To current/previous prep school students-- What is harkness really like? (especially for Exeter)

hi, current '26 applicant here.

one of the schools i’m applying to is exeter, which seems to really, really emphasize harkness. i was wondering for current/past students there, as well as any students who went to a school with a similar discussion-based class system, what is it really like? is it hard transitioning from a previous school to this kind of new system? i’ve seen a bunch about it on exeter’s website and i know of the basics surrounding how it works, but i’m curious about real student perspectives.

(sorry if this has already been asked, i don’t think i’ve seen a thread ab it and i’m curious)

Hi, I’m a current student at Exeter!

Everyone goes through some kind of adjustment for Harkness learning, but the scale and difficulty of the adjustment depends on the student and their past experiences. At my previous school, my English class emphasized Harkness-style discussions of our texts, and due to this frequent practice, my transition to Harkness in humanities was the smoothest.

From what I’ve seen, Harkness in math is a bumpy transition for most people. New students placed in higher-level math classes often move to lower levels after a few weeks, and this is expected. Math classes here are not based on any formal textbook, lectures, or “teaching” by the teacher in the context that most people are used to.

Our math homework each day is 4-20 problems (widely varying depending on what math level you are in) from a problem set found here: Math Teaching Materials | Phillips Exeter Academy. During class, each student writes up at least one problem on the board and presents it to their classmates. The students discuss any questions or alternate solutions, and move on to the next problem. What I love about this unique system is how the result of a problem often segues into an important concept or formula. We are the ones deriving and formulating important concepts, rather than simply accepting them from the pages of a textbook. However, this also means that our tests include problems dealing with a variety of concepts, and are not “unit-based” like most math tests are.

Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions.


My son went to Lawrenceville where they use the Harkness table in many classes. They allow parents to join classes each year during parents weekend. So I got to see a lot of his classes.

Overall he was able to transition from a public school type education (grade 8) to Harkness in grade 9 without too much difficulty. The math courses are difficult to teach in the formal harkness style, so some teachers adapt. The Harkness table is used in primarily the humanities classes.

It was a great experience for him. He gained more confidence, learned how to engage in intelligent conversations. Its helped him a lot.

It depends on the school….

At the Harkness table,
Don’t be a “tool”,
Speak up and be prepared
Don’t sound like a fool!

There are Harkness hogs
At every table
At every school
It’s not a fable

JBS kids are well prepared
Be aggressive
Don’t be scared!

Assert yourself at the start
And even if
your full beans
You’ll still seem smart!

Teachers LOVE the “hoggy” student
Use your voice
But please be prudent!


thank you so much for all of the info! the math courses do sounds pretty intimidating at first based on all i’ve heard, but your explanation makes it sound more fun/interesting rather than scary. the whole harkness thing seemed a bit nerve-wracking to me, especially because i come from a public school with very standardized classes. i do have one other question, though-- if the classes are based on discussion and not a standard curriculum, how do you learn the things you don’t know? sorry if this question is confusing, i’m not sure how to word it super well. for example, if, hypothetically, you struggled in one specific spot of geometry. in a “regular” course, i feel like you’d ask the teacher about it, study that one thing more and improve, etc, etc. what happens if you’re struggling like this in a harkness-based class and one day, there’s a class where the problems are focusing on that topic you’re not so sure of? do you just sit back and listen to your peers explain? sorry if this is confusing or a kinda dumb question :smiling_face_with_tear: thanks again for all the insight!! it’s really helpful, i appreciate it!!

@sgopal2 thank you for your insight as a parent! it’s slightly reassuring to hear your son’s experience, just because i was a bit worried coming from a public school myself. it’s also good to hear that the whole thing was helpful for him, too-- it honestly sounds really fun and beneficial as well. thank you!

@Golfgr8 i may be mixing myself up, but have i seen you post prep school poems elsewhere/on other threads? these poems are so entertaining and informative at the same time :sob: they’re gold. i have heard about the harkness hogs you speak of (unfortunately) and that’s partially why i’m kind of anxious about all of this. as a ‘fairly-new-to-prep-school-stuff’ kid, i assume jbs is junior boarding school, right? anyway, thank you for your humorous and enlightening tale of harkness. one question: is the first line “it depends on the school” referring to the prep school using harkness or the school newbies come from? and if you’re willing to, could you elaborate on that, just a bit, please? thank you so much again!!

