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Memo to Applicants: Character Above Everything

Taylor Stockdale
It’s hard to believe the Webb admission season is upon us. Our admission team has been covering the country and world in search of the very best for Webb’s incoming class next fall. This annual process of combing through hundreds of applications has got me to thinking about Thompson Webb – and his approach to selecting his students in the school’s formative years.

When Thompson and Vivian Webb started their California educational adventure almost a century ago, they were not too finicky concerning their very first students. In the beginning, simply getting the school operating took precedence over everything else. But fairly early on, when Thompson ran into a bunch of arrogant boys who were intent on flouting school rules, he sent them all packing, despite the fact that expelling them in masse threatened the financial viability of his new school. He had no nest egg to help pay the bills. He was in debt, and he needed students and the tuition that they brought with them, but he was confident that he had done the right thing in sending the boys home. Word of his swift action spread, and it had the unforeseen consequence of impressing parents who heard of it. Immediately, they wanted to send their own children to Webb.

Webb’s academy grew rapidly during its first decade of operations, and pretty soon it was attracting more students than he and Vivian had room to house. So they increased their physical plant. But they also did something more. They began to discern what exactly they were looking for in prospective students. At that time, there were no intelligence tests or other such means to evaluate candidates. Eventually, these would come into existence, and these documents would be added to students’ files. But during that first decade of the institution’s existence, Thompson decided that his own instincts were good enough. He thought that being smart was one quality that he was looking for in a student, but he did not think it the most important quality. He termed that character was much more important, and he judged that by the seat of his pants. He believed that if he got a boy who was honest, hard-working, and possessing the gift of perseverance, he could make them into a good student quickly enough. He was not interested in the prolonged work of reforming boys with behavioral problems, but his soft heart occasionally led him to bend that rule temporarily; there were second chances from time to time, but never more than that. If reform was not forthcoming, the boy was dismissed and sent home. Thompson made “honor” the catchword of his school. Reducing the complex interplay of values and traits known as “character” into just one word had its virtue in focusing the mind. And so it has been over the past century at this institution.

When I think about what we seek in our applicants today, both in boys and girls, it is exactly what Thompson Webb sought all those years ago. Being smart is a quality that helps a student master our challenging curriculum, but being smart alone does not guarantee success. In fact, I am reminded often that smart people without honor can impose the greatest harm to our society (Bernie Madoff comes to mind and many others). I’ll take a hard working boy or girl with fortitude and a sense of honor any day. We no longer admit by the seat of our pants, but intuition still plays a big role. Character and intelligence are both important. But experience has taught me (as it did Thompson Webb) that the greatest of these is character.
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