May 18, 2020
Is it true that private schools help get more students into top-tier colleges because they have insider connections with admissions offices? Do public school counselors have these connections as well? How much does the type of school factor into college admissions (i.e. will the college have higher expectations for a private school student? Will they prefer a private school student over a public school one, or shy away from admitting too many "preppies"?)
Private school counselors may have connections to the "top-tier" colleges, especially those counselors who have been around for a while. However, this largely applies to the most celebrated academies and less so to the more garden-variety independent schools. Yet there are several "buts" that need to be added here before you rush off to submit your application to Choate. ;-)
But No. 1: The counseling staff at private schools, even the most hyper-selective ones, often includes a mix of seasoned veterans (who have certainly been around the block and may indeed have a few elite-college admission officers on speed dial) along with younger rookies who have primarily been hired to teach physics or coach lacrosse and who may be working in the counseling office only part-time and with minimal experience under their belts. These newcomers, of course, have fewer personal ties to admission folks than the old-timers do. Therefore, whether or not a private school student is getting the advantage of a well-connected advisor can sometimes be the luck of the draw. Some public high school counselors also have admission-office affiliations that are every bit as solid as at the private schools'. Even so, the majority of students accepted by the most sought-after colleges are not there because of counselor connections.
But No. 2: It's common for private school students — again, especially at the more prestigious places — to apply to the same short roster of colleges — the Ivies and their ilk plus the highly-ranked liberal arts institutions. So prep school counselors may endeavor to spread the wealth by encouraging some of their students to alter their top choices and amend their college lists. Because private schools are beholden to pleasing their tuition-paying parents, they're worried about making sure that as many seniors as possible ultimately land at a favorite college. So one way to do this is to manipulate the "favorites." At public schools, however, this rarely happens. (The students themselves may make their own adjustments, as in, "If Alex the valedictorian is aiming for Amherst, I'll try for Williams, instead.") But it's rarely a priority of public school counseling offices to redirect applications to promote more acceptances.
But No. 3: Likewise, college officials seek a diverse range of students when choosing a freshman class. And "diverse" doesn't just mean skin color or ethnic background. It also includes the high schools from which the admitted applicants hail. In the old days, when "The Dean" was in high school, the large, prominent private schools would send dozens of graduates to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, et al. Admission officers reasoned that, if Andover, Exeter, Deerfield, etc. had put their stamp of approval on a student, then this student was clearly good enough for them. But a lot has changed over the eons. With the elite colleges receiving a far broader swath of applications than ever before, there simply isn't room in each entering class for every qualified applicant from any single high school. Thus, although Ivy and elite admission officers still pay attention to their traditional private "feeder" schools and will make sure that these places are represented in each first-year class, they're careful to save spaces for students from a wide range of public schools, too. So colleges do indeed "shy away from admitting too many preppies," as you've aptly suggested.
Bottom Line: As unsatisfying as this answer may be, there are both pros and cons to applying to top-tier colleges from private and public schools, so "The Dean" would not recommend enrolling at a private school for the express purpose of catching an admission officer's eye. It's far more important to excel wherever you are and to ask yourself how you might stand out in a cutthroat competitive applicant pool. It's even more important to expand your horizons and look beyond the same-old, same-old colleges that so many teenagers seem to aspire to. Just as exceptional students abound in public high schools, they abound in public universities as well!
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at email@example.com.
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