What I Learned in Boarding School Is…

Heart thumping. Hands shaking. Anxiety building. “VIEW DECISION” appears on the screen. My heart stops. I hold my breath and click the button. “CONGRATULATIONS” catches my eye. I can breathe again.

As a high school freshman, I never imagined going to an elite college like Hamilton. For two years, I attended a public school of about 1000 kids in a middle class community. In 2013, my school graduated only 86% of its senior class. Of those students, 47% attended Massachusetts state universities or community colleges. With my average grades, I am convinced that if I did not go to prep school, I would not have been admitted to Hamilton. Why?

Sociologist Mitchell Stevens (2007) in his book, Creating a Class, spent a year observing the admissions process at an elite college. He argues that because of their abundant resources, including experienced college counselors, applicants at prestigious high schools have a huge advantage in college admissions. As a result, a higher proportion of prep school students, compared to public school students, are admitted into top colleges. In 2013, one boarding school sent 18 of their 323 graduating students to Harvard University. Harvard accepted only 13% of its 35,000 applicants that year.

So how do prestigious high schools get disproportionately high percentages of their students into elite colleges and universities?

Reason #1: Learning to be Comfortable with Authority Figures

At boarding school, students live with authority figures. Teachers are also coaches and dorm parents, so students learn how to appropriately interact and form intimate bonds with them. These increased interactions provide a strong foundation for mature relationships with college professors and, later down the road, employers. In Privilege, Shamus Khan (2012) suggests that learning how to build intimate relationships with people in positions of authority, without acting as if you are an equal, prepares young people to succeed in elite environments.

Reason #2: One-on-One College Counseling

Private school college counselors focus only on getting their students into college. Public school guidance counselors, however, work on academic, social, disciplinary problems, and college/career development with their students, and thus, spend significantly less time on college counseling (see figure below).

College Counseling: Private school vs. Public School

I started meeting with my college counselor junior year of high school. The first few meetings did not involve college. He asked about my family, interests, and aspirations. Good college counselors take time and get to know their students on a personal level.

My college counselor made me a list of schools to visit based on the characteristics of my “hypothetical dream college”. Later, he edited my supplement essays, reviewed my common app, and prepared me for interviews.

Reason #3: College counselor-admissions officer relationship

The college counselor-admissions officer relationship is essential to the admissions advantage prep school students acquire. Stevens (2007) finds that admissions officers build relationships with counselors at elite high schools who can send the college academically capable, well-rounded applicants.

When reviewing applications, college officers are often faced with tough decisions. However, the more an officer knows about a student, the easier it is to make that decision (Stevens 2007). College counselors become acquainted with their students and write them exemplary recommendations. These letters are honest and include detailed reasons why the student would fit in well at the college. This is where a good relationship helps. If a college counselor repeatedly sends the college intelligent students who contribute to the college’s athletic or art programs, the admissions officer will trust the counselor and be more likely to admit the student. This often helps less qualified students at prestigious high schools get into elite schools, instead of similarly qualified applicants from schools with less college preparation resources.

Many public school students do not have this privilege. Each guidance counselor has several students, so they write the seniors short, vague recommendations. The less information a college officer has on an applicant, the harder it is to admit that student.

Boarding school facilitated my college admissions process. Because of abundant resources, my classmates and I had an advantage when applying to elite colleges. Due to similarity in admissions processes, Stevens’ (2007) findings at the elite liberal arts college can be applied to numerous elite colleges and universities. Although this is true, it demonstrates class inequality. Wealth should not determine whether or not a student is admitted into an elite college. If all schools had similar college counseling resourses, there would be less of a socioeconomic class advantage in college admissions.





2 thoughts on “What I Learned in Boarding School Is…”

  1. I really enjoyed your post and especially liked the writing style. By including both personal insight and relevant sociological information, you kept me engaged and informed, eager to read on. I am particularly interested in your post since I too attended a private high school. Before taking Race, Class, Gender, I took my high school education for granted, not fully recognizing the privilege it gave me. But having now taken the class and by talking to my peers who did not have one-on-one sessions with college councilors or intense college prep, I understand just how much private school plays into the college process. Your blogpost explains these dynamics perfectly.

  2. I found your post interesting, it was cool that you reflected on your own experience, while still using a systematic approach. I went to a public school, and my mom was one of the guidance counselors at my school. It is always interesting to hear her perspective on the college process. She has a case load 400 students. It is really hard for her to have in depth conversations with each and every student. I believe she tries really hard to do so and spends lots of time on college recommendations, but not all of her colleagues work as in depth as she does. She works hours into the night trying to perfect an essay, and does not get paid to do so. I think there are some people within the public education system that will devote their time to their students, but they are the true gems. I sincerely look up to my mom for the change she tries to make to break social economic norms. She has been offered the opportunity to quit her job in public school to be a highly paid private college counselor, but turns down such opportunities because she loves working with kids from a variety of backgrounds. The school is very diverse economically and racially, and she does not want to lose the variety of her job. I think I am lucky to have been exposed to diversity within a public school, but still gain the social capital to get into a prestigious institution because of both of my parents. (I did visit 21 different colleges with my mom 🙂 !!)

    Your post reminds me of Pedigree (the book we read in class) a little bit. I think the relationships between top business schools and the top elite companies simulates the relationship between college counselors from elite boarding schools and colleges. Within the elite boarding school, there has already been a system of creaming of the crop. Colleges can expect a high proportion of the group to be ready for college. It is easier to turn to the large proportion rather than looking in public schools for the few good ones!

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