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A new survey finds thousands of students have their eyes on nonpublic schools and attention for them is growing. Experts weigh in on why and whether or not these schools guarantee an Ivy League future.

By Anna Halkidis
December 10, 2020
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Whether it’s dealing with student loans or tuition struggles, the pandemic hasn’t been easy on college students across the country. But for many teens, the desire to chase their academic dreams and attend a top-notch school hasn’t dwindled, a new survey indicates.

Thousands of students have their eyes set on 50 independent schools—aka nonpublic schools, according to Test Innovators. The Seattle-based online test prep company polled more than 16,000 students about the high schools they plan to apply to for the 2021-22 school year. A few fun facts: Fourteen of these schools on their minds are in California, 92 percent of them are co-ed, and they have notable alumni—think poets T.S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson, astronaut Sally Ride, and business magnate Bill Gates.

While many independent schools didn’t make Test Innovators’s list, in their top 10 are Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Horace Mann School, in Bronx, New York, Riverdale Country School in Bronx, New York, Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, Trinity School in New York City, Phillips Academy Andover in Andover, Massachusetts, and Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. (Check out the full list here.)

student walking on campus grounds
Credit: Getty Images

So, what makes these schools appealing?

“Independent schools, each driven by a unique mission, are often characterized by their holistic, student-centered approach,” says Edan Shahar, co-founder and CEO of Test Innovators. “Independent schools offer much more than an academically-rich classroom—they provide students with diverse extracurricular and community opportunities.”

While anyone can generally apply to independent schools, the admission process often involves several components, including letters of recommendation, a student writing piece, a parent/guardian writing piece, transcripts, and admissions test scores, typically the ISEE or SSAT. Most schools also require student interviews and parent/guardian interviews.

Of course, these schools aren’t cheap. The median cost is about $27,000 for schools with National Association of Independent Schools membership—and only about a quarter of students get financial aid. In terms of demographics, private schools tend to be made up primarily of white students.

Independent Schools During the Pandemic

As the pandemic has wreaked havoc on public schools across the nation, many families have been turning their attention to independent schools. Another recent survey shows 70 percent of independent schools saw their enrollment increase or stay the same. Shahar attributes this to independent schools’ success navigating the pandemic—majority have managed to stay open for in-person learning thanks to things like smaller class size and larger campuses.

What does this mean for future students? “The increase in independent school appeal is sure to evoke many changes," says Shahar, "including potentially increasing the competitiveness of these already highly sought-after schools."

Is There an Ivy League Advantage?

The simple answer: A private or independent school doesn’t necessarily mean an Ivy League future. But these students do have an edge in terms of guidance, resources, and connections through administrators who generally have relationships with Ivy Leagues.

“Students who attend independent schools receive a high-quality, well-rounded education that often makes them competitive candidates at Ivy League schools,” says Shahar. “While no school can guarantee admission into Ivy League schools, many independent school alumni do attend highly-ranked colleges.”

On that note, there is often an overachiever atmosphere in these schools that can be challenging. “The competition can feel defeating, as though they are pitted against their peers for admissions to coveted schools,” says Cindy Chanin, founder and director of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring, a Los Angeles-based company that has worked with many students who attend or have attended a majority of schools on the aforementioned list. “Sometimes our go-getterish students from public schools have shone brightly against the backdrop of independent school attendees. Everyone has an edge if they show initiative and pursue opportunities within and beyond an institution’s confines.”

Chanin encourages students to seek their own advantage, meaning what makes them unique in comparison to their peers: “How can they create an impactful and authentic narrative with their transcript, extracurriculars, and passions? What do they value? What is their why? How can they present themselves as an outlier who will make unique and integral contributions to a college community, and in turn, allow that community to inspire, grow, and impact them?”

And parents should remember every student has different needs and plans and that should be considered when applying to a high school or college. Parents can help guide their young student on identifying schools that are well suited for their specific needs by seeking ones that match who they are, what they value, and who they hope to become.

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