Alumni on Competition

Results of the alumni survey on competition conducted for the Fall 2013 issue of Thacher magazine.
As we set about creating this issue of Thacher, we thought competition might have been one of the fraught topics we exlored. In the end, however, we found it to be a topic of more consensus than conversation. Still, since competition touches much of what we do at Thacher, we thought you might enjoy learning about what we think of it.

From some angles, Thacher is a very competitive place. Only 14 percent of applicants get in. And our graduates go to schools that have similarly competitive admissions statistics. On top of that, during their years at Thacher, students are required to follow a challenging course of academics and compete in sports and gymkhanas. For many of us, this is a good thing: competition can focus our attention and bring forth our best efforts. But there are some well known downsides to competition as well, especially when it is taken to an extreme. In the end, most people would agree that there is a happy medium to be struck.

So what about Thacher? When we surveyed our students about the level of academic competition they feel, the vast majority said it felt “about right.” We thought it might be interesting to find out what alumni had to say on this score. So here are the results of an anonymous online survey we conducted in the fall.

Like our present-day students, the 500 alumni from 1943 through 2013 who completed the survey felt that Thacher’s competitive environment was pretty much where it ought to be. In the areas of academics, athletics, horses, and social relations, they thought we more or less split the difference between too competitive and not competitive enough, though academics and athletics leaned a bit toward the “too competitive” end of the spectrum. This was a minor excess however, as nearly 90 percent of those surveyed found Thacher’s overall competitive environment to be “healthy and appropriate.” 

How well did Thacher prepare them for competition they would face after graduation? “Very well,” said 40 percent of respondents with 37 percent answering “fairly well”; 14 percent answering “somewhat”; and less than 10 percent answering “slightly” or “not at all.”

We also asked whether alumni thought Thacher’s approach to competition sets us apart. According to 64 percent of alumni, the character of Thacher’s competitive environment is one of its distinctive features while 36 percent thought otherwise. Here are some representative comments on this topic:

  • Its culture of collegiality within the framework of high expectations.
  • It's competitive but not cut-throat. Doing things the right way still is top priority.
  • At Thacher the competitive environment teaches you to prioritize and balance. It was not enough to be a great student without seeing the value of being well rounded with extracurricular activities. The competition pushed learning to the extent that it becomes a life-long habit and desire.
  • I think high school should not be too competitive. I thought Thacher emphasized becoming yourself and being part of a community rather than competition. I also think that lots of careers today require great cooperation / interpersonal skills which I believe Thacher is exceptional at fostering.
  • The fact that it is NOT competitive and this is a GOOD thing. Competition is a negative to me. I am not a competitive person and I don't think cultivating a competitive environment is the best way to motivate students or foster intellectual growth. Thacher is clearly a competitive institution in that its academics surpass the other California boarding schools and are on par with the east coast boarding prep schools. But what is so special about Thacher is that the students encourage and support, rather than compete. I do hope this doesn't change.
  • I found the environment very mutually helpful and competitive only in a good way. It was only in college and later that I discovered what cutthroat competition was.
  • Balancing focus on community responsibility (through work caring for campus; caring for horses; community service projects in wider community; trail work in the spring; camping and outdoor program, with its emphasis on responsibility in the natural environment and to other biological communities) with personal achievement. Also supporting and encouraging academic focus through interest in learning, not just grades. 
  • Thacher encourages students to develop more than one "yardstick" to measure themselves by, both in their personal progress and growth, and in relation to others in similar endeavors.
  • There was always equal emphasis on sportsmanship, teamwork and fairness alongside personal drive.
  • It has a lot to do with the horse program. Through this there is a unique opportunity for the school to divide its self, in a good way, and have some great harmless competition. I feel like this almost replaces what could very easily be strong social or academic competition.
  • I think the competitive environment at Thacher reflects both the drive for excellence and the practice of sportsmanship. I think competition is an unavoidable part of real-life, and my experience at Thacher turned it into a positive and healthy impetus for success. It was good that Thacher students were not coddled, but rather, were recognized for effort and excellence when appropriate. It made us all more grounded and raised our self-awareness.
  • I felt there was (and is) less focus on competition and more focus on real learning, enjoying sports, etc.
  • Thacher teaches its students to compete in a competitive world, while also helping students build the confidence they need to approach competitive situations with integrity. Thacher students shouldn't be coddled from the reality of competition, but fostered and encouraged to deal with it in a way them helps them succeed without hurting others around them.
  • Thacher teaches self confidence and self reliance in a positive way, rather than critical or demeaning way. Learn from, and improve on, your weaknesses.
  • When you are surrounded by a talented peer group and are inherently competitive then it compels you to perform even better. People also receive recognition for different types of performance (club leadership, community service, athletics, environmental activism, prefect system) so there are opportunities for students to shine. I did not feel socially competitive at all.
  • Thacher was a very competitive environment, but on many different levels. The emphasis was not solely on sporting prowess or even academic excellence. Students were acknowledged and encouraged to excel in a surprising number of endeavors: art, music, theater, horsemanship, and mountaineering to name a few. There seemed to be something for everyone's particular talent or interest.
  • Thacher expresses a healthy, honest 'coaching system', ... by that i mean a faculty and staff who have the moral competence and experience from real life to set the standard for meaningful competitive training. Competition goes awry when it teaches winning 'at all costs', rather than striving for high standards of excellence in all aspects of Living... . for example, ' win but remain humble, try hard but be honest in the pursuit, achieve yet be kind to others, when you lose be cognizant of the role that forgiveness plays...and in every race show gratitude for having had the chance to compete'.
  • While Thacher is competitive, it's not done in a way that's pervasive of every aspect of life. People are competitive and push each other to do better as opposed to other schools that have competitiveness that then isolates students from each other and pits them against one another.
  • Frankly I didn't/don't think it was "competitive." I think we were all pulling for each other.
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