Prep School College Advising

Part I

Most people assume that the purpose of Prep School is to gain admission to a top university such as those you’ll find on the top of the US News & World Report rankings, like Harvard, Yale or Stanford. You are, in effect, paying a higher tuition in order to gain access to an exclusive network which succeeds in college matriculation. A simple Google or YouTube search of ‘The Andover Song’ will take you to a song written and produced by Philips Andover students who try to dispel this ‘feeder school to the Ivy League colleges’ myth, with the lyrics: “Some say P.A. is only worth diploma day, but those who know, will tell you that it isn’t so.” The song continues in much the same fashion and indeed I have most of it memorized as whenever Andover athletic teams visited St. Paul’s our student fans would launch into the opening chorus.

Despite its cheesiness, the premise of the tune is true. People ignore three main factors about Prep Schools in America. First, although Prep Schools like those listed on Prep Review’s America’s Top 50 Prep Schools do their best to attract a diverse student population from varying socio-economic backgrounds, Prep Schools like Andover, Groton, and St. Paul’s are breeding grounds for middle and upper class Americans. Legacy matters in America, so it should not come as a surprise that Prep School students often attend the same Prep School that their parents did before them; a notable example would be America’s 43rd President George Bush Jr and his father 41st President George H. W. Bush; both attended Phillips Andover and Yale University, but much more subtle examples also exist. A good number of my peers were the children of at least one parent who attended St. Paul’s; many of them went on to matriculate to the same college that at least one (not always the same one) of their parents has formerly attended. Legacy matters just as much in the college admissions process, meaning that some (but not all) of Prep School’s success in college admissions is a result of students continuing in their parent’s footsteps, choosing to attend the same university that their parents did before them.

Another part of college matriculation success lies in athletic recruitment. Put simply, college athletic programs have to meet certain requirements in building their incoming class. Many NESCAC athletic teams, for instance, try to maintain a similar team SAT average to that of the university on a whole. This means that a school with a 2,100 SAT average will have sports teams that look to have an average of 2,100 on the SAT among their incoming recruits as this makes it easier for them to move student-athletes through the admissions process. Playing the numbers game for a minute, this means that for every hockey player you recruit with a 1,800 SAT, you must also recruit one with a 2,400. Where do you think most coaches look for talented athletes with top SAT scores to offset those top-level recruits who perhaps didn’t score so highly? You guessed it—Prep Schools. Harvard’s lacrosse roster for 2016 include graduates from the following schools: Deerfield Academy (2), Governor’s Academy, St. Albans Prep, Delbarton School (2), Noble and Greenough, St. Paul’s, Hotchkiss, Salisbury School, Phillips Exeter Academy (2), Phillips Andover Academy, St. Sebastian’s School (2), Lawrenceville, Belmont Hill, Roxbury Latin and others.

Here is a final thing to think about before I move into a more meritocratic evaluation. This is a touchy subject and one that is quite controversial but I have seen it to be true, and hiding behind my wall of anonymity, feel it is important that it be mentioned. Diversity has played an increasingly important role in American university admissions. And while I agree with diversity, it is not being implemented as it should be. Universities claim that they are increasingly access to their campuses and that the number of students of color are increasing, and while that is true numerically it is not entirely honest in practice. For while the universities are increasing the diversity figures, they are not recruiting from truly underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds to the same degree as the numbers suggest. A student of color from Andover, for instance, whose parents are doctors paying full tuition counts as a student of color in the admissions facts and figures in the same way that a student with a less fortunate upbringing does. This is not a negative aspect of admissions, as the Andover student is qualified and more than amply prepared as a result of their Prep School education, but I have found from my time at University that while diversity numbers are high, the representation of varying socio-economic backgrounds and privilege is far, far lower. As such, an additional element included within Prep Schools’ admissions success are their potential contribution to diversity.

