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Articles / Applying to College / Catholic School vs. Public School?

Aug. 21, 2008

Catholic School vs. Public School?

Question: My wife and I have a difference of opinion concerning our son's high school education. He is now a sophomore enrolled in the A.P. program at a parochial high school. Our question boils down to this: parochial vs. public high school? His current school is known for having a rigorous curriculum. Not everyone is accepted into this high school. My wife feels that a 3.5 GPA from this school is no different than a 3.5 average from any other public high school honors/AP program. Am I only fooling myself thinking that my son is getting a better education because he is going to this type of school? Will the name of the high school he attends make a bit of difference when applying to college?

It’s hard to answer your question without knowing a lot more about the specific schools involved. That is, there are some very good, well-regarded parochial schools, and, likewise, some public counterparts that can hold their own with even the tip-top prep schools.


When college admission officials evaluate a candidate, they pay close attention to the school he or she attends. Often they have visited the school, have seen numerous applicants from this school in the past, and are familiar with its standards and the type of student from that school that they have previously admitted (or denied!).

When admission committees don’t have that sort of first-hand information, they rely heavily on the “School Profile” that is submitted with each transcript. From this, they can learn something about the school’s admission standards, its course offerings, the percentage of students who head off to four-year colleges after graduation (and often where they go), how the school “weights” grades and ranks, etc. Thus, your son’s 3.5 GPA might indeed be considered by admission officials to be equivalent to the same GPA at your local school … or not. It depends very much on the schools in question.

In general (and this is a very broad and probably not very fair generalization) good parochial schools do not garner any more respect in admission offices than good public schools do. In some instances, I've even sniffed out subtle prejudices against parochial school students among "elite-college" admission officials who may feel that these students are taught to obey more than they are taught to think for themselves (though I bet that few admission folks would go on the record to admit this!) So perhaps your wife wins that round.

However, some Catholic schools offer smaller classes, far fewer discipline problems, and a solid grounding in religious and ethical issues that the public schools don’t cover, which may be what you seek for your son. While the top public school students can certainly hold their own against the top Catholic school students--and may even best them, too--the bottom-of-the-heap parochial school kids tend to be stronger than the bottom layer at most public schools, where the range is wider.

If the school your son attends has a good reputation, then college admission officials should be well aware of its rigor and will accord appropriate respect to your son’s transcript when the time comes. You should feel free, even this early in the process (if you have not done so already) to talk with guidance counselors about the school’s college admission track record, and see if students are applying toâ€"and getting intoâ€"the kinds of colleges you hope your son will attend.

You should also ask for a copy of the aforementioned “School Profile.” Make sure that it clearly designates which classes are advanced, honors, or Advanced Placement level. If students are ranked, does it explain how their rank is computed and how grades are weighted when students elect the challenging classes? If students are routinely accepted at Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges, is that indicated on the profile as well? If not, you should urge your school officials to revise the information they send to colleges or at least you should make sure that, when it comes time for your son to submit applications, his counselor recommendation makes mention of the demands of the curriculum as well as any special efforts your son has made to meet these demands.

Although I said your wife may be right about how your son’s parochial school grades stack up against those earned in top classes at a good public school, don’t let her claim a true victory on this one because, depending on the actual institutions involved, you may be the one who’s really right when it comes to deciding where your son will get the best education. And how about your son himself? If he is happy and engaged, challenged and successful at his current school, then it sounds like it’s the right spot for him, regardless of how admission officials may view it when compared with the public alternative.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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