What really is a college prep school?
A college prep school is a high school for students ages 14-18. In theory, the goal of all high schools is to prepare pupils adequately so that students choosing to pursue university are well-equipped to succeed. However, some schools are more single-minded about this than others. The best college prep schools have the university goal embedded deeply in the school’s ethos and messaging. Some schools may call themselves a “top prep school”, but may be so in name, only.
Where can I find the best prep schools?
Top prep schools can be found in many settings. There are elite boarding schools, rigorous private day schools, top notch suburban public schools, urban charter schools and public magnet schools all hosting laudable college prep programming. While some of these schools require application and are highly selective in admission, others in fact will enroll any student. Parents are well-advised to explore further and ask some key questions.
What do best college prep schools all have in common?
First, the theme of college preparation is front and center. Look for overt messages posted in the school with phrases like “all our students go to college.” Then, there should be evidence that students are supported in the college admissions process. Here is an example from Bellevue School District outside of Seattle. At Interlake Senior High School a “college corps” of trained parent volunteers sets up shop every afternoon to assist students with applications, drafting essays and strategizing about target school selection. At International School, grades 6-12, the school counselor pioneered a “college boot camp” experience in August, helping seniors to get a jump on drafting the application essay. Finally, every high school student in Bellevue has access to “Naviance,” an online college admissions clearing house.
Evidence that the program is truly a top prep school
Be sure to review these key indicators
- What proportion of the student body attends college and to which universities are they accepted? Many schools will publish a very long list of universities. Ask if this list represents all the colleges to which the students received offers of admission or only the universities where the students ultimately elected to attend. Lists that seem impressively long may include all acceptances, not only college placements. Ask about graduation rate from university. Sadly, American high schools are notoriously poor in preparing students for successful completion of four years of university. An alarming number of American students begin college but never finish.
- Are teachers incorporating Common Core Standards into their lesson plans?
- How are students doing on the SAT and ACT exams? On the SAT subject tests? What percentage of students are taking these exams? There should be messaging around the school offering test prep and reminding of registration deadlines.
- Is the curriculum sufficiently rigorous? Top prep schools offer AP and/or IB classes. Ask about “honors” classes and find out actually about level of difficulty. Some “honors” classes permit any student to enroll. So all academic levels are represented, diluting the rigor of the course. Ask how the AP and IB classes are delivered. In some schools a hybrid class is offered. This is sub-optimal as the two curricula vary widely in their pedagogy and purpose.
- Does the school support the college-bound student? This may include a strong mentor program, college counseling staff, test prep and application preparation guidance.
Finally, the best prep school for your student will help him or her achieve his or her goals. Consider what he or she is aiming for. Colleges look for students who have challenged themselves academically. Make sure the prep school you chose offers as much scholastic rigor as your student can manage.