High school decision: Private, Parochial or Selective Public?

My 8th grader has been accepted at three Chicago high schools which are vastly different (he was waitlisted at his top choice). He is an excellent test taker (99%), math lover, studious but not an intellectual. Reserved, sporty.

I would appreciate advice on which school will give him best options for college. His hooks are parents from NW & Ivy. Half white/Asian. $ is not a major issue. He is at a complete loss which to pick(didn’t like any):

  1. Very small private school (80 kids per class): Pros: Very good top tier college placement (15%), close relationships with teachers, not supercompetative, close to home. Cons: Very progressive (no text books or AP). ? Challenging curriculum, math seemed weak. Cliquey, rich, left wing.

  2. Catholic : Pros: closest feel to a suburban high school–300 students, sports, normal bell curve. Cons: Under 3% top tier college placement, 35 min from home, cliquey,
    “unnecessarily rigorous,” acc. to parents. We aren’t religious.

  3. Selective Enrollment Chicago Public: Pros: no cost, close to home, strong math, “best” public high school.
    Cons: 50% admitted kids score in 98%, very competitive to get to top tier colleges, and almost ALL accepted have been URM, first generation (I have the matric. list)-- only 2 white males out of 39 & one was athletic recruit.

Which will give my child the best shot at a top 10-20 college (presuming he will be at that level in the future)?

Thank you!

You say your child doesn’t like any of these. What does he like? The local public? The problem is that if you send him somewhere that he doesn’t like and feels like he doesn’t fit in, he might not do as well as you are hoping. Even at the small private that you describe 85% of kids do not go to a top tier college. Do you want him to be unhappy for four years just for a slightly increased chance of attending one? What if he goes there and then still doesn’t get accepted at a top tier school? I think it’s important to find a place where your son can be happy. That is where he is most likely to thrive.

I don’t know your son, but, based on my own experiences, I would go with the school that has the most opportunities for extra curricular activities.

Well, a good relationship between a private or elite school guidance counselor and certain admissions officers can be valuable.

At the end of the day, though, excellent grades and test scores is just a baseline that gets your kid to the next round. It will be his accomplishments and achievements outside the classroom that show colleges who he is and what he’s got, how he matches, and what he brings to the table.

  1. It sounds like you the parent don’t like any of them.
  2. High school choice should be about HS.

What does your son want out of his high school experience?

I think @me29034 ’s response is spot on.

In my opinion, the clear choice should be the Selective Enrollment Chicago Public school as it offers outstanding academics, diversity, and is close to home.

College placement will come into focus after a couple of years & a few standardized tests.

Elite college placement encompasses a lot more than just the top 20 schools–especially when public honors colleges are considered.

FWIW Top colleges includes at least 40 LACs & over 60 National Universities in the US.

Did he not get his first choice SE HS, or did he choose this because it’s the “best” and not the best fit?

If truly unhappy with the current options, would your family consider boarding school as an option ?

If I wasn’t religious and had a decent public school available, I wouldn’t send my kid to a Catholic school.

At the level of the Ivies, institutional needs play a large role: filling the class with recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs), URMs, and SES disadvantaged. If money was no object, I would consider boarding schools.

Transportation and time spent travelling was a big issue in our choice especially if sports are involved. I would choose #3. Regarding “50% admitted kids score in 98%” - I didn’t understand that.

@CheddarcheeseMN I think what he meant is that 50% of admitted kids score in the 98th percentile

My son is a mathy kid and when we were looking at high school options, we noticed that at several private ones within driving distance of us, he would have “ran out of math”. He currently attends a large public school that has the most advanced math track in the area; he loves it there and is thriving among many other mathy kids like him.

So he doesn’t like any of them, and is disappointed that his top choice isn’t likely to come through. After he’s had a couple of days to get past the sting of being WL figure out which one he dislikes least.

I would put convenience very high on the list! Being able to get to & from school activities & events and being in the same geographical orbit as school friends makes a lot of difference.

Another variable that we found worth considering is the head of school: have you met the heads? what do you know about them? They set the tone for so much of what goes on at the school- and if you/your son run into trouble (it can happen) it can make all the difference if the head is somebody that you have confidence in and (ideally) with whom communication is reasonably easy.

