Preparatory schools & The admissions process

Preparing for Harvard

Each year, high schools across the country compete for Harvard acceptances. Most have one or two. But a few select schools have many.

Among the 1,600 first-years who enter Harvard College every September, there are some who don't seem quite as lost as others.

There are some who know more than two or three, more than nine or 10, maybe more than 15 other first-years coming from the same high school. They probably even know a similar number of older students, since their high school sends high numbers of its graduates to Harvard and other top colleges every year.

These high schools, known as "feeder schools," are generally very selective private or magnet public schools that may also have a traditional, long-standing relationship with Harvard. They are almost exclusively in the Northeast.

They often boast resources and reputations that most standard public high schools can't offer.

For the students at these schools, the possibility of attending Harvard sometimes looms in a way that it might not for the student who is the first in years to apply from her high school.

The stereotype of a feeder school is a semi-boarding prep school picturesquely situated in rural New England. Many of the schools which today send consistently high numbers of students to Harvard are continuing in this tradition.

In Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, Peter W. Cookson and Caroline Hodges Persell write "[h]istorically, a small group of boarding schools, including the select 16, have had a very close relationship with the Ivy League colleges, and with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in particular."

The "select 16"--the cream of the prep school crop--include Phillips Exeter Academy, Phillips Andover Academy and Choate Rosemary Hall, all schools that continue to send a high percentage of their graduates to the "big three" Ivies. This, despite the fact that admission rates among all prep school students have declined in recent years.

A major advantage of these private schools over most high schools in the country is the enormous resources they are able to devote to both education and college advising, as well as a long history of admissions success with selective colleges.

"The resources most leading boarding schools devote to college advisement are considerable," write Cookson and Persell. "Prep schools have responded [to the increasing difficulty involved in getting into a top college] by honing their very professional college advisory operation and by exercising what political clout they can in relation to the colleges. The result is a higher--though not perfect--payoff for elite prep school graduates, compared to other applicants."

William R. Fitzsimmons '67, dean of admissions and financial aid, says that prep schools also have more money for extracurricular, athletics and can offer students smaller classes and high student-adviser ratios.

"The more affluent schools tend to be schools that disproportionately have the resources," Fitzsimmons says. "The opportunity structure is very unequal."

Admissions officers may put more trust in advisors and schools that have offered up students who have found success at Harvard in the past.

"The close personal relationships between 'select 16' college advisors and college admissions officers have been built up over a considerable number of years," write Cookson and Persell. "Despite today's competitive admissions environment, the elite prep school advisors are still listened to more closely by college admissions officers than public school counselors, suggesting that the prep school advisor is known to consistently offer the colleges a steady supply of socially elite and academically prepared students."