Boarding Schools in the US: What You Need to Know

While many students in their final year of high school anxiously anticipate their move to university — living away from home, choosing from a wider array of courses, the general increase in independence and autonomy characteristic of the college experience — some students are eager and ready to enter this kind of academic and social environment at an earlier age. If you are one of these students, then it may make sense for you to consider the possibility of spending your high school years at a US boarding school.

 As an academically focused and rather independently minded 13 year-old, I myself explored the possibility of attending one of the aesthetically collegiate and tradition-steeped New England boarding schools. Many of these schools are nearly as old as the United States itself, and have sculpted a steady stream of world-famous authors (like JD Salinger, Valley Forge Military Academy), titans of industry (like Mark Zuckerberg, Exeter), and politicians (including a healthy number of US presidents — both Presidents Bush (Andover), President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Groton), and President John F. Kennedy (Choate) to name a few. The natural beauty of the campuses, often adjacent to quaint little New England towns ahue with lush foliage on rolling hills, combined with the jaw-dropping facilities — libraries containing rare book collections in glass cases, gymnasiums equipped with state of the art indoor tennis courts and tracks, theaters designed by famous architects and suited to accommodate guest speakers from all over the world as well as the world-class musicians who would be my student peers — were both awe-inspiring and alluring. Thacher, situated in Ojai, California, gives each student a horse to care for during his/ her tenure. Even when compared to the best-funded private day schools, the resources of these boarding schools are unparalleled.

 Top US boarding schools boast campuses and resources that rival universities. Indeed, when it comes to applying to US boarding schools it bears remembering that, in addition to undergoing your education at one of these institutions – and as is the case when you apply to college – the school you choose will also be your home for four years. Students should carefully consider the differences among the various boarding schools, as well as their own individual personality, social inclinations, preferred academic environment, and readiness to live thousands of miles away from family and friends.

 In addition to the phenomenal academic, athletic, and artistic offerings characteristic of top US boarding schools, here are a few of the more qualitative takeaways and criteria worth bearing in mind as you weigh your secondary educational options:

 Particularly if you are a student who finds yourself not especially challenged by the rigor of your school or curriculum, US boarding schools may be worth considering. These schools are incredibly selective in their admissions (top-ranked boarding schools like Groton and Thacher report admissions rates as low as 12%), which means, not unlike top US universities, that their student bodies comprise some of the brightest and most advanced young minds out there. The average incoming class at your given highly selective boarding school is guaranteed to be filled with students who have spent their prior academic lives rising with ease to the very tops of their classes. If you are such a student, then a US boarding school can provide you with both a breadth in course offerings and a peer group that will never cease to challenge you. You will never “finish” the math curriculum; you will not find yourself unable to study a subject, however obscure, because it is not “offered.” The dynamic and expert instructors, 80-90% of whom at top boarding schools hold master’s degrees and/ or PhDs in their respective fields, will work with you to create a course or independent study that challenges you appropriately or affords you access to the subject matter of your interest if those areas are not adequately covered in the school’s annual course catalogue.

 Realistically speaking, due to the highly competitive admissions typical of top US boarding schools, you are unlikely to be admitted to such a school if you are unable to cut it academically. Given that boarding school is an all-encompassing experience of which academics are only one part, however, prospective boarding school students should think carefully about whether they are developmentally and personally prepared to thrive in the boarding school environment. Several of these prep schools take care to recruit international students (Andover boasts a 9% international student body from over 40 countries); however, especially with respect to the elite New England boarding schools, it is worth remembering that many of your classmates will have grown up together and be coming from many of the same schools within a relatively small radius of the given prep school. How do you feel about entering an environment in which you will know no one, while many others will already know each other? Are you the sort of person who feels comfortable striking up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before? Are you the sort of person who will get involved in new activities and organizations regardless of whether or not you know people already associated with those activities and organizations? Keep in mind that you will be living at the school in addition to studying there — understanding the social components of the experience and your own social proclivities are essentially important to your making the correct decision about whether or not boarding school is right for you.

That being said, and regardless of which specific institution boarding school alums attended, one widespread consensus on the experience seems to be that friendships formed in boarding school consist of some seriously close and long-lasting bonds. I have heard more prep school alums than I can count say that their closest friends are and will always be the friends they made at boarding school. I have heard this said by people ranging in age from 18 to 88, literally. High school marks some of the most challenging and formative years in a person’s development, and it seems as though the process of undergoing these years intimately amongst and alongside a group of peers with whom meals, classes, extracurriculars, and personal spaces are shared predictably results in the forming of perhaps uniquely close friendships and connections that will last a lifetime.

Ultimately, I decided to stay at home and attend high school in my dynamic hometown of San Francisco. Two years after I made that decision, my younger brother left for Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He is happy he went; I am happy I stayed. As is true when approaching the college application process, it is important that students look beyond rankings and surface attractions and focus upon the kind of experience and environment in which they will flourish as both intellectuals and individuals. Whether or not a US boarding school is the place for you, these schools have a great deal to offer and may well be worth your consideration.

 Katie Buoymaster is an Educational Consultant at Hale Education Group, former Fulbright Fellow and graduate of Williams College. To learn more about applying to Prep Schools, please call 04 299 0077.

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