The 411: 'Ideal' college a misconception | April 4, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - April 4, 2008

The 411: 'Ideal' college a misconception

by Katharine O'Hara

In talking to my parents, it seems the college application process has changed a great deal since just one generation ago, when the SAT was just some test to take on a Saturday morning (surely not one to tirelessly prepare for), and many students did not seriously contemplate their college career before junior or senior year when they applied to one, two or maybe three schools. Among individuals I know, this number is now as high as 23 applications.

In his book, "College Unranked," Lloyd Thacker explores the "frenzied commercial exercise" the ever-complex college admission process has become, and how, ironically, the process actually undermines education. Thacker expressed several of his insights about the process in a recent presentation at Dougherty Valley High School, providing parents with tips on how to prevent the system from getting the best of their kids - advice unique amid the multitude of guidebooks that advise students on simply how to beat the system, not how to avoid getting wrapped up in it.

Thacker points out that the current generation is the most marketed to generation yet, purchasing how-to books, test preparation courses and study guides, and college counseling sessions at record levels, in order to over-package and advertise themselves to the "ideal" colleges.

"What message are we sending to our kids? That they're not good enough to do it on their own," said Thacker.

Students (and their parents) are wrapped up in the misconception that there is only one right or best school for them, and frequently base their college decisions on supposedly credible reports, lists and guidebooks that somehow put a rank or number on colleges. However, Thacker points out that these lists can be misleading as they are typically based on quantitative observations like average SAT scores and GPAs that tell little about the culture of schools and the type of students that attend them. Additionally, Thacker strives to emphasize that a student's success and personal development is not based on where they go to college (no matter the level of prestige or selectivity it brags), but on whether one simply goes to college in the first place and what they do when they get there.

"It is not the college that makes the difference in defining the quality of one's experience; it is the student and what they do (rather than where they go), that contributes to educational payoff," he says.

Thacker makes it a point that he is "not suggesting that all colleges are equal, or that distinctions should be ignored," but simply that "the current emphasis on college brand has significantly displaced the value of the student" in their own educational experience.

In his presentation, Thacker defined what he calls "studenthood" - qualities like imagination, curiosity, resilience, self-confidence, flexibility, compassion, ethical sensibility and a drive to achieve. It is these qualities that allow a student to thrive in college, but that are being mercilessly "threatened by the current climate of commercialized college admission process."

"Parents ask about test scores and GPAs, but how often do we talk to kids about their willingness to be engaged with new ideas? If one possesses that quality and is encouraged to develop their 'studenthood,' it is possible to get a strong education anywhere," says Thacker.

The idea of one perfect school is basically discounted by the statistic that 80 percent of incoming college students report going to their first choice school - a number that climbs to 95 percent after completing their first year.

"This process is an irrational one - you can't know all there is to know about a college and you can't know all there is about yourself; you can't make an entirely rational consumer choice as a 17-year-old," says Thacker.

But as is evident from the aforementioned percentages, the decision typically works out.

One of the most striking points Thacker attempts to convey is the lack of authenticity within the system. Students often do whatever it takes to get into a college, even if it means forsaking their own happiness (by taking on an extreme load of extracurricular activities and rigorous courses) or ethical principles. Thacker goes so far as to say that the college admission process poses a significant risk to students' health (due to the extreme levels of stress and anxiety many students endure), individual development and happiness, and can do damage that does not simply go away after one gets into college. Many of the inauthentic and unethical techniques students employ to get ahead in the application process can remain in college and beyond.

In applying to college, Thacker advises students not to take the SAT more than twice.

"You want to distinguish yourself as a unique individual; demonstrate you prefer not to play their game," he says.

Because (with the right qualities) students have the power to do well at whatever college they attend, parents should work less to serve as a source of pressure (by forcing the achievement of extraordinary grades, test scores, etc.) in high school, and more to establish the qualities and values in their kids that will well prepare them to leave home. They should respect, foster and aim to develop their children's "studenthood" by talking to them about topics they are passionate about or interested in, and about learning, rather than grades.

Amid the confusion and anxiety of the process, students should be assured that they, and they only, have the power to dictate the direction and quality of their educational experience. Students should base their college decisions on how well a school will foster their individual studenthood, and should remember that there is more than one school that has the capacity to do so.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at


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