Public or Private School?

Question: My daughters are pre-teens and currently attend a very good private school. They also pursue many activities outside of school. My sister commented that I am going to burn them out. She feels that to better their chances of getting into a top university, I should move them to public school. Should I?

You're really dealing with two separate but perhaps overlapping issues.

First of all, there's the private school versus public school issue. While this may sound like a cop-out response, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Some private schools, for instance, do have strong relations with particular elite colleges, and thus a highly-recommended candidate from that school may be looked on quite favorably at decision time. On the other hand, the top private high schools often send dozens of applicants to the same handful of Ivy League and equivalent colleges, so it can be very hard to stand out in the crowd. Some private-school students who have been turned down by their first-choice colleges have been convinced that they would have fared better coming from public school, where they may have graduated first or second in the class.

In addition, the size and nature of the public school in question is important, as is the student/school match. Some teenagers thrive in a big, bustling school community while others need the more nurturing environment of a small private school.

However, contrary to popular belief, admission officials do not favor private-school applicants. Some, in fact, harbor subtle prejudices towards candidates whom they feel have had special advantages in life. Nonetheless, savvy admission directors also know that the top private schools are good "feeders" for them, and they have to keep the counseling directors at these places happy so that there isn't a stampede of candidates to their competition.

The other issue that your question raises is burn out. Sometimes I want to throw my hands in the air and cry, "What are we doing to our children?" Even pre-teens today feel pressure to play on sports teams that practice nearly every day year round, to take the hardest classes offered at their schools and then extra enrichment courses outside of it. When one reads about the many high achievers who are turned away by the most competitive colleges every spring, it's no wonder that parents--and students, too--feel that the only way to have a chance at a dream college is to do even more.

Thus, overstressed, anxious kids can be the product of both public and private schools. Depending on where you live, the competition at the upper levels in your local public high school can be as bad--or worse--than at a private school.

While all children will, to some degree, whine about the work involved in both their school and out-of-school pursuits, it's important to keep an eye out to determine if they're truly experiencing an overload and not just looking for more time with the telephone, TV, or Internet (though most every kid needs some of that, too).

Only you and your daughters can assess whether their level of academic pressure and extracurricular involvement is right for them--or too much. However, don't assume that, if it's the latter, then a switch to a new school will be a silver-bullet solution.