The College Conversation: Private school won't secure success

There's a prevailing myth that a private high school experience, one that offers small class sizes, an intimate school setting where everybody knows your kid's name, and more opportunities for leadership, "looks better" when students apply to college.

Marketing efforts in our local private schools drive up this belief. In the summer months, advertisements boast the Ivy League and selective college acceptances of recent grads.

"Look where our kids are going," the ads imply. "We know how to get your kid in!"

Is it really easier for private school applicants to gain admission to a highly selective institution simply because they attend a school with a stellar academic reputation?

You might be shocked to learn that when vying for top spots at the nation's most selective colleges it's actually better to come from a lower-performing public high school. And I mean bottom of the heap.

All right, let's put this one in context.

It's impossible for colleges to compare apples to apples when evaluating applicants from thousands of high schools. Consider the types of high schools in and around our beach cities within a 25-mile radius. Independent schools will be compared with parochial schools to public schools among several school districts, etc. How do colleges level the playing field to equalize the opportunities for admission?

The first piece of information the college reviews is the high school's profile. Within a two-page document, some formatted as glossy brochures with fancy clip art (there will always be those overachievers in the school profile category), certain information will be glaringly obvious to the college as they work to understand the applicant in context.

The data should provide the college with everything it needs to fairly evaluate the opportunities the student had at his or her high school and then, what she or he chose to take advantage of.

From the school's mission statement to the enrollment by grade level to the average class size, every statistic is scrutinized in order to make better sense of the file that lay before the admissions reader.

Some of my favorite key facts within the profile are the percentage of students at the high school who earn a specific grade-point average. Twenty-five percent of students earn higher than a 4.0 from The Best Private School Ever? That reeks of grade inflation.

Or after a closer analysis, the high school decided to place extra grade points or "weigh" every honors class the student has taken since ninth grade? Great, now we need to spend time re-calculating the GPA since our college only places extra weight in the high school GPA for AP/IB courses.

Twenty percent of the graduating class from last year attended a four-year university? This student is certainly beating the odds.

This straight-A student never took advantage of the 23 AP courses offered?

There's a community service requirement? Were the number of required hours surpassed?

There's project-based learning? Thankfully, a portfolio was submitted in order to review the quality of the work.

Suddenly, an application file lands on the admissions reader's desk. It becomes clear after reviewing that school's profile that the high school doesn't offer much in the way of expanding the student's mind. Few students go on to attend four-year colleges. But, the applicant chose to enroll in the few AP courses offered (and even picked up demanding courses at a local community college).

She provided much-needed leadership to help motivate peers. She couldn't afford the tuition of a private high school, and worked tenaciously to beat the odds.

Your child's high school profile should not be kept under lock and key. This is public information that you can simply ask to review. It's also an excellent reality check for you, as parents, to fairly evaluate where your child stands in relation to others at his high school.

I am not suggesting you pack up your bags and move across town so your kid can attend that high school and be more competitive for college. Let's hope that trend never becomes the popular choice.

Even if you have the means to send your child to a private high school, the reputation of this school won't be enough to land your child a spot at a prestigious college.

If she takes advantage of the vast menu of learning opportunities laid on a plate before her, and thrives in the small learning environment, where she feels safe and challenged, it will certainly improve her chances of admission.

If not, she will suffer, and her chances of admission will suffer as well.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to Lisa@EDvantageConsulting.com.

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