(sorry for any typos!)

I had the same question as a new student!

When the homework problem sets introduce a new concept, they do a pretty good job with explaining the basic definitions through a series of easy and intuitive problems. Of course, what is considered a “new concept” depends on the math level you are in, and with people coming from all over the world, students in the same class are bound to have different gaps in their math knowledge. In my case, whenever I don’t understand something that is not explained in the problem set, I’ve used outside textbooks, Khan academy videos, and other online resources to supplement my homework. From my experience, my classmates have been really great at explaining all kinds of concepts. It’s also encouraged for students to meet with their math teacher and advisor during office hours with any questions or concerns from class. My math teacher is one of the faculty at a dorm, and every week or so I work with her while she is on dorm duty.

Honestly, despite the initial adjustment and bumpiness, Harkness is the best kind of learning I’ve experienced, and even after a few months here, it was difficult to imagine learning any other way. There’s a special thrill as you get used to never raising your hand, and become more confident with speaking up and inviting others into the discussion :smiling_face:


To echo and add to what skyhigh said in regards to topics you’re struggling with…

-Yes, listening to & participating in discussion about problems and topics will usually help. You don’t have to sit there quietly; get comfortable speaking up when you aren’t confident about something and even asking to work through certain things together in class. Usually you won’t be the only one in the room who wasn’t sure and being graded for participation includes asking questions, not just answering them. If you keep an eye on the faces around you (teacher & students) you’ll likely see relief and appreciation when you do this.
-One of the big perks of boarding school is collaborative study & homework sessions, so start doing this early on in your first semester. It can be particularly helpful if you find people in different sections of the same course to work with since you’ll each be able to bring in info and viewpoints from your respective harkness discussions. Be honest with yourself and vigilant about not letting these become a social opportunity where nothing gets done and remember that often the best choices for study buddies may not be people you are drawn to on a friendship front.
-Plan to spend time with teachers out of class. Go to office hours, ask for evening tutoring, and utilize resources like math or writing labs (where different teachers in the department and selected students will take shifts helping students who come in). A lot of new students will be reluctant to do this because they’re accustomed to being the smart kid in class and associating getting extra help after school with failure. Put that thinking totally out of your mind; this sort of out of class help is standard at good boarding schools and seen as a sign of a dedicated, confident student. This will also be great practice for college when going to office hours and study groups is often key to being super successful.

These things are not harkness-specific, btw.


Hello @jlmly . Thanks for the “props” about the poems.

Referring to “depends on the school”, I should have also added it depends on the composition of the class and it’s personalities within that classroom. There are some kids who will try to dominate the situation, some kids seek attention, some kids are shy to speak up. As I wrote in a thread (probably a few years ago), it’s important to quickly find your voice in class….even if you are intimidated. This is especially true if you’re a first year student (maybe 13 or 14) and you’re in class with “uppers” who might be 17 or 18. We observed this during our first Fall Parents’ Weekend.

Yes, JBS refers to junior boarding school. It was our kiddo’s experience that “repeats” and kids from JBS (some of those where repeats, also) were confident in the situation. Why? First, many of them already had this type of this discussion-based learning. Second, many of them had already had the material :nerd_face: Third, some kids (at least at our kiddo’s school) came from a culture where being arrogant and dominating the conversation were encouraged behaviors (LOL :rofl:)….just kidding (sort of).

Look at the Harkness experience as an amazing opportunity to learn more deeply and with different perspectives. It’s an experience that IMHO fosters confidence (along the way) and prepares you well for college, as well as real-world work.

  • Prepare in advance

  • Be prepared for some people to Man-Splain

  • Be prepared for little “digs” even if you’re correct or on point. An example of this would be a Harkness Hog or Harkness Harpoon who immediately follows your statement with “I couldn’t disagree with you more, GreenKiddo” or “Obviously, GreenKiddo misinterpreted the meaning of ‘Who is John Galt?”. These are power plays that some kids know….not nice, but it happens and some teachers (like Mr 89 and Ms. Propuplaxguys) fall for it.

