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The Dartmouth
February 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Do prep schools help or hurt college applicants?

As the college admissions process grows increasingly competitive, students and parents may question whether going to an elite preparatory school might increase their chances of getting into a prestigious college.

Counselors at these schools and some prep school alumni attending Dartmouth cited the personal attention given to students and the schools' contacts within college admissions offices as advantages.

At the same time, some prep-school counselors suspected that admissions offices evaluate prep school students more harshly than they would students from less prominent schools.

Prep-school counselors who spoke with The Dartmouth were quick to note that attending an exclusive prep school by no means guarantees admission to a prestigious college, and that they encourage parents to steer their students to those colleges that fit best, rather than the most prestigious.

When asked if Deerfield Academy students have "an unfair advantage" in the college application process, Nicole Hagger '91, college advisor at the renowned private school in Deerfield, Mass., answered flatly, "Yes."

Hagger added that she had worked in Dartmouth's admissions office before coming to Deerfield and said that students from prep schools often submitted counselor recommendations that were "one to one and a half pages long," while some public school counselors submitted either brief recommendations or none at all.

She also said the close relationships between counselors and students serves as an advantage in the application process.

Hagger teaches two academic classes, coaches a team and lives in a dormitory in addition to working as a college counselor, so she knew many of her students well from other contexts before starting to work with them on their college applications.

Diamond Hicks '03, who attended Deerfield for three years, also noted that she had an especially good experience with college counseling because of her close relationship with her advisor.

All students entering Deerfield are assigned a faculty member as an advisor. They may either remain with the same advisor until they graduate or switch advisors at the beginning of each academic year, Hicks said.

Hicks' college advisor had also served as her academic advisor for three years, so she had had many opportunities to get to know her

Robert Hill, director of college counseling at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., expressed similar sentiments. "We're fully residential, so we can't help knowing our students well," he said.

Peter Brewitt '03, a graduate of St. Paul's, also said that he benefited from meeting his college counselor before starting the college process. Brewitt's counselor served as his basketball coach during his freshman year.

On the public-school side, Dave Faulkner, director of guidance at Lebanon High School, a public high school in Lebanon, N.H., was content with his office's efforts to get to know students.

Still, Faulkner has had to be more proactive in getting to know his students than counselors like Hagger, who have lived alongside their students for three or four years. Faulkner described, for instance, scheduling a meeting with one student to learn more about his involvement in the Boy Scouts so he could incorporate this information into the student's recommendation letters.

Faulkner also said that he sometimes has to turn to teachers' recommendation letters to find out additional information about students.

Hagger cited Deerfield's contact with admissions offices as another advantage that his school's students have. "I get on the phone midway through the admissions cycle to check how our kids are doing, even if some schools aren't necessarily receptive to that kind of contact," she said.

Hagger also noted that the head of Deerfield's college counseling previously worked in Harvard University's admissions office and "knew how to nurture relationships" with various admissions offices.

Despite the advantages that such individual attention gives students, some counselors suspect that students from the most exclusive high schools are sometimes held to higher standards than their counterparts from less well-known schools.

"There's an assumption in some admissions offices that our kids have had every advantage," said Lewis Stival, dean of college counseling at Blair Academy. He added that there is a perception in some admissions offices that "if our kids don't wash up perfectly, they're dumb."

Hagger expressed a similar opinion. She worked in admissions at Deerfield before taking on her current position, and she noted that many parents wanted their children to come to Deerfield largely to gain an advantage in the admissions process.

Such statements concerned Hagger, as "there are no guarantees" that any Deerfield student will be admitted to his or her first choice college -- a fact that is difficult to tell eighth- and ninth-graders interested in attending Deerfield who have so far earned excellent grades and standardized test scores.

"It's hard for students at private schools to stand out and be distinctive," she said, noting that students who are bright, but only ranked in the third quintile at Deerfield, often struggle in the admissions process at schools like Dartmouth, that "want valedictorians and salutatorians."

"Some kids could benefit from just staying home and being valedictorian," she said.

Dartmouth's Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said that Dartmouth does raise standards slightly for students that appear to have come from strong schools and high socioeconomic backgrounds.

"If we know a student's gone to a strong high school, we might expect a certain sophistication in their writing, or their test scores to be higher, whereas if a student comes from a more modest high school, we might adjust," he said.

All of the prep school counselors emphasized that while their schools do send many students on to Ivy League and other prestigious schools, they remain more concerned about matching students to the right colleges, rather than the most prestigious ones.

"There are no more notches on my belt for how many kids I've gotten into Harvard," Stival said.

"Students should attend Deerfield for the process, for the excellent education," Hagger said.