looking after you your whole life, takes over.”

Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, disagrees. "Parents are the primary educators and, for the most part, will be the ones paying for college. If they are anxious about their son or daughter going to third level, it can actually add to the student's anxiety, so if they don't mind mum or dad coming to the open day, it can be a good idea."

McLaughlin says that students and parents can go to open day and still spare each other’s blushes. “One suggestion is to arrive with the parents at the same time and then meet up with them later. That said, I do know a lot of students who have gone in with their parents and haven’t been embarrassed at all. Parents will have a good idea of important questions to ask. In the case of a child with special educational needs, the parent may be best-placed to figure if they can cater for their child and whether the right technologies are in place.”


Joachim Barnett says UL encourages students to ask questions but that a parent might, without meaning to, take over. “There can be a bit of hand-holding, especially with the male students. Sometimes the parent can ask a lot of questions and the boy stands quietly in the background. Interestingly, we do find that female students tend to have done more research and preparation, and there’s often a greater depth to their questions. The girls are often honing in on their course, whereas the boys can be more unsure and are exploring their options.

“It is great to see parents supporting their children in education, but we’d like to see them encourage their son or daughter figure out the options for themselves, as well as help them to discover where their interests and skills lie. Parents can be a great support but they should seek to complement the student rather than dominate. And where they do take over, you sometimes wonder if the student has really benefited.”

He suggests that parents and students should set out some ground rules before open day. “If a parent or guardian is going, they could sit down with the student in advance and see what courses or areas of study the student is interested in, encourage them to ask questions and agree that they will primarily be a listener rather than dominating the discussion.”

Another way in which this could be done is that parents who attend talks with their children could agree to ask questions discreetly rather than during the talk itself.

Pros and cons

Carthach Ó Faoláin (18) is a first-year law and Irish student at UCC and deputy president of the ISSU. His parents, who are both teachers, went to some of the open days. “I went to UCD and UL without them and managed perfectly well, though they did come to UCC and NUIG with me, and I wasn’t the only one. It can be useful for parents to go to the open days if they have concerns around fees, grants, accommodation and so on.”

There are benefits as well as potential drawbacks to having the folks there, he says. “Parents have often been through the education system so they know what questions to ask, and often these are questions a student would never think of. On the other hand, they can take over the process and they can have very different ideas about what education is about. My friends, for instance, think that education is for life not just for the labour market, whereas parents might be very focused on the job that their child will get at the end of it all. This can make parents a bit wary of courses outside of medicine, teaching, engineering and so on. Perhaps the open days can help address those concerns.”


- Don’t be offended if they’re embarrassed by your presence at open day. It’s perfectly normal for teenagers to want a bit of distance from their folks.

- Agree in advance how you expect the day to pan out. For instance, you might spend a few minutes with your son or daughter at the beginning and end of the day but leave them to do their own thing in-between.

- Back off. You can encourage your child to ask questions, especially if they’re normally a bit shy and reticent, but don’t take over. You won’t be there when they go to college so they need to learn to ask questions for themselves.

- Your questions might be helpful and you might think of things that have slipped Johnny or Mary’s mind, but save them for the end of any talks or stall visits, and do it discreetly. Everyone will be morto if you’re that parent leaping up to query every little point in the public talks. Be cool.