So where does that leave us? Many of the country’s top Prep Schools place 30-40% of their graduating class into the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Williams and Amherst. The percentage is even higher when you include universities like Georgetown, Michigan & Berkeley. What percentage of this 40% is filled by these three categories I have described? Is there any hope for those of us who are neither diverse nor athletic nor children of Harvard graduates? Fortunately, the answer is yes. Because while I would estimate that the three categories count for 15-20% of the 30-40% above, there are still a significant number of Prep School graduates who succeed on pure brilliance alone. The standards for these people however are higher. When faced with two applications, all else equal, university admissions will choose the athlete, first-generation or legacy every time most of the time, if not every time. My high-school track coach once noted: think of how many valedictorians are rejected from Harvard each year so they can field a football team. If you have issues with that, it is best you begin looking outside of the United States for college.

Prep School college advising offices do have established relationships with university admissions offices. Unlike other places, when top Prep School students apply to U.S. colleges early, applicants are discussed by their college advisor and the university representative responsible for first-reads for that particular Prep School. In the spring, Prep School advisors are able to call colleges about students on the wait-list who really want to attend, though I’ll cover this in another paragraph. My advisor, for instance, was able to tell me in the days leading up to decision day for my early application that I would be either deferred or accepted, although I suspect he knew I had been deferred. He was also able to tell me that the school had ‘liked’ my application, particularly my personal statement, which is how I knew not to change it for my regular applications. So some dialogue goes on, even if the degree of which is somewhat mysterious.

It is important to remember, however, that colleges benefit from admitting highly qualified and capable Prep School students. This is one reason why perhaps an informal relationship has been established between Prep Schools and top colleges. Decades ago, but recently enough that my friend’s parents remember the practice, Prep School headmasters used to call university admissions offices directly, giving them a list of names of students to accept. While this practice no longer exists, one could argue the residual impacts endure in that Prep Schools continue to attract highly capable students and these students continue to positively impact the communities at these universities whose reputations were first acclaimed as a result of the successful careers of these former Prep students following their graduation from particularly the Ivy League universities. Thus, these universities continue to be aware that a highly recommended student of a given Prep School (such as Andover) will do well at a particular university (such as Yale) and will graduate on time, perform well academically, attain employment following graduation etc. It is not that non-Prep School students do not achieve the steps mentioned above, but rather that universities can be confident with a near-complete degree of certainty that the Prep School graduates will, as generations of former Prep School students have shown historically. It is also significant to note that those guidelines I have mentioned above (graduation rate, academic performance, and post-graduation employment) are some of the criteria used to evaluate and rank universities; thus, filling their class with students who will succeed in these things is one way for a university to maintain their place at the top of the US News & World Report yearly rankings.

Therefore, it could be that there is no relationship between Prep School college advisors and admissions offices. I doubt it, but it could be so and that we are just imagining the power that college advisors hold. It is not the ‘70s anymore when Prep Schools would just call up Harvard and give a list of names of students who wanted to attend the following year. It is important to remember, for a moment, that Prep Schools attract America’s top student talent, especially with the increasing amount of financial aid that is being offered to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Once these very capable students begin at these Prep Schools, they are tutored by some of America’s leading faculty at the high-school level, making them even more knowledgeable when they apply to University. In effect, Prep Schools have begun the job of college admissions offices for them as they have already begun to narrow the prospective field. Therefore, it is possible that no relationship exists between Prep Schools and colleges admissions departments, but that colleges are eager to fill at least a proportion of their incoming class with these capable students who are bound for success and many of whom will pay full tuition.

Part II

I explored a number of potential explanations for the relationship between Prep Schools and US colleges in my previous post, effectively investigating the question of why Prep Schools perform so well in college applications each year? I pointed to athletics, legacy and diversity as well an informal relationship which may have taken the place of a more extensive relationship that existed in the twentieth century. It is more likely, however, that Prep School college advising offices exist as a means through which information is exchanged, and this becomes increasingly vital in the spring when it comes to wait-lists. There isn’t all that much that Prep Schools can do during the admissions process as American universities have thousands more applicants than places to fill. But in the spring, when decisions are beginning to file in, and colleges realize that fewer students are going to attend from their original admittance pool than they originally intended, colleges begin to go to their waitlist.

