When you start looking into boarding school, it’s hard to find an unbiased opinion. The websites show students decked in school colors as they cheer on teams, alums tell stories about the good old days, and pop culture suggests that it’s either like a college you get to leave for sooner or a prison to which your parents willingly send you. ‘
I am a boarding school alumna with extremely mixed feelings about my experience because it didn’t provide some things I expected but did provide others that I couldn’t have found anywhere else. Here’s what I wish I’d known when making my decision.
Good reasons to go to boarding school
- The teachers: Boarding schools usually require teachers to offer extra help, coach a sport and run a dorm. It’s truly a full-time job, and therefore you rarely find a teacher who isn’t truly passionate and engaged.
- The large pond: Like the teachers, the students in a boarding school are likely to be more passionate and engaged. If you can let the competition drive you and the opportunities inspire you, you will accomplish more than you would in a less intense place.
- The discipline: When you have to do your own housekeeping, manage your own study schedule, balance academics with athletics and extracurriculars, and comply with the rules such as curfew and lights out, you learn how to manage time, a skill that will be invaluable in college and beyond.
- The initiative: When no one’s parents are on the PTA, there’s significantly less favoritism. And when your parents can’t help you with assignments or dispute a bad grade for you, you learn to. Colleges want to know who you are, and being away from your parents helps you to learn that.
- The ties: Your friendships with people you lived with in adolescence are sibling-like. The common (slightly weird) experience binds you to people you wouldn’t expect. The lasting camaraderie generates strong ties with alumni and classmates.
Bad reasons to go to boarding school
- School spirit: If the school has a lot of local boarders, most of them might go home at the weekend, taking away from the common social experience. Most students only really follow school sports when a team is doing well – and the enthusiasm for girls’ teams is always lower.
- The "Ivy Channel" and advising: Colleges have higher expectations for students who went to fancy schools with lots of opportunities. They also often limit the number of students they will take from any one school. That means that if you go to a school for ambitious kids, you will have more competition. Going to boarding school will probably increase your chances of going to a good school provided that you take advantage of the opportunities, but you might lower your chances at the top school of your choice.
- The diversity and even playing field: Even if the numbers reflect diversity, the student body tends to be governed – both officially and unofficially – by the white, male and wealthy. Sadly, money talks no matter where you are and many schools operate on a philosophy that hierarchies preserve order, turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment so long as it does not become a liability.
- Behavioral correction: It may seem like boarding school could provide a good environment for breaking bad habits. But many students take risks with substances and other rule breaking in boarding school. In fact, most schools have an underground culture where students know who to buy from and which teachers will look away. And if you’re caught, the consequences are often much more dire. Many schools have a one-strike policy in which you might get kicked out immediately with no chance of a refund.
- Your relative went there and loved it: When the environment is as small as most boarding schools, things can change drastically year by year based on what admissions are looking for in a student, what the school is investing in and who is teaching there. Your cousin’s dream school could have become a poor fit for you in the five years since he graduated.
Before making a decision to attend, I recommend being honest about your reasons for wanting to in the first place, and, if possible, speaking to a current student unaffiliated with the admissions office or any team or program that may be recruiting you. And if you attend, in all likelihood, there will be both disappointments and surprises that change your life – you are there to prepare for life, after all.