College Counseling: Public vs. Private School - Which One Is Right For Me?

Students taking notes in adult education classroom
Students taking notes in adult education classroom

Many distressed 7th/8th grade parents and high school parents come to us at Synocate asking us if they should send their child to private school. The main objective is to give their child more resources and a better opportunity to attend great universities. Some parents believe that going to private school has a direct correlation to the type of college their child will be accepted to. In this article, we want to dispel the myths of private vs. public school, the challenges at each, and the benefits of going to each. In the end, the decision is a personal one, but by illuminating our experiences and those of thousands of students, we can shed some light on this important decision.

1. Private schools increase my chances of admission

Private schools offer many good courses, extracurricular engagements with research programs, and most importantly, other students that have a similar mindset. In our experience, the seriousness of other students and the quality of teachers is generally high at private schools. Parents sending their children to these private schools value education and want the best for their child. They are also able to afford the tuition.

Although there is likely a significant correlation between private schools and admission to top universities, the causation is unclear. We believe it is a combination of conscientious parents, good teachers, fellow students that are driven, and strong opportunities inside and outside of school to build a story.
Yet these factors do not necessarily need a private school. Students and parents themselves can find opportunities, build a story, and find tutoring help if needed. The benefit of a private school is all of these resources are in one place, and students get to consistently engage in conversation with teachers and students who are like-minded.

2. Colleges do not know the difference between local high schools

Many universities have regional admissions officers that learn about the schools in the area, down to the number of AP or IB courses each high school offers. These university officials also are in contact with your high school guidance counselor and sometimes with teachers directly. The differences in number of AP or IB offered, course difficulty, and activities offered are standardized because these regional admissions officers learn about these differences and communicate them to the broader admissions committee when reviewing applications.

3. School clubs are not very good at my high school, will I be at a disadvantage?

This is partially true, but think about the broader landscape - millions of school clubs exist throughout the country and students create thousands of new clubs each year in order to stand out in college admissions. At private schools, it is often easier to start new clubs. Some students and parents believe this key fact will be how they get into their top choice schools. The reality is school clubs is one of four types of activities that students must do. The other types of activities - out-of-school, social work, and competitions, are equally important for admission to university.

4. Public schools are overloaded with students and I will not be able to stand out

This is sadly often true - and the statistics around college guidance counselors to student ratios are dizzying. We did an analysis from the NACAC data on these ratios and found that across California, the average guidance counselor has 950 students.

Parents can combat this trend by hiring external tutoring and counseling, being proactive and finding opportunities for students through their network and online, and generally watching deadlines and stepping back to make a plan before the school year stars. This does sound stressful, but it is worth it. Creating a framework for high school is important, but overloading a student with deadlines and timelines can be overwhelming as well. It is about identifying your values first, then your goals, and finally how you will achieve these goals in discrete steps.

Private schools often have lower ratios, but that means that all private school students have more access to guidance counselors. The sheer number of applicants to the Top 70 universities in the United States points to the fact that the extracurricular standard is higher for private school students. Regional admissions officers know all of these nuances and account for them when reviewing applications.
In the end, the choice between public and private high school is a personal one. You must look at your value system and how much you value the convenience of having resources in one place. In terms of admission, the Ivy League schools and others are able to standardize the admissions process through regional admissions officers, unweighted GPA, and other measures. In our opinion, and those of many universities, going to private school does not automatically increase a student's chances of admissions - the challenges become different instead. Instead of focusing on joining a few school clubs, students must stand out in out-of-school activities from their peers who are also focused.

In either scenario, students and parents should find analogous activities that complement their extracurricular story. At Synocate, we are building a searchable database of past summer activities and school year activities that is crowdsourced by our past students and those willing to help the next generation of high school students. Other ways to find activities include looking in the local newspaper, asking friends or fellow parents, and asking your school counselor or teachers for more resources.

In the end, the story and the strength of an application is about the individual. It is about the student. And it is not a test, just a measure of where they are at that point in time. Students change, so colleges are instead looking for dynamic individuals that are open-minded, capable of learning, and able to contribute back to their community. These traits can be show at either a private or public school.