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Ex-counselor working toward less-stressful college admissions

Are you a high school student fed up because you keep hearing that everything you do makes a difference on your college application? Are you a parent sick of emptying your wallet for test prep courses or the latest summer activity that might help Johnny get into Harvard?

You have probably never heard of Lloyd Thacker, but he has taken up your cause.

After years of admissions work at the college and high school levels, Thacker became disgusted with the growing commercialization of the field. He started the Education Conservancy in February as a national organization dedicated to changing college admissions, altering the focus from marketing colleges to prospective students to a focus on education.

It is too early to tell whether Thacker can shake up the admissions world. But prominent admissions officials from institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago are backing his efforts. When Thacker spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling last fall, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that his session was packed.

Aside from the students he has individually counseled over the years, few have heard his message. It is not a "take it easy" message by any means: He thinks students in high school should seek out challenging courses. But he wants them to resist fads in the admissions process that merely make it more competitive, stressful, and expensive.

For example, he urges students to never take a standardized test more than twice. And he says that no student should apply to more than six colleges. If you've done good research, six should be plenty, he says.

The students who do the opposite -- taking courses just to impress, taking the SAT five times, and applying to 12 colleges -- are victims of a system that's out of control, he says. Thacker blames many colleges, which he says have "abdicated their responsibility to focus on education" in the admissions process. Instead, they hire companies to market their institutions, develop strategies to rise in the rankings, encourage applications for the sole purpose of having more students to reject (to go up in the rankings), and use financial aid to recruit students instead of helping those in need. Students in turn hire private counselors to rework their

application essays and to try to pull strings in admissions offices.

"College admissions has become a multibillion dollar industry unduly influenced by businesses external to the education community," Thacker writes in the introduction to the Education Conservancy's first book, "College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions."

The book, sold only by the conversancy (www.educationconservancy.org), features essays from deans and presidents, all focused on different problems with the admissions process.

For example, William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, in an essay called "Let Them Be Students," writes about the "Darwinian flavor" of parental involvement in the admissions process, especially in the Boston-Washington corridor. Many parents pressure students to take courses or participate in summer programs for prestige, not realizing that those activities may well not impress anyone, he writes. "I have seen students gain far more from working as a bagger in a supermarket than studying overseas," Shain writes.

As the admissions process has become more focused on prestige, statistics, and money, Thacker says, students have lost faith, and education has taken a back seat.

"I saw the impact on this in the eyes of the kids" when he was working as a high school counselor, Thacker says. "The fear and anxiety increased as admissions became a game to be played, and parents told kids to pick activities based on what would help on their application. I had people calling and asking what sport would help their ninth-grader get into Harvard."

Thacker, 50, was a counselor at Jesuit High School, in Portland, Ore., from 1987 until February 2004, when he left to create the Education Conservancy. He had also worked in admissions at Pacific University and the University of Southern California.

Thacker hopes over time to develop "admissions values" that colleges might decide to abide by. Such values might include policies to minimize the use of standardized tests, to limit the percentage of a class admitted through early decision, and a commitment to admitting students regardless of their financial means, he said.

Sidonia M. Dalby, associate director of admissions at Smith College in Northampton, says she is optimistic that Thacker's ideas will take hold. She said she believes Thacker's movement will reassure people who are already approaching college admissions in an appropriate way that they don't need to keep up with those who are out of control.

Many people "go through the admissions process with a sane, reasonable approach" and end up "relatively happy with the results," Dalby said. It's a minority of families -- those obsessed with getting into the most competitive colleges -- that tend to skewer perceptions.

Officials in the admissions industry, however, said they object to Thacker's contention that their businesses don't address students' needs.

"Institutions want to identify, attract, and retain those students they can best serve and who will also succeed," said Kevin Crockett, president and CEO of Noel-Levitz, a higher-education consulting firm that helps colleges refine their admissions strategies. "Obviously that benefits both the institution and the student."

The difficulty of getting colleges or students to be as idealistic as Thacker is clear if you look at the websites of some colleges.

Dickinson College, in keeping with the Education Conservancy's criticism of rankings, has a thoughtful essay on its website noting the limitations of rankings, and how they don't reflect the college's important work in educating students. But the same college issued a press release that proclaimed: "Dickinson Continues Uninterrupted Rise in Top 50 of US News Rankings."

"It's going to take time," Thacker said of his efforts. He believes that when some colleges start to change, others will follow.

"Many well-meaning admissions officers want to change, but need support," he said. "This is just the beginning."

Advice for students

In ''College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions," Lloyd Thacker offers advice for prospective college students. Among the actions and questions he urges students to consider are the following:

  • Resist taking any standardized test more than twice.

  • Try to limit the number of college applications you submit to no more than four to six. Studies show that students who apply to fewer colleges, once they have done reasonable research, often have better rates of acceptance and college success.

  • Remember: The more popular the college, the more political the admissions process and the less control you have in that process.

  • Carefully consider your reasons for accepting a position on any college's waiting list, and make sure you are set to go to a college to which you have been admitted. If you have selected your colleges confidently, you should have options.

  • Are you applying to a college just because the application process is easy?

  • Keep in mind that you are being judged according to criteria that you would never use to judge another person and which will never again be applied to you once you leave college.

  • Consider taking a year off between high school and college to work or follow your passions.

  • Approach high school as a necessary, significant, and enjoyable part of your life.

  • Take appropriately challenging courses; you are in charge of deciding what is appropriate.

  • Should you let an admissions dean, test score, GPA, or coach tell you what you are worth?

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