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Private vs. Public High School & College Admissions Success

This week I’m going to answer a popular question among parents concerning whether from a college admissions perspective if it’s better for a student to attend a public or private high school and how this decision factors into the admissions equation. After having attended both public and private high schools myself, interviewed several administrative insiders and college admissions officers our research has shown that the short answer is no and the long answer is that it depends. I’ll explain what I mean by both these terms and what strategies are most useful for high school students in this edition of college planning Saturday.

In order to effectively answer this question let’s start by talking about the major differences between public and private high schools as they relate to both you as a parent, your student and their ability to get into College.

Cost of Attendance:

Many parents make the mistake of believing that if a high school charges more it must be better. Not true. Not only do private high schools tell Colleges that you most likely do have spare cash available for College tuition many College specific scholarship programs are not available to students. Likewise, it we have also found that many expensive private high schools in the country provide an educational experience that is only equivalent to that of a well funded public high school. The reason is that many private high schools invest their endowment money in order to continually build their brand name. Yes they have the capacity to provide better classrooms, facilities and teachers but the question you want to ask yourself is to what degree they actually do so. They are most valuable when they actively invest substantial sums of capital into building the structures and conditions necessary to help students outperform national averages on important metrics of high school achievement. Many of these schools however have proven incapable of doing so.

Many of the core services that your student needs in fact to get into a top college like stellar AP classes, SAT preparation and extracellular opportunities are available at many great public high schools for free. A national survey taken by the College Board revealed that Colleges on average accepted roughly 25% of their students from private high schools while 65-70% of students were from public high schools. This data suggest that Colleges do not distinguish their admissions criteria by whether a high school is public or private but rather what percent tile your student ranks within that given school.

High School Class Ranking:

As a result one of the most important things you should be looking at is not whether the high school is nationally ranked high enough but rather where your student places within their graduating class. This is why students who attend highly competitive high schools where the majority of students all have private tutors, SAT prep classes and lots of encouragement at home will have a far more difficult time graduating in the top 10% of their class than students who attends a far less competitive schools and have less support at home. It is actually more challenging therefore for students who attend more competitive high schools to graduate high enough in their senior class to significantly distinguish themselves.

Class Curriculum:

Most public high schools, because their funded by mostly state and federal funds will only typically offer general classes in the core subjects of math, English, reading, writing, science history and physical education. In addition to these core subjects, many public high schools offer programs in the music and the arts. In contrast because private high schools are funded internally, the breath of their curriculum is often much larger and more narrowly tailored towards specialized programs and the diverse interests students may have. So from a purely curriculum perspective private high schools are far superior in that they have the capacity to offer students a very diverse and rich learning experience. Now where parents typically error on this specific point is thinking that this matters to a College. It doesn’t. The reason is simple, College admissions departments hate subjectivity and there is no way as of yet to fairly and objectivity take into account the vast differences that specific classes have on whether a student is qualified for admissions. Instead, your focus should lie on what is measurable and what is objective and what Colleges actually look at which includes GPA, SAT and other standardized measures of achievement. I can’t tell you how many times we have worked with clients whose students took generic AP classes, did excellent and got into some great Colleges while other clients had their students take highly complex specialized classes, did mediocre and were surprised when their admissions competitiveness suffered as a result.


This is a factor many parents fail to take into account when thinking about public versus private high schools. When I attended private high school some years ago, one of the biggest challenges I had with attending was that I had to commute via bus 60 minutes every day. After working with thousands of families as a financial and admissions advisor I am convinced that this plays a critical role in getting into College. Why? Because doing well in your classes and tests are based not on how much time your student spends at school but how much time they spend at home mastering the material. Learning is an integrated process that is the result of always thinking about and applying class concepts. If your student is spending their time focused on logistics and travel it only makes this learning process more challenging to achieve.

Passion & Desire:

Most importantly, if you want to your student to have the opportunity to attend the College of their dreams then it’s vital that you keep in mind that research reveals that student ability and achievement is not something you academically create but rather something you unleash within them. How do you unleash your student’s abilities you may ask? Easy. Allow them to learn and grow in an environment their most passionate in. It’s like a quote my mentor once told me that “attitudes are more important than abilities, motives than methods and character than cleverness; and at the end of the day the heart takes precedence over the head… so follow your heart and your abilities will unleash like an avalanche”. That is perhaps the on universal truth inherent in all the students of families we have worked with that were most successful in getting into any College they desired.

So remember, having your child attend a highly competitive private prep school is pointless if you’re not focused on having them academically distinguish themselves within their class. That is one very important factor in College Admissions and one that can be accomplished at any high school, public or private.

To discover the business-side behind the admissions and financial aid process the “stuff-behind-the-stuff” sign up to receive (1) a free chapter of Phillip Lew’s College Planning book, (2) a report on which colleges give grants for high income families and (3) a database on where to find the highest quality private scholarships. To instantly receive these free gifts go to and watch our 5 minute introductory free video.

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