As boarding school application deadlines quickly approach, I'd like to share observations of my prep school experience with prospective applicants and/or their parents. I'm hoping to get a few things off my chest and to paint an accurate picture of life at a prep school. I'm only drawing on my years at Exeter, though I do think that my story is similar to those at other schools.
To give a little bit of background, I am a male, international student who graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in the spring of 2017. I'm going to be somewhat vague, as I'd rather not share too much information about myself, but my brief resume consisted of being the co-captain of a sports team, the head of a major club on campus (think Model UN, Newspaper, etc.), the co-head of a smaller club on campus, the winner of a "prestigious" Spring term award (I was nominated for it by my peers & the principal), a multi-year participant in a music ensemble, and a member of a couple more clubs/organizations. My GPA was slightly under 10 out of 11 with a small downward trend in my junior year (I acknowledge that this was the dagger in my college applications), while my test scores included a 35 superscored ACT, an 800 subject test and another subject test in the low 700s. I ended up not being admitted to any Ivies, Stanford, top universities like UChicago and LACs.
If there are two points you take away from this post, they should be:
1. Exeter (and similar schools like Andover, St. Paul's, etc.) are academically hard. Know what you're getting into.
2. The notion that you'll have an easier time being admitted into an Ivy from a prep school is misleading.
Exeter is known to be the most difficult prep school. As a four year student myself, I witnessed firsthand the amount of stress students went through. It was common for students, even the 9th graders, to go to bed past midnight, and many of my friends had to pull multiple all nighters each year. I understand that I signed up for the academic rigors of the institution, but eventually, you have to wonder whether it's all necessary. Is it really necessary to have 5-6 hours of homework a night, as high schoolers? Is it really necessary to have a 15 page history paper (the infamous 333) due the same week as a math test and science lab? Exeter prides itself on being more challenging than university, but the question remains: is it really necessary? I know for a fact that my sport suffered since I couldn’t focus on it at Exeter. Evidently, the toll on students was overwhelming at times - I'd guess that around 10-15 students every term were on medical leave, most likely because of the inability to cope with Exeter's workload (meanwhile, the obstinate administration did not bother to attempt to address this issue, and has in recent news poorly dealt with Exeter's sexual assault cases, but those topics are for a different thread). I went from top of grade at my old school (a highly ranked private one in my country) to a student achieving B's in History and scraping by with A's & A-'s in Math. I'm not going to sugarcoat it - Exeter is tough. You really need to be prepared and have a great work ethic to survive here.
In addition, I'd like to debunk a myth I've heard floating around - that by attending Andover, Exeter, etc., you'll have a much higher chance of being admitted to a top university. This is simply not true. Sure, the Ivies take quite a high number of kids from Exeter (around 8-10 kids alone in my class got admitted to Harvard), but what are their qualifications? One's a nationally recognized artist. Another's a math and physics whiz who's competed at the international level. One of my best friends is basically a polyglot, who also was <.1 off from early cum laude (in our year, this was ~10.65/11). And one guy was a recruited football player. Everyone has a well-defined, strong hook.
You need to realize that the quality of kids at boarding schools is SO much higher than that of your average high school. Imagine yourself being top of grade at your high school, and being thrown into a pit with 250 other top of grade's. That's the college admissions battle at a place like Exeter. To give you some perspective, the only internationals who are attending Ivies or similar calibre schools are those that were early cum laude. That's it.
Lastly, I found the college counseling services to be, frankly, overrated. I did have occasional 1 on 1 talks with my counselor, but he never offered helpful and/or significant edits on any of my essays. There was a disparate level of expertise noticeable between college counselors, too. All the top kids in my grade got paired with the best college counselor, while the less-desired applicants were paired with the remaining college counselors. Does that sound like it's worth thousands of tuition dollars to you? It doesn't to me.
At the end of the day, the purpose of this post is not to bash Exeter. I know tons of students who have flourished at Exeter. If you're a math aficionado, Exeter provides unlimited opportunities for you to chase your dreams. If you're passionate about exploring various fields of academia, Exeter is your mini LAC - it's essentially college four years early. I formed such tight bonds with friends here, and the alumni network, at least for a high school, is unparalleled. However, upon reflection, Exeter was not the right place for me, nor was it the right place for lots of students I got to know. It may or may not be the place for you. You must assess what you're after - a world-class high school education, or the high school that will provide the best odds for you to gain admission into an Ivy/top college. The two may not go together.
I will be attending a great college known for its STEM programs, so I am relatively satisfied with how my college admissions process turned out. But, do I regret choosing to go to Exeter? I'd say I probably do. I learned so much at Exeter and really enjoyed the boarding aspect, but attending Exeter caused unnecessary worry and hampered my goal of attending a top university, something that I had always prioritized in my life and that could have been accomplished by staying at my high school back home.
I wish I had known all of what I have written above five years ago, while I was considering enrolling at Exeter. If you're on the fence about applying to or ultimately attending a prep school, please do think long and hard about it. It's a huge life decision, and I'd hate for you to be disappointed with college results down the road, due to being ignorant of elite prep school college admissions competition.
If anyone has questions, I'm open to answering them to the best of my abilities. Good luck with your decisions and your prep school applications! Exeter (and I'm sure prep schools in general) is a special place, but for the right student. Keep that in mind.