Preparing for College

Chances at Top Boarding Schools?

Question: I am African-American male in 8th grade, applying to boarding schools for 9th grade. I am applying to Phillips Exeter, Phillips Andover, Deerfield, Groton, Lawrenceville, and Hotchkiss. I have gotten mostly straight As on my report cards in middle school. Maybe a few B+s. I never got a bad comment. My teachers like me. I take physics/chemistry, pre-algebra, English, US History,and Spanish. I do community service. I've played football for 8 years. Lacrosse for 5. I'm on the student council.I play bass clarinet, have been in band for 5 years. I have been on honor roll for 6th and 7th grade. I was selected this year by my teacher to tutor kids in science. I've had a few interviews so far, and they have gone pretty well. My only concern is my SSAT. MY first trial ever of the SSAT was in October. I only scored in the 40th percentile. I'm taking it again in December. What are my chances of getting into any of these schools, and do you think my SSAT scores will affect my chances?

"The Dean" does not do "chances" estimates. There are too many factors that go into admission decisions to base a verdict on an "Ask the Dean" question.

However, you are aiming for a very competitive list of prep schools. If a high school senior wrote to me and said, "I have applied to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Brown, and MIT ..." my first thought would be, "Yikes! Where are the SAFETY schools?" Institutions that are as selective and sought-after as the ones you've named need to be considered "Reach" schools for nearly everyone. And your SSAT scores are currently very low for the places you've named.

As I'm sure you know, being African-American will help your admission chances because these schools seek diversity. If you are "first-generation" (your parents did not attend college) your low SSAT results won't hurt you as much as they might if your parents are educated professionals. Conversely, if your family is extremely wealthy or if a parent is some sort of VIP, this could work in your favor.

If you are a recruited athlete, your SSAT scores won't matter as much either. You mention playing football and lacrosse but you don't say whether or not you're highly talented in those sports. If you are, this could be a big factor that will help to override so-so SSAT's.

So here's what I suggest you do:

-Wait until you get your December test scores. You may see significant improvement now that you've had some practice. If not, contact admission officials at your target prep schools directly and ask how commonly students with your test scores are accepted. You'll probably get a vague answer along the lines of, “It really depends on the student. We evaluate each candidate individually." Even so, you or your parents should still press for more specific information. Explain that you are re-evaluating your school list and that you want to make sure it includes some places where you have a realistic chance. Point out that you are not asking for your OWN chances; you only want to know if students in your test range are admitted more than once in a great while.

-Consider some “safer" options, if you haven't already. This Web site will give you a rough sense of the average SSAT scores at various boarding schools: Although these schools will also accept students whose tests may be well below the figures you'll find here, the list will help you identify less selective possibilities. For instance, all of the schools you've named (except Lawrenceville) are coeducational and in New England. All have fairly mainstream student bodies (i.e., they're not known for being exceptionally left-leaning. They aren't arts schools nor do they have any other specific academic or extracurricular focus.) So you might want to consider places such as The Williston Northampton School (MA), Suffield Academy (CT), and Proctor Academy (NH) which seem to meet your preferences but that routinely admit students whose SSAT's aren't in the stratosphere. Those are just examples. There are many other schools that should welcome a student like you. Note, however, that some prep schools are "need blind," meaning that they don't take your financial aid requirements into consideration when making admission decisions. Most schools, however, are not. So if your family needs a lot of aid, that could also affect your admission outcomes.

Clearly you have many interests and abilities that you will bring to your new school community. So, if you are determined to try boarding school life next year, make sure you apply to a balanced list of options.

Good luck on your re-test and on your admission outcomes.

(posted 12/13/2012)