The Ivy Coach Daily

October 5, 2022

Private vs. Public High Schools

There are advantages and disadvantages to attending top private high schools (photo credit: Jim Henderson).

Debating whether or not to send your middle school-aged child to a top private high school or to the local public school? If so, know that you’re not alone. Many parents approach us each year wondering which high schools their children should attend. In many of these instances, the parents are fixated on their child attending a private school becasue they believe attending such a school will vastly improve their child’s case for admission to elite universities a few years down the line. And in some — though certainly not all — of these instances, we’d argue that their local public high school is just as good if not better than the private school they’re considering. And why? Because there are good and bad private high schools just as there are good and bad public high schools. But what about the top private high schools, the kind of high schools that are well known feeder schools to our nation’s elite universities? You know. The Harvard-Westlakes. The Daltons. The Exeters and Andovers. Is attending one of these schools a sure-fire way of earning admission to Ivy League and other highly selective universities?

Absolutely not. There are advantages and disadvantages to attending most any high school — including and especially the top private high schools. You see, as but one example, at the top private high schools, school counselors may enjoy relationships with admissions officers at elite universities. That means they can pick up the phone, call the admissions officers, and lobby for their students — something some, though certainly not all public high school counselors do. As Sophie Callcott writes in an op-ed for The New York Times in a piece entitled “There’s Still One Big Trick for Getting Into an Elite College” which details her private high school experience before matriculating to Stanford, “These counselors frequently ring elite universities’ admission offices to make the case for their favorite students. In 2020, Swarthmore College ended this practice after it found that over 90 percent of counselors calling represented private high schools. Students at private schools have personal connections with their counselors, who often in turn have the ears of admission officers at elite universities across the country.”

Ms. Callcott is not wrong. One of the key advantages of attending a top private high school is that, fair or not, the school counselors can lobby on behalf of their students directly to admissions officers at most elite universities. But what Ms. Callcott doesn’t state is that these counselors don’t lobby for all of their students — and they certainly lobby harder for some than for others. If your child is the second of four students coming up at a top private high school, all else being equal, the school counselor will likely lobby harder for you than for the student who is an only child. If your family has a history of giving large sums to the private high school, all else being equal, the school counselor will likely lobby harder for your family than for the student whose family has donated zilch. If your family is a fourth-generation family at the private high school, the school counselor will likely lobby harder for your child than for the student who is the first in his family to attend the school. These sorts of inequities simply aren’t as prevelant at top public high schools.

Allow us to share with our readers a story. We had a student at a top private high school some years ago who, like many of our students, was interested in getting into the best university possible. On her list were the usual suspects — the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, etc. But also on the list was Pomona. When the student shared her list with her school counselor, is it any surprise that the school counselor at the top private school began pushing…you guessed it…Pomona? After all, they didn’t have other students who would be competing against her at Pomona as they did at the aforementioned Ivies. So, of course, they wanted her to apply Early Decision to Pomona. And while we tried our very best to convince her otherwise, while we tried to convince her that she might just be able to get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton and we didn’t know anyone who has ever chosen Pomona over Harvard, she applied ED to Pomona with our help and, of course, earned admission. A few days later, like clockwork, her father wrote us asking if she could reneg on her ED commitment to Pomona so she could apply to the likes of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. We told him that, of course, would not be possible. His daughter’s Early Decision commitment to Pomona was binding!

In short, there are great private high schools and there are great public high schools. There are great counselors at some private high schools and there are great counselors at some public high schools. Don’t let anyone tell you that your child can only get into an elite university from a top private high school because that’s simply not the case.

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