As admission to college gets even more cutthroat, a key to getting in to one's first-choice school might be found at the family dinner table.
Frequently sharing meals together can help foster healthy parent-child relationships, many experts said. Teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are more likely to get better grades in school and much less likely to have substance-abuse problems, according to a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Some college admissions experts said that can translate into acceptance to the student's college of choice.
"Families that discussed daily events, life expectations as well as college expectations had a clearer view of what made for a successful college experience," said Mark H. Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, citing feedback from the group's members.
"We also concluded that students with close family upbringings adjusted better to living with others, socializing with others and respected the need of roommates for some alone time."
Rakeish Bedesi -- president of ApplyingtoSchool.com, an advice and networking service -- said he sees a "complete difference between families where parents and children regularly discuss issues together and those that don't.
"It really comes down to the individual student, but the totality of it is that when families have dinner together it actually says that nothing else matters but you. It actually fosters that environment with the child that, hey, my parents are here for me."
The ordeal of the application is also often easier when parents and students have a close relationship, Bedesi said. Educational consultant and admissions strategist Steven Roy Goodman at TopColleges.com said, "Oftentimes, there are kick-down fights. Moms want them close by, dads want to spend less money and kids want to be left alone."
By eating together and discussing different expectations, students can choose an appropriate school where they will be happy and more likely to excel, he said.
Is It Really Cause and Effect?
Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management at Chicago's DePaul University, said the factors may be correlated but it's not likely cause and effect.
"As much as people might hope for any easy solution that would increase a student's chances for college admission, I doubt this is the magic bullet," Boeckenstedt said.
"It would be easy to hypothesize, for instance, that families who eat together might generally cluster toward the higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, and the income -- not the eating -- would explain the relationship. College attendance for the highest income, lowest ability students is about the same as for the highest ability, lowest income students."
The suggested link between shared dinners and student success comes apparently from a widely accepted anecdote that those who do well on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test uniformly eat dinner regularly with their families. Though often cited, its sourcing is dubious.
Elaine S. Detweiler, director of public information for the National Merit group, told The Wall Street Journal last year that she has been answering questions about such a study for at least 15 years but does not know where the claim comes from.
"NMSC has not had a research department since the early 1970s, and we have not been able to find any such research that was conducted during the early years of the program either," she told Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik. "Let me know if you find the source of this myth."
Working Toward Success
The bottom line, most agreed, is that children who are supported by their parents in general tend to be more successful in finding a college that fits their needs.
"Anything that families consistently do together, to promote a unity and a bond leads to emotionally stronger individuals. The positive results will last a lifetime," said J King, a counselor at DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Texas.
"It doesn't have to be complicated," King said. "Either you do things together or you don't. Either you show that you care about each other or you don't. Either way, it will have some type of a lasting effect."