@Publisher makes a really key point: there are more than 20 “top colleges” - and that’s without even counting specializations. Even just taking the top 20 National Universities + top 20 LACs gives you 40- and that leaves out places such as UC-B, Georgetown and Harvey Mudd. Surely they are too ‘low’ for your son?

Usually I give this link to students, but I think you might find this post from MIT admissions helpful. As @Eeyore123 pointed, your son really deserves to have HS be HS.


Agree with picking selective public for math and social fit. Private school experience works if student is “all in” fired up to go. Better to pass on private schools and save $.

Especially if the $ will be needed to pay for college.

There are probably some sad stories of parents spending a lot of money for the kid’s private high school, so that there is not much left for the kid’s college.

I could see being at a Catholic school and being non-religious a challenge. The small private could be tough if he feels he doesn’t fit in. A selective public school seems to me to be the best choice for a positive high school experience.

Without knowing the exact schools in question, I would guess that the private school will offer the easiest path to T20 or equivalent schools (not that it will be an easy path, of course).

All of my friends who attended public magnet schools when they were in high school are now sending their kids to private high schools, myself included. Competition can be fierce at a magnet school where 50% of the kids are scoring >98% on standardized entrance exams.

  1. Going to a top-20 college is not really a valid life goal, or a basis for making decisions. A good aspiration for your child would be to have him be happy, well educated, engaged in his studies and in his community, curious, capable, ambitious.

Those are the qualities that will make him a candidate for a top-20 college. Going to a top-20 college may help him along towards those goals as an adult, but it is perfectly possible to achieve them without going to a top-anything college. And he will do better as an adult if he is a person like that who went to East Podunk State than if he is a depressed burnout with a Harvard AB.

So . . . He should go to the school where he has the best chance of being happy, well-educated, engaged in his studies and in his community, curious, capable, ambitious. Where he will have the best chance of growing into a good person. If he’s a good person, college will take care of itself.

  1. Which high school a student attends probably has some impact on college admissions outcomes, but much less than you may think.

My kids started at a private school famous for its academic excellence, and switched to a selective urban public school in 11th and 9th grade, respectively. (There were a number of reasons we did that, none of which had anything to do with thinking the private school was not a great, great school. It was.)

The schools were very different – classes of 90 vs. classes of 600; limited and carefully curated ethnic diversity vs. multi-ethnic bonanza; almost no cultural/political/economic diversity vs. almost complete cultural/political/economic diversity; humanities orientation vs. STEM orientation; 40% of the graduates attending our definition of “top” colleges vs. 5%; anti-competitive (or pro-suppressed-competition) vs. super-competitive.

However, the public-school students who were demographically similar to the private school students had pretty much the same admissions outcomes as the private school students with equivalent academic credentials and test scores. Because the private school was much more selective than the public school, the bottom of the private-school class was probably equivalent to the average students at the public school. And because the families at the private school were much wealthier, students not at the tippy-top of the class were much more likely to go to private colleges with some prestige at some distance from home, while the academically equivalent students at the public school flocked to second- or third-tier in-state public colleges.

The private school sent a much higher percentage of its class to top liberal arts colleges than the public school, where only a handful of students (mostly those resembling the private school kids) even thought about LACs. That, and a large number of students whose parents were faculty at a local Ivy, accounted for most of the difference between the admissions outcomes for the two schools.

The students for whom the private school made a real difference in college admissions were not the top students – who would have done fine anywhere – but students in the bottom half of the class. They were counseled carefully, and marketed very precisely to colleges, and placed into great fits. Their public school equivalents went to big directional publics.

Bottom line: Even if all you care about is college admissions outcomes, there may not be a whole lot at stake in your decision.

The SEHS decisions in Chicago don’t come out until later this month, and the cutoff changes every year, but I assume you’re making an educated guess about where your S will be accepted. We have been through this process twice. It’s stressful, but I always told the kids to make their next best decision. Where do they want to be next year? Where will they find friends and extracurriculars that fit their interests? All the schools you mention will have a variety of rigorous courses, including Honors, AP and/or IB options. In this city (and others, I’m sure), it seems similar to the college process. Neither of our kids cared for the highest ranked school(s), so they went with the best academic/extracurricular/social fit, and it has worked out well for both of them.

With regard to which is best for the college admissions process, the biggest difference will likely be that none of the SEHS have excellent – or, frankly, even good – college counseling. If that’s important, though, you can hire a college counselor for a lot less than you would pay for 4 years of private HS tuition.