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Preparatory schools & The admissions process

Preparing for Harvard

By Malka A. Older

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."

However, although these prep schools continue to send a much higher number of students to Harvard than the average public school, their influence is declining in the face of a growing call for racial and ethnic diversity, equality of opportunity and political correctness.

Professor of Sociology Aage B. Sorensen said "all of this has gotten to be much less important because Harvard has gotten very concerned about being equal-opportunity."

"At least in the past couple of years there has been a big movement away from taking students from the traditional feeder schools," said Rebecca L. Garrison '99, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy. "It's a good thing because it's probably giving students from public schools more opportunity, but it's also probably denying quality kids from prep schools just because they're from prep schools."

"[T]he days when preps could automatically expect to go to an Ivy League or other highly selective college are over," write Cookson and Persell. "They have to earn their way--or at least part of their way."

There are several non-boarding schools that also have considerable numbers of students admitted to Harvard each year. These include Roxbury Latin, a small all-male private school in West Roxbury, Stuyvesant, a public magnet school in New York City and the Boston Latin School, a public magnet school in Boston.

Although these schools do not have the same resources as elite private boarding schools, they are hardly bereft. Stuyvesant is generously funded by New York in hopes of cultivating the city's best and brightest, while Boston Latin draws funds from a large alumni base.

These schools also have a history. Boston Latin was founded in 1635, the year before the inception of Harvard; local lore has it that Harvard was founded so that graduates of Boston Latin would have somewhere to go. Roxbury Latin was founded only ten years later, in 1645.

Jeffrey S. Gleason '99, who graduated from Roxbury Latin, said Harvard is a potent presence there. Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 is a Roxbury Latin alumni as are other Harvard faculty and administrators.

"There's definitely been a connection, and it's consistent year in and year out," says Gleason. "There are a lot of good schools that Roxbury Latin kids aren't going to in as many numbers."

These schools are also magnet schools which draw their areas' best students, creating what Fitzsimmons calls a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

"Good students tend to cluster, not at random, as it were, at secondary schools across the country," Fitzsimmons says. "When a school gets a reputation for having a lot of students accepted to Harvard, the top students will want to go to that school. More graduates will get in, attracting better students."

Although connections between feeder schools and Harvard are very strong, students and Harvard College administrators say that if students from these schools get an extra glance when they apply, it's only because admissions officers know these are schools that prepare their students well.

"We admit candidates and not schools," says Fitzsimmons. "The point is to get all the students, whether they're the first [from their school] to apply to Harvard or the 95th this year, who are legitimate applicants."

Julia A. Brookins '98, who graduated from Boston Latin School, says she feels his school provided him with no unfair advantage in admissions.

"I don't think that anyone who isn't qualified to gets in because of the relationship between the two schools," she explains.

Brookins said that while it's probably easier to get in to Harvard from Boston Latin School than from most high schools, not many others offer the same curriculum.

"Some people seem to suggest that because Andover is Andover students will just get in because of the name," says C. Joseph McCannon '99, who graduated from Phillips Andover Academy. "The name Andover clearly carries some weight in the admissions office but the students who do come from Andover go through very rigorous preparation and, I think, are all very highly qualified."

"I don't necessarily think admissions gives us special benefits except that the name of the school turns their head a bit in the beginning," Garrison says of Exeter.

Ali J. Satvat '99, who graduated from Roxbury Latin, likens the relationship between his school and Harvard to the situation of graduates from the College applying to Harvard Law School.

"There's familiarity in terms of knowing how the school is run," says Satvat.

This familiarity also affects the way students at these high schools think about attending Harvard. Some try to resist the overwhelming tradition of matriculating at Harvard.

"Until my senior year I didn't really want to go to Harvard because it's such a traditional place to go," says Guinivere E. Mathews '98, who graduated from Exeter. "It seemed almost like a cliche to go from Exeter to Harvard and I thought I would want to do something different."

Brookins, who was valedictorian of her class at Boston Latin, said she used to think Harvard was a "cop-out."

"After I got past my rebellious stage of, like, I'm going to go to the University of Hawaii, [the connection] was a positive thing," said Brookins.

"It made me want to come here," she adds.

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