If you reference my post on Yield Rate, you’ll see that with high-schools, yield is more important that acceptance rate. With colleges, it is the opposite. Harvard boasts the highest yield in America, with around 81 percent. Princeton’s yield is 67%, Notre Dame’s is 53%. If these numbers don’t already look low (especially when compared to top Prep Schools), keep in mind that early decision applicants, who are contractually obligated to attend the school to which they were admitted, also count into this statistic. Source:

If you are curious to find these statistics for your universities of interest, you can google search the name of a particular college followed by ‘common data set.’ Each year universities are obligated to post these numbers and anybody is able to search for and view them.

So let’s look at Amherst in 2015. About 1,210 students were admitted while 477 chose to attend. This puts Amherst at a yield rate just under 40%. But 172 of these 477 were accepted through the early decision process and were therefore required to attend. This means that 305 (477-172) from 1038 (1210-172) chose to attend from the regular decision pool, which is a yield rate of 29%. ( Source: Amherst College Common Data Set ) In general, colleges do not like to accept 35 candidates for only 10 to attend, but accepting a greater number means a higher acceptance rate, which runs contrary to the exclusivity and prestige of that particular institution. Amherst, in 2015, accepted 33 people from its waitlist. And here is when Prep School advisors come into play. (Source: Amherst College Common Data Set)

Link to Common Data Set: Amherst College

Each spring, when admissions decisions are made, admissions releases certain statistics that are often published in the university student newspaper. You might notice a difference in those statistics that are released in the spring after acceptances are sent out versus those that are published in the fall when students arrive. Below, I quote the Amherst Student from April 2015:

“This year, Amherst 55 percent of accepted applicants identified as American students of color, the highest proportion in the college’s history… 17 percent were first-generation college students, while 7 percent were children of Amherst alumni. 66 percent attended public high schools, 30 percent attended private schools… the average SAT composite score for accepted students was 2,210.”

Here is the Amherst Student in September 2015:

“Forty-four percent of first-years are American students of color… a little more than 12 percent of first-years are first generation college students.” Of notable importance is the fact that percent of Amherst alumni were not mentioned in the fall, nor was the average SAT composite score, nor the proportionality of private school students.

So why did the percent of students of color decrease and why did first-generation percentage decrease as well? Sure, some students may not have chosen to attend Amherst from those two categories, but Amherst accepted 33 people off the waitlist, meaning that these students taken from the waitlist were not of the same demographic as those who choose not to attend. And their statistics were not included in the autumn publication. To put it frankly, that is because the students removed from the waitlist often have lower SAT scores, are sometimes legacy, and are very often less qualified on paper than those applicants originally admitted. Harvard’s Z-plan, for instance, whereby mostly legacies are accepted on the condition they take a year off before matriculating to Harvard, is perhaps one of the most corrupt practices in the American educational sector.

What can be said, however, is that waitlists are where Prep School advisors make their keep. It is not that they are able to get their students into universities. I do not believe that university admissions officers gift Prep Schools advisors with that degree of power. It is that colleges are desperate to fill their class with capable students before all the ‘top’ students have committed to various universities. On a wait-list filled with 1,400 people, how do you know which ones to choose that are still looking for a place to attend next year? As Prep Schools have these relationships with college offices, those phone-lines immediately open as advisors report which students are still looking and are still excited to attend that college. When Bates decides to go to its waitlist, and invariably lets Prep School college placement offices know that it is doing so, it is all too easy for a Prep School college advisor to pick up the phone and ring the officer with whom he discussed applicants to Bates just a couple months ago to give the names of two students who really, really want to attend Bates but have found themselves on the waitlist. And it is all too easy for Bates to accept these extremely qualified candidates (and be pleased with their attendance) than spend hours perusing their waitlists and calling every candidate on it to see if they are still interested in Bates. If this reminds you a great deal of my theory on expressed interest, then you’re beginning to understand how admissions processes work in America.

So, Prep Schools. Do they have a relationship with colleges? Can they help you get in? Sort of. Often you get in on your own merit, and the preparation that Prep School gives you makes it such that you are an attractive candidate all on your own. In other cases, though, such as wait-lists, it is possible that Prep Schools can help you with that final push (that is expressed interest!) in order to gain admission.

Photo credit: Loomis Chaffee Campus
Source: SPHERE schools