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Articles / Applying to College / Do Elite Colleges Prefer Private or Public High Schools?

Dec. 20, 2002

Do Elite Colleges Prefer Private or Public High Schools?

Question: I am in seventh grade and currently attend a public middle school. I would like to study pediatric medicine at an Ivy League university. I know it’s a little early for me to be thinking about college, but would I have a better chance of getting into the Ivy League if I go to a private high school?

No matter what you may hear through the grapevine, colleges don’t care if you’ve attended a private or public high school. Admission officers like “diversity,” so that means admitting students from all sorts of backgrounds.


Whether public or private school is best for you and your college goals depends a lot on the kind of person you are and the community in which you live. For instance, if your public high school offers challenging classes (such as Advanced Placement and honors courses) and you elect as many of these as possible, then not only will you be preparing yourself for a rigorous college experience, but also you will be in class every day with others, like yourself, who are bright and motivated and aren’t afraid of hard work.

If, however, you feel that your local school is top-heavy with students who aren’t serious about their schoolwork, who party more often than they study, and who rarely consider elite colleges and universities, then you have to take a close look at yourself. Can you still stick with your plans in such an environment or will you be distracted and likely to give in to peer pressure? Will you be truly happy in a school where it’s not considered “cool” to be smart? If the answer is “no,” and if your family can afford it (or you can get financial aid), then a private school might be a better option.

It’s hard to make generalizations about private and public schools. There are some great public schools and lousy private schoolsâ€"and vice versa. When you make a decision about which to attend, you have to factor in lots of things that range from costs to commuting time to class size and course offerings. The bottom line is that you can attend a top college no matter where you go to high school, as long as you’ve compiled an impressive record there.

Regardless of where you end up, if you are interested in an Ivy League university, you should expect to take the most demanding classes available to you, and it’s not too soon to be making those kinds of choices. For instance, if you have the chance to take algebra in 8th grade, that will give you a better shot at the most advanced math courses, like AP Calculus, by the time you are in 11th or 12th. Similarly, if you can start a foreign language next year (if you haven’t already), it often “counts” as part of your high school record, and could mean that you have five full years of that language on your transcript by the time you graduate.

You should also be choosing extracurricular activities that you enjoy. The depth of your commitment is more important than the number of activities you select. For instance, if you think you would like a career in pediatrics, try volunteering in a hospital or medical clinic. Not only will this give you a better sense of the field, but you will also impress admission officials if you stick with it all through the rest of middle school and high school. In fact, if you do so, you may rise to a position of real responsibility by the time you are a senior.

Finally, read, read, read. Whether you are in a public school or a private one, reading will improve your vocabulary and writing skills (not to mention your SATs and other standardized test scores, when the time comes!). Reading, too, will open your eyesâ€"and your mindâ€"to new interests and ideas.

Good luck to you. You are wise to be looking ahead and making plans, but be sure to enjoy your middle school and high school years, as well.

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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