Pursuing the Outcomes that Matter

Three perspectives on college counseling at Thacher
With college application deadlines in the air we thought it was a good time to share some information about Thacher’s college application process. This article was published in the spring 2019 edition of Thacher magazine.

How does a highly selective college preparatory school reconcile the needs of young people and the expectations of parents with the measures of success that seem to dominate the college admissions game? At Thacher, we do it by focusing squarely on the well-being of our students and matching them with schools that fit their strengths and opportunities for growth. To give you a better idea of how that works, here are three perspectives on the college search and application process at Thacher.
Maria Morales-Kent P ’12, ’13 has been Thacher’s director of college counseling since 1997. Her years of experience in selective admission and counseling include the founding of ACCIS—a national, professional organization for independent school counselors—and advisory work for the National Merit Foundation as well as the Advisory Councils for Colorado College and the University of Chicago.
College admission used to be a happy milestone of adolescence, defined by joy and hopes about the future. Today, it is too often filled with anxiety about gaining access to selective colleges so as to measure up to social, community, and parental expectations. Many refer to the process as broken; it has certainly lost track of whose well-being should be at its core—our students.
Here’s a situation we see more often than we would like to admit: A senior receives a letter of admission from one of the colleges to which they applied. Excited and relieved by the happy news, they call home. And the response is, “That’s great, but when do we hear from [insert name of ‘reach’ school]?” The message that comes across is clear: What matters most is not how excited a student may be about a given school; what matters is how high up the rankings the school sits. Of course, it isn't just families that fall prey to this behavior. Too often, despite sincere efforts to get on board with what is best for our students, some of us unwittingly reinforce the all-too-common view that at the end of the day it’s not about fit, it’s about prestige. Teachers, friends, even their peers can have similar responses.
I see my role and the role of all Thacher community members as helping students find a home at the best school(s) for them… and encouraging their parents to support this. In the end, it turns out that many of our kids attend those highly ranked schools, but rankings aren't what we look at. Our goals in Thacher's College Counseling Office are to provide students with accurate and honest information about the college admission landscape, to encourage a healthy perspective and authenticity at every turn, and to celebrate every offer of admission that comes their way. Most importantly, there is no judgment here, just affirmation for successfully taking on and walking through a complicated and often daunting process as adolescents.
So, we expose the US News rankings for what it is: a system that assesses colleges based on metrics focused on public recognition rather than education and student health and wellness. We help students understand the truth and motivation behind selective admissions. We work to help them see that they and their success are not defined by admission to college but by their own sense of self. And we stress to parents and community members that students are not just listening to what they say; they are looking at what they do and how they, themselves, approach this process.
TJ Gwilliam CdeP 2019 comes by his insights into the college process in two ways. As a recent graduate of Thacher, he spent the last few years navigating the college process with the help of Thacher’s College Counseling Office. And, for his Senior Exhibition, he pursued a year-long research project aimed at understanding the impact of US News rankings on our colleges.

It is an incredibly difficult time to be a high school senior and this year’s admission scandal only made that more obvious. I found the college process especially tough because of the inequities I was seeing as I researched my senior exhibition. There are so many kinds of privilege— whether it is what high school you attend, where your parents went to college if they did go, extra time concessions for testing, and costly college admission consultants. I found all of that very disheartening. I’m a huge believer in meritocracy and I found myself wondering whether I would be taking a spot in college that should really go to somebody with fewer opportunities. I worked hard and got good grades, but I’m going to the University of Virginia, which is where my parents went and where my sister goes. I have to wonder what influence that had on my admission.
I think Thacher does a great job with the process. From the beginning, they really encourage us to think about fit rather than rankings, and I felt like most of my peers had a good sense of where they ought to go. But the College Office has to manage parents’ expectations and their role in the process as well. In my case, I feel very fortunate to have had the resources Thacher offers along with understanding and supportive parents. But I think our society has a lot of work to do before all students get a fair shot at college.
Gretl Galgon P ’17, ’19, ’22 is the mother of four girls, three of whom are Toads. Edel, now at Dartmouth, graduated in 2018, Libby graduated in 2019 and is bound for Colby College in the fall, and Daisy will be a sophomore at Thacher next year. Her fourth daughter, Maria, is in eighth grade at home in Seattle, Washington.
Thacher’s College Counseling Office is an evolved, empathetic, creative, and compassionate group of human beings with years of experience guiding seniors and parents so that we listen to our kids, not our own drums. This team cared about maintaining a healthy, whole-life perspective through this arduous and time-consuming endeavor. As a mom of four really different young women, I had to do what I call “The Surrender.” That meant relinquishing my lifetime of absurd biases to allow this professional team to navigate all of us with an authentic integrity. Dare I suggest that it was a very disciplined effort for me to ‘butt outski’ and just let these incredible and sweet personalities work their wonders with all of the seniors.
As parents, we just have to get out of their way. You can’t spare them the drill of figuring it out. It’s not a linear process. I had to keep chanting, “I am not the applicant. This is not about me. I am the Uber driver for this process, and I will ask questions.”
Maria [Morales-Kent] really gets working with parents’ fears, knows how to nip them in the bud. All of them, but particularly Maria, are very powerful listeners. They were able to read and mirror and authenticate who each of my daughters was and could be regardless of which colleges they were interested in applying to. Theirs is not a one-size-fits-all approach, which was evident in the very different approaches they took with my two daughters who have completed the process with them. They did not take any shortcuts. They take an authentic, individual approach, getting to know the whole family.
They get the context that this is a very vulnerable place to put a child, and they are highly skilled clinicians. This group understands that the learning comes from the rejections, the risk taking and the unknowns, the vulnerability to lay it all out there, and the surprises. In the end, it really didn’t matter to me which college my children went to, because I trusted their process so much. Working with this team, for our family, is the prize and the privilege of Thacher.

The college counseling team works thoughtfully to make their office not only a place of purpose, but also one of refuge and comfort. Maria’s English retriever, Obi-Wan, offers the sort of unconditional affection that is the perfect tonic for what can be a stressful college application process. Other perks of the place include coffee, tea, conversation, and candy.

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