  • As someone noted above and I have stated many times, learn to play the game. Also, do attend office hours. This is not middle school, where office hours were for kids who were “behind”. Attending office hours is important for many reasons. Yes - maybe you need to solidify your understanding of the material. Also, in some classes, this is actually where a lot of material is covered and explored. Kiddo has told me that in one class (think Physics) this is when some test material was covered. In addition, this is where teachers really get the chance to know you better and see that you are putting more effort into the course. This might garner you a couple of extra points. Guaranteed that you will not be the only one at office hours (at least at our school).


ohhhhh that makes sense! thank you for the info (again!)-- it’s also reassuring that i wasn’t the only one wondering this. that’s really cool, and the whole community sounds very supportive in these problems (teachers’, classmates’ help). harkness sounds so… cool. at least, it does based on your second paragraph. the whole discussion-based concept does sound really fun (as somebody who loves to talk and interact and debate with classmates). thank you again for all of the info, i just really wanted to hear from somebody who has first-hand experience, so thank you :smiling_face:

@Ausnat88 thank you for all your input and advice!! i will certainly note it down and remember it (for if i get into prep school at all :smiling_face_with_tear:). prep school sounds very different and exciting compared to my public school right now, and everything seems so, idk, professional and organized?? anyway, thanks again for the advice, i will definitely copy this down somewhere and hope that i get to use it one day.

@Golfgr8 ah, that makes sense. with different kinds of kids in the class, there’s going to different perspectives and experiences and approaches. will note down trying to find my voice in class, because personally, i’m the kind of student who’d probably take a little bit to start talking, but once i start, i’ll get comfortable (too comfortable sometimes, lmao). woah, there are classes with age gaps that wide?? that sounds intimidating for sure, but thanks for telling me about it because i did not know it was possible for freshmans to take classes with seniors. (lowers & uppers- right? i’m still working on all that prep school language :thinking:)

i anticipated the first and second reason for why these kids would be more confident. i should’ve expected the last reason too :woman_facepalming::rofl:

yeah, harkness really does seem like a great opportunity to learn in a more real-world-standard way. thank you for all this advice for preparation in advance. digs and mansplaining, how fun. if i get the chance to, i will do my best to “learn to play the game” haha. again, thank you for the information and advice; i really appreciate all of it.

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Glad to help! :smiling_face:

Yep, sometimes! I know that for specific subjects, like English, History, and Health, all your classmates are in your grade. For other classes that are more based on your previous knowledge and skill, there’s definitely an age gap. My language class had an especially large range–from mostly freshmen to one post-graduate student. However, taking a class with older students really isn’t so different from a regular class. Through side conversations, you actually get pretty valuable information about the experiences of upperclassmen.

It’s also important to note that within one grade, student ages vary widely. In the freshmen class, ages range from 13-16, and in the sophomore class, ages range from about 14 to 17. This is because some students have skipped grades, and some students (mainly international students) repeat a year to adjust to the US school system.

And another note about class terms:
Freshman → prep
Sophomore → lower
Junior → upper
Senior → senior

Yes @jlmly - When kiddo was a Freshman/First Year (not a repeat, either), there were PG’s in the foreign language class who were 19. So, let’s say you place into a level 3 or 4 in your foreign language as a First Year, hypothetically you could have Seniors or PG’s in your class. Same with Math. If you are ready for Pre-Calc as a First Year, you could be in class with students who are Juniors (depending on their proficiency). There are students of all ages in certain courses in the History Department (first year through PG).

It’s more than international students who repeat. Athletes, kids who had skipped grades but want to get back on grade par with age peers, etc.

@skyhigh1203 @Golfgr8 @DroidsLookingFor

thank you all for the clarification about the class age gaps + other things (thank you skyhigh for the key correlating the student year terms :sweat_smile:)- and thank you to everybody again for all the info in general; it’s been very helpful to me in understanding the schools i’m applying for more deeply.

wish me luck for m10!