Private vs Public High School: Which should you attend?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a boarding school student writing on a paper while looking at the camera smiling

Private vs Public High School: Which should you attend?

The question of whether you should attend a private vs public high school is one that needs to be carefully considered as it could make a big impact on your future outcome. Your high school’s reputation is one of the many factors that college admissions look for. And oftentimes we’ve seen parents and students are confused about whether the high school you attend makes a difference. The answer to this is a little bit more nuanced, so we’ll try to explain to the best of our ability here.

a student thinking about her future

From a strict college admissions standpoint, a private boarding school in this day and age may not help your chances at an Ivy League – even if it’s the Phillips Exeter and Andover’s of the world, primarily because the competition there is incredibly stiff. And you need to be at the top of your game if you are going to compete.

But the biggest benefit from attending a private boarding school is that the students become well-mannered, groomed citizens of society. Bullying is almost nonexistent. The school constantly preaches values of humility, integrity, honesty, leadership, community service, among others, instilling these core traits into the student body.

And that’s more important than any education you can possibly receive. Because the cool kids, the not-so-smart kids, the brilliant kids – all turned out quite well. Emotional intelligence goes a long way. People have become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, investment bankers, public policymakers – all who come back to reunions to celebrate and network, and reminisce old times.

So does your high school’s reputation matter when it comes to getting into elite universities? The answer is it depends on the caliber of the student.

Let us explain why.

If you are a very strong student academically, then it is best that you to attend one of the top high schools because you can thrive in the highly competitive environment. For example, attending a Harvard Westlake or Phillips Academy Andover will help your case if you are an academically talented student and if you will still be near the top of your class. Your chances of getting into a top-tier university are higher than say if you attended a lesser-known school.

However, if you are an above-average student, it is best that you attend a lesser known school where you can thrive. Many parents tend to make this mistake of sending their student to a top-tier high school or boarding school assuming that by doing so their student will perform well in college admissions. This is incorrect.

A male student in yellow jacket lost in his thoughts

If you attend a highly competitive high school, you’ll be compared among those batch of students. The logic is that you more or less have the same resources by attending a particular high school as it speaks to your demographics, and income level (imperfect this logic may be is up for debate – but it is the reality). So if you attend Phillips Exeter Academy, a highly competitive private boarding school, you’re going to be compared among the students in your grade.

The environment in these top schools is fiercely competitive, and you will be competing with many high octane students. If you are an above average student and you attend one of the top high schools in the country, more likely than not you will simply be an above average student. And this significantly diminishes your chances of getting into a top tier school.

If you’re not as academically strong, we personally recommend sending your child to an easy high school where he/she can stand out and thrive. That way you can still be the top student at your high school in an easier environment. But of course, the admissions officers would never have known that and you could have attended an easy high school for various reasons, whether it’s geography or socioeconomic status and they can’t necessarily penalize you for that.

In a nutshell, in an ideal scenario, you want to be ranked toward the top of your class at the best high school possible; if not, it is best you rank toward the top of your class at the easiest high school possible. Being at the top of your class is key when it comes to boosting your chances of getting into elite universities.

Feeder Schools

And what about feeder schools, you may ask?

In the past, schools like Phillips Academy, Lawrenceville, and other top schools like Harvard-Westlake would be considered feeder schools to the Ivy League. That is becoming much less the case as admissions at elite schools are making a move toward admitting students of underprivileged backgrounds and lower socioeconomic status.

Phillips Exeter has a long history of sending top-notch students to Harvard. Nowadays, a private boarding school like Exeter is very competitive, and you will find Math Olympians to world-class musicians at the school.

There are pros and cons to attending a school at Exeter, and we only recommend attending if you have the intellectual capacity to compete with world class high school scholars.

Because if you don’t, you’re better off going to an easier public school where you can stand out. Going to a highly prestigious school certainly has its pros and cons, and if you are simply average at a prestigious school like Exeter, you will still have a hard time getting into the Ivy Leagues.

A man is holding a book standing in the foreground while other students in the background are chatting.

On the flipside, there is such a thing as feeder schools. These are schools like Boston Latin school and Princeton High School – high schools that are very close by the universities (Harvard, Princeton, respectively) geographically. Roughly 30 students from Boston Latin School and 20 students from Princeton High School are admitted to Harvard and Princeton every year, respectively.

We can tell you that the Boston Latin School has close connections to Harvard – about 20 students matriculate every year. Princeton High School also has close ties to Princeton – so if you’re from one of those feeder schools, then you’ve got a better shot.

So if you really wanted to boost your chances of getting in, we suggest attending the Boston Latin School or Princeton High School – and we could tell you that while those students are competitive, they are not nearly as competitive as the students at Phillips Academy or Lawrenceville. But if do you attend, you will need to pack your bags and move to those locations.

So there you have it – our unbiased, ultimate advice to whether the reputation of your high school matters when it comes to getting into elite universities.



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