The Making of a Harvard Feeder School

High Schools and Harvard
Jake Freyer

The graph shows the unequal distribution of high schools in the Harvard Class of 2017. The straight line (above tan shading) is an even distribution. Data is from the Freshman Register.

Although Harvard prides itself on its 1636 founding, the city of Boston established the nation’s oldest educational institution—Boston Latin School—a full year earlier.

“There’s a joke that Harvard was started a year after our school as a place for our students to go,” said James Montague, a counselor at Boston Latin.

375 years later, Boston Latin students still go north of the Charles to continue their education—by Montague’s count, the school contributed 15 students to Harvard’s current freshman class, one of only a handful of schools to send 10 or more students to the College this year, according to numbers obtained from Harvard’s freshman register.

In total, one out of every 20 Harvard freshmen attended one of the seven high schools most represented in the class of 2017—Boston Latin, Phillips Academy in Andover, Stuyvesant High School, Noble and Greenough School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Trinity School in New York City, and Lexington High School.

Although these schools vary significantly, ranging from private boarding schools to local public schools, their administrators and alumni trace their success to some or all of three different factors: a selective admissions process, strong college counselling, and academic cultures that foreshadow the Harvard experience.



For most of the students at Harvard’s so-called “feeder schools,” applying to college feels almost familiar—many of the high-schools who are well-represented at the College have their own selective admissions requirements.

“I think, if anything, the process [of applying to high school] is a bit more strenuous than it was for applying to college,” said Tez M. Clark ’17, who is also a Crimson editorial writer, about her experience applying to Exeter nearly five years ago. “I definitely felt nervous.”

Exeter and similar private boarding schools require a substantial application, which takes into account test scores, letters of recommendations, grades, and personal essays. The most prestigious schools receive thousands of applications a year, from all over the world, and have admissions rates similar to those of top-tier colleges. Phillips Academy in Andover—which sent 18 students to Harvard this year—accepted only 13 percent of those who applied.

At many of the public schools who consistently send students to Harvard—like Boston Latin and New York’s Stuyvesant—admission depends on the result of competitive tests that students take in elementary or middle school.

“You’re very young, and you’re experiencing a lot of things that you don’t usually experience until you’re a high school senior,” said Stuyvesant alumnus Konrad E. Surkont ’16, recalling the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test that determines placement in New York’s nine specialized public high schools.

Harvard students from selective high schools, both public and private, said that their high schools’ admissions requirements might explain why so many of their classmates matriculate at Harvard.

“To me, it’s understandable that there are more students from Exeter than from a different school just because Exeter has already selected very competitive students, and Harvard’s drawing from a high concentration of competitive applicants,” Clark said.

According to John G. Palfrey ’94, a former Harvard Law School professor who now serves as the Andover’s headmaster, selective high schools attract potential Harvard students away from their home high schools.

“I think often a student who comes here has either exhausted the offerings of their home school or they are feeling like they’re up for a different kind of challenge during high school,” he said. “So they certainly work very hard.”


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