Thursday, January 20, 2011

Public versus Private

There is always a lot of speculation about what helps a college application most. Is it four years at a prestigious prep school? A hard-won success story from a troubled inner-city campus? A standout application from a regular public school?

The truth is that all of the above can get you into Harvard. It's not the school, it's the student. The question parents should be asking, as they look down the windy road of college prep, is where will their child perform the best?

I was a product of public schools - private was not an option - but we lived in a nice enough neighborhood, and I remember picking my high school (out of a set of four options) based on the number of AP courses they offered. In talking to a mom of a friend - who had scrimped and saved to send both her daughters to a prestigious all girl academy from 8th grade onward - I discovered she thought quite the opposite.

"I don't think my girls would have done as well at public schools," she said. "They really needed the individual attention and were able to thrive and develop there." They both ended up with multiple ivy-league acceptances and graduated from Stanford and Brown, respectively.

The net is that there is no "best" alternative, and it is never one-size-fits all. In order to make the decision, you need to understand who your child is, ultimately what it is they want.

Here's how you win at a public school:
Your child is self-motivated. He is able to make the most of any situation and does NOT need a competitive environment in order to succeed. He is more motivated by being the top student than by having a cohort of equally talented peers. He is able to create opportunities where they don't exist and stands out as someone teachers would be attracted to and want to help.
If this describes your child - or, alternately, if you are willing to put in the time to help your child fit this mold - then a normal public school may be a good fit. He would make his application stronger by demonstrating excellence even in an environment that does not naturally foster it. He would need to be proactive about creating the same types of opportunities that may exist naturally at private schools - summer internships, advanced courses, etc.

Here's how to win at a private school:
Your child thrives in competitive environments and performs best when she sees her peers setting a good example for her. She needs individual attention from educators. She does not naturally think of creating opportunties for herself, but if they are put in front of her she puts forth considerable effort towards performing well.
If this describes your child, she may get lost at a public school. A private school with an involved staff that encourages excellence and gives individual attention may help her perform better than she would otherwise.

Is it easier to get into Harvard (or some other Ivy) from a private or public school? At the end of the day it's a hard question to ask because your child will be different based on his experiences at one or the other. All things being equal, if you have the exact same track record, it is probably easier coming from an underperforming public school than a stellar private school. But the thing is, all things will never be equal.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teacher recommendations

I had a question recently about lining up college recommendations from a student planning on applying next fall.

First, let me say, this is a GREAT time to be thinking about it. An even better time would have been last year.

Teacher recs can really serve to validate your record in the eyes of the university. Good grades and a long list of extracurriculars are the basics, but the icing on the cake is having an educator put your record in some sort of perspective. Having a teacher who knows you well tell the college that you are the most dedicated debator she's ever taught, or most compassionate student body president means a lot.

How do you get a rec that really stands out?

1. Plan for it early.
It's always best to get a recommendation from somone who has known you longer. If you have the option, try to stick to the same teacher for a few years in a row. Or, take their class and also join an extracurricular they chair. Build a personal relationship with a teacher you think may be helpful as a mentor.

2. Place more emphasis on the content than the title.
Focus on what your recommenders will say rather than who they are at the school. It's better to a have a wildly enthusiastic letter from an assistant teacher than a single paragraph from your high school principal. As a rule, people you've worked with closely for longer periods of time are more likely to have wonderful things to say about you.

3. Be honest with your recommenders.
Is there something you want mentioned? Let's say you got a poor Physics grade your junior year but made up for it by studying your butt off and getting a 5 on the AP Exam. Ask your Physics teacher to address the subject of your improvement and hard work in the recommendation.

4. Do your research.
Ask around, preferably early on. Find out which teachers tend to write good recommendations. If some teachers share the recommendations with students, that's a good thing to know as well.

Bottom line: don't go scrambling at the last minute. At the start of your junior year you should have a few ideas for people to ask, by the end of it, you should have a clear list.