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When "only the best" backfires

Why the most competitive high school may not be right for your teen.

By Carol Lloyd

When my brother sat down with his 13-year-old to decide which high school she would attend, they followed a simple rule: She should enroll in the best possible high school she could gain admission to.

Makes sense, right? Well, at the time I thought so too. After filling out all the applications, it seemed my niece had won the equivalent of the high school lottery. She'd been accepted into one of the most competitive, top-performing high schools in the country. On top of that, it was public and therefore free!

Most parents would agree that the best school means the best thing for their children. Yet somewhere in the translation, the concept of “best” has become synonymous with “competitive.” Competitive schools generally hold their students to high standards, which research shows has a huge impact on student achievement. But these schools can also subject students to a cutthroat atmosphere that inhibits learning.

Take my niece, for example. She’s artistic, athletic, smart, and curious. Yet there was little room for exploration at her high school since every aspect of school life — from trying out for sports teams to helping with props for the theater — involved a competition to participate in a given activity. It wasn’t that the school was filled with mean, competitive people. It was just that, like at many public schools, resources were limited, and these multi-talented, achievement-oriented kids all wanted to do everything!

When it comes to applying for colleges, parents and kids discover that choosing a school because of its competitiveness can backfire. Jay Mathews, an education columnist for the Washington Post, recently reminded readers that research shows that “the more brilliant the student body of the high school your child attends, the more likely he or she will lose out in the competition for the most prestigious colleges.” Why? Because choosy universities are trying to balance their rolls: They don’t want too many students coming from a single school.

Highly competitive high schools can make it hard for students to get into large public universities as well as Ivy Leagues — an important financial factor for many families who can’t afford out-of-state or private tuition. My niece excelled in high school but didn't graduate at the top of her class. Because she wasn't in the top 10%, she didn't make the cutoff for gaining admission to one of the University of California schools. (The University of California recently announced new policies, going into effect in 2012, that weigh test scores, Advanced Placement classes, and class ranking. Other public universities have similar top-of-the-class admissions policies: The University of Texas admits the top 10%, while Florida universities admit the top 20%.)

In the end my niece gained admission to a UC school after a professor spotted her at a biology competition and actively recruited her. But I always wonder, had she gone to the second-best high school in our metropolitan area, would she have had more opportunities to learn and find mentors? Would she have been able to get into more colleges?

