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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Does where you go to high school matter to colleges? Yes and no

Yes it does, but not in the way most people think.

Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

I truly enjoyed my time working as an admissions representative for the twenty-some years I was “on campus.” But . . . there were certain moments that over time started to accumulate to let me know that I was probably meant to run in a different lane. One of the most prominent moments originated innocently enough in a simple phone call.

Every so often, as an admissions officer, you would be designated as the primary point of contact for the day for visitors and phone calls. During one of these days, I received a call from a parent who was also an alumna of the college at which I worked. She wanted to know what schools would be better for her daughter to attend in order to be a more appealing candidate for my college.

Her daughter was only 4 years old.

It shook me. Still does. It came to represent to me all of the ways the process we had developed for selecting a class for our university had become instructions for reverse engineering the lives of thousands of teenagers. What courses to take, what activities to pursue, and yes, what schools to attend.

There is a loud, but shrinking, corner of our society that will insist that there are feeder schools for top universities, the same way there are feeder universities for top law schools, or financial firms that are top feeders for MBA programs. This is a worldview that relies on a grist for a kind of achievement-mill that values maximizing options and prestige at each of the major steps in life.

But it is just that - a viewpoint. And viewpoints can be analyzed and rejected.

What the numbers will tell you is that the great majority of students enrolled at top universities do not come from these prestigious high schools. For example, for the incoming class of 2019, 64% of Vanderbilt first-year students attended public high schools. A similar phenomenon exists at every single Ivy League institution. While there are certainly studies that suggest attending a wealthy high school yields many life benefits, these findings become more mixed once you control for academic achievement, socio-economic background, and many other factors known to correlate with college attendance.

What this means is that so long as a family has access to a reasonable amount of rigorous courses (IB, AP, or dual enrollment) and access to solid college coaching, you will be just fine. We realize that not everyone has access to high powered college coaching resources, and we are doing our part in addressing that.

What matters more to colleges is how a student engages with their school’s academic programs (grades and teacher/counselor recommendations), their writing ability (as demonstrated in essays and other submitted writing samples), and their community involvement. They are not holding spots for students just because they attend a certain high school; anyone telling you otherwise is selling you something. For most families, the effect size of where a student attends high school is marginal in contrast to the amount of tuition paid (which almost always comes out of college savings).

This is not to say that a college does not care where you attend high school. College admissions decisions are highly contextualized to the school environment, both academically and socially. When I was in on-campus admissions, I grew to know my assigned high schools very well, from understanding the basics of what a “good” GPA was, all the way to understanding that Mr. Kowalski is the school’s toughest grader among the Physics faculty. I also have an impressive and ever-random array of trivia of high school mascots and school colors still ingrained in my brain. It’s a blast at parties.

My former boss and mentor, and the current Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt University, John Gaines, was fond of encouraging students to “Bloom where they were planted,” conveying the very real appreciation he, and the majority of college admissions professionals have for the great and powerful diversity found in the thousands of high schools in the United States. That means that they want to understand the choices you have made in your educational journey based on the choices that were available to you in the first place.

Let’s be clear, it is tough for anyone to be admitted to the top schools, no matter what high school they attend. I realize that the effort to understand something as mysterious and shrouded as the highly subjective decision-making process at selective schools leads many to look for overly simplified rules of thumb like you need a letter of recommendation from a big name alum or you need to attend a certain high school.

The reality is, thankfully, not so simple. That selection process is holistic and designed specifically to weigh the many aspects of a student. Let’s step away from the hype and oversimplification to understand that the admissions process, as well as much of life success, rewards the accruing of hundreds of decisions and investments of time. It’s the consistent leaning into your child’s education, and the investment they make in the same, that builds up a bright future.

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