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Does going to the right high school really matter?

Over the years, many families have asked my opinion about where their child should go to high school if they want them to attend an elite college or university. I’m not ashamed to admit wondering the same thing with my own three kids. We want our children to have the very best opportunities to succeed.

Colleges pay attention to where a student attends high school. However, it’s not in the way that one would think. The high school a student attends provides a framework to help the college understand the student’s application rather than dictate an admissions decision.

Until fairly recently, students coming from well-established private day schools or boarding schools had a distinct advantage in the admissions process. In fact, one look at an old matriculation list from one of these high schools would let you know that the “old boy network” was firmly in control of the process. Nearly every student went on to an elite institution. Going to one of these high schools was almost a guarantee that the student would get into a great college. But as elite institutions distance themselves from prior admissions practices, they have begun to use where a student attends high school as a contextualizing tool rather than a reason to admit or deny.

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Where you go to high school can suggest race, socioeconomic status, access, parental involvement, and arguably academic success in college. As easy as it is for all of us to make assumptions, colleges have to be careful not to let a student’s high school cloud their judgment. Instead, colleges use a student’s educational background to interpret the application.

One of the first things a well-trained admissions officer looks at when reviewing an application is where the student attends high school. This helps them understand:

  • The community the student is coming from
  • The polish or lack of polish in the application
  • How much the student has taken advantage of at their high school

A student’s high school is neither a limitation nor a benefit in the process. It should be a shaping experience that adds texture to an otherwise formal review process. In other words, your high school doesn’t get you into college anymore—you do.

A student coming from an established private school might have stronger test scores on average or more detailed letters of recommendation, but the student needs to prove in other ways that underneath the polish, there is an authentic individual who didn’t take those opportunities for granted. A student coming from a school with fewer resources needs to demonstrate that any lack of polish in the application does not inhibit their ability to succeed in college.

"Your high school doesn’t get you into college anymore—you do" TWEET THIS

Elite institutions want applications from different high schools because it leads to a diverse and dynamic student body. This is the opposite of what went on for decades during the 20th century when many freshmen spots were allotted to students coming from a small number of elite high schools in the country. The “best high schools” still have strong matriculation lists, but they probably don’t look like the lists from 20 or 30 years ago. And, some of the “other” high schools may be experiencing a slight windfall where their matriculation lists are now dotted with a few more elite institutions. The fact is that there are good kids everywhere, and elite institutions are trying to find them in likely and unlikely places.

"Elite institutions want a diverse and dynamic student body" TWEET THIS

Acclaimed New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a book about college admissions entitled “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” Bruni argues that we should focus on the experience of college rather than the prestige of where one goes. There is a wonderful parallel between what Bruni writes about and the question of where you end up going to high school. Bruni’s message has been a long-standing mantra for many in the admissions field. There are few guarantees in this new world of college admissions. One thing is for sure. It’s not where you go to high school, it’s what you do while you are there.

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I have visited hundreds and hundreds of high schools in my career. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. But what’s so miraculous about youth is that they can transcend the best and worst circumstances going on around them. That’s really the commonality between going to the right high school and the wrong one. High school should never dictate the rest of a student’s life. It’s really just the beginning. If high school is the pinnacle, then what’s left? If high school is the nadir, just imagine what’s next.