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.