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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Cradle to Cap and Gown: The Prep School to Ivy Pipeline

Why do so many Dartmouth students come from elite private high schools?

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Private prep schools seem to be the key to success when it comes to getting into an elite college like Dartmouth. After all, 34% of Dartmouth’s Class of 2025 went to “Independent Schools” while only 14% of U.S. high schoolers attend such institutions. What about private school applicants makes them so desirable to Ivy+ colleges and universities? Is it that these students are smarter, more athletic or more interesting? No. It’s the delicious scent of money wafting from these candidates that keep elite colleges feeding from a handful of high-level prep schools.

When I think of private schools, the first thing that pops into my mind is money. Many wealthy parents send their children to the best institutions money can buy, starting as early as preschool. At an institution as selective as Dartmouth, it’s also important to specify that the “Independent Schools” it pulls from (at least largely) aren’t just any old private high schools — they are elite college prep schools that turn students into premier applicants and come with built-in connections to Ivy+ colleges.

After attending public school through the eighth grade, I switched to an all-girls private school in Washington, D.C. Going from a class of 500 to a class of 74 was a shock, but the true jolt was adapting to the pure wealth and privilege surrounding me. I consider my family to be very well off, but my peers made me feel like a pauper. Although there are a fair number of students on financial aid at exclusive high schools, the majority of the student body comes from rich, well-connected families.

Dylan Parikh ’26, an alumnus of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., claimed that elite college doors aren’t just opened by attending private high school, but by the combination of familial and school resources that converge in these establishments. 

“Private school itself doesn’t get kids into top schools. It’s just that kids who have the resources to go to private schools tend to get into top schools because of their resources in general,” Parikh said. 

Prep schools merely serve as one way for wealthy parents to guarantee their child’s success. So, when it comes time for their children to apply to their alma maters, they go above and beyond by employing the best of the best — test prep tutors, private college counselors and coaches — despite sending their kids to a school which should already provide these resources.

Caitlin FitzMaurice ’26, a graduate of Nobles and Greenough School, shared many of Parikh’s views. FitzMaurice argued that the college admissions process is unfair because it privileges wealthier applicants, not just graduates of certain kinds of high schools. However unrealistic it is for Dartmouth to replicate the country’s ratio of public to private school students — since many independent schools specifically prepare students for elite colleges — FitzMaurice still believes that Dartmouth needs to economically diversify its student body. She said that if Dartmouth were to adjust its ratio of public to private school students, it would have “a more diverse community that would be… more representative of the country.”

Parikh called attention to the fact that most parents who can afford to send their children to top independent schools went to elite colleges themselves. This means that students gain advantages not just from their family’s wealth, but from their parents’ connections at top universities. Furthermore, these students will benefit from legacy status, which can add a hook to — what in many cases are — already superb applications. 13% of Dartmouth’s Class of 2025 are legacy students and Parikh said that he met “a lot of kids…from private school who have older brothers or sisters who went here,” adding that Dartmouth “like[s] their families here.” 

Some prep schools also have close bonds with specific elite colleges, which usher students into matriculating at these schools, year after year. Parikh said that Sidwell Friends sent nine students to the University of Chicago from his 125-person graduating class. Among the Ivies, Sidwell sent six to Yale, four to Harvard and “one or two” students to each of the others. 

At Ipswich High School — a public high school in Massachusetts with a graduating class almost the exact same size as Sidwell Friends — the numbers couldn’t be more different. Ipswich graduate Claire O’Flynn ’26 said that “there was a very slim amount [of students] that were really going for private schools” — let alone Ivy+ institutions — and “some years no one gets into Ivies.” 

While she felt well prepared for Dartmouth’s rigorous academics, O’Flynn said that she occasionally feels like an outsider on a campus dominated by private school alumni. She said that although it does not feel like there is a sharp divide between public and private school students, “once you find out if [someone] went to private school ... then it definitely has huge connections,” which make it easier for students from nearby prep schools to connect with one another and form quick foundations for a potentially fruitful friendship.

However, O’Flynn said that this hasn’t hindered her social life, since she does not even know where most of her friends went to school before Dartmouth. Students from independent schools might find each other faster, but they are by no means unfriendly towards public school alumni. According to O’Flynn, the “private school network” doesn’t prevent public school students from making friends — but rather it provides advantages for students who are tapped into that expansive, yet elite, community.

As a private school graduate, I love meeting people who went to other private schools in D.C. because we often know the same people and endured the same experiences, good and bad. Although I don’t feel like they are built in “friends,” they provide a sense of community that makes me feel more comfortable by making Dartmouth’s large, new community feel smaller. Even if I don’t have much in common with them, we can reminisce about our days in D.C. and our various school rivalries and scandals. At the very least, they are a friendly face, which makes navigating Foco or an unfamiliar dorm party much more enjoyable. 

In many ways, the jump from one small, wealthy prep school to the next is a more manageable gap — and maybe one of the reasons Dartmouth pulls disproportionately from elite private schools. But the percentage points are telling, and meaningful representation often entails going against the path of least resistance.