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

11/17/2011:
"I like small school's more safe more one to one "
03/7/2011:
"We made a similar mistake sending our daughter to an all girls private school on the main line. The girls at the school are very cut throat and the teachers make it impossible to to get A's. He self esteem has deteriorated and she no longer believes she is capable of getting an A. "
01/25/2011:
"There are about 150 most highly selective colleges in the universities in the U.S. The other 4,000 or so Colleges and universities range from highly selective to open admissions. There may be several hundred colleges and universities that use class rank in their admissions decisions the rest do not. I have been a chief admissions officer at a highly selective liberal arts college, a state supported research university, two comprehensive universities, and a specialty school(visual arts). What most colleges and universities are looking for in the admissions process are good grades in challenging college prepartory courses, above average test scores, the ability to express yourself in standard written English (it is why we ask for an essay), good citizenship in their school and community and participation in life activities (sports, volunteer work, the arts, work etc.). Most high schools that are not 'failing schools' can offer students the opportunity to prepare for college. J! ust like college the high school with the best reputation or the one that is the most competetive might not be the best 'fit' for your child. The student 'institution fit' is crucial for both high school and college. Life is too short to be miserable in a high school you don't like just because you think that it will get you into one of those 150 mostly highly selective colleges. Look at corporate rosters, college faculty credentials, political leaders bios and you will find that just as many of our nations leaders come from colleges and universities that are not the most highly selective but that did provide that individual the 'fit' they needed to 'shine' in college and beyond. I have spent 37 years in college admissions and financial aid and this is what I believe based upon my experiences."
01/24/2011:
"Interesting article but we chose schools where we thought our daughters would get the best education and be prepared for college and it would be a good fit for them. It turned out it was different for middle school, but the same high school. No my oldest was not at the top of her class but she was well prepared for college and learned a lot. Education, not grades should be the goal here I think. She got scholarships to the #1 women's catholic college in the nation-small, private, catholic and a good fit for her. Her sister is in the top 10th of her class at the same high school and a stellar athlete, but again getting a great education and will be well prepared for college - maybe Stanford for her. "
01/24/2011:
"I don't think the idea of going for the best high-school is wrong. I believe that the UNIVERSITY ADMISSION POLICIES are wrong. Each candidate should be judged only against the rest of the candidates regardless of any local ranking which could be extremely arbitrary. They should know better how to come up with a scientific way of selecting students based on absolute achievements and not on local rankings which don't mean anything."
01/24/2011:
"What a timely article! We're trying to decide a reasonably priced area in which to move that also offers a good enough, safe High school for our 6th grader. Why is this such a challenging task! This article was helpful though and may relieve some if the pressure."
01/24/2011:
"With two kids in high school and another in 8th grade, I think about this most of my waking day. With this #3 child, who is a grade ahead for his age and not very big, we are worried about him making the sports teams of his choice. So, we are opting for a small private school that has a no-cut policy. This means that he can play JV until he gets bigger. We really want him to have the time to grow into himself. It doesn't hurt that his older brother will be graduating from this school and his older sister has been there for two years. It is a small school, making it easier for both of my older children to be at the top of their respective classes. It also makes it easier for them to be at the top of their athletic teams. My older son has applied and is receiving great feedback from several Ivy League schools as well as a few top public universities."
01/24/2011:
"We moved our son in high school and had a similar experience. The school we had left was not a top rated school, but had significantly more opportunities to be involved. That meant that our son could get a part in a play without having to be stage crew for two years first. Also, he could play the viola and have it matter to the orchestra if he decided to quit. It meant there were several more opportunities to learn responsibility, and each person mattered just a little bit more when you didn't have ten others wanting to take your place. "
01/24/2011:
"My daughter attended magnet schools offered in middle school and the first year of high school. We relocated and chose to enroll her in the regular high school. My daughter thrived -- took all honors classes and graduated Salutatorian, was a National Merit Scholar Finalist, Presidential Scholar nominee(for getting near perfect SATs), accepted to all schools applied including two Ivys and two combined Medical school programs. She will be graduating next year from Med school. It was a great choice to attend the neighborhood public high school."
12/21/2010:
"To me, the best high school is one where my child can be near the top in class rank if she applies herself but not so far up that she's not being challenged. Also, it's important that she be surrounded by other kids who are 'going places' and interested in achievement. I had most of that in my school but culturally it was the type of place where most kids stayed local or at least in state. As a result, I ended up staying local (going to a fairly good college practically for free after scholarships). I've always wondered where I'd be if I had gone to one of the nation's elite universities instead."
05/13/2010:
"This is the exact same situation my daughter is in. She is presently in her second year at an all girls private high school in nothern New Jersey. The girls are cut throat, its hard to get into honors even though she was an A student entering the school, athletics are so competitive unless recruited you wont play much. I sent an outgoing, confident, intelligent young lady to this school and now she is miserable. We made a huge mistake. We were told the reputation of the school will get her somewhere in the future but it is breaking her spirit to stay. "
01/4/2010:
"Thank you so much for this, I'm either 3rd or 4th in my class of 220 students but it's not exactly the best school in the state so I was concerned that colleges might just pass over me because I didn't go to a great school, this reassured me immensely. Thank you!"
11/17/2009:
"after feeling led down a dark alley with a 'best' school, that had no accountability, and where all were after the top at any price, kids and teachers alike...now I want somewhere my own safe kids with needed enrichment at home can find a place more likely to value persons over reputation, and reinforce a decent purpose for excellence."
11/6/2009:
"Thank you for the insightful article. My husband and I are having a hard time deciding which school to enroll our 4 year old daughter. the old adage 'public vs. private' is giving us a headache. But your article put certain things in perspective for us. And we'll remember it for when we have to pick for middle school and high school. thanks."
11/3/2009:
"Wow, I was just thinking about this the other day! My daughter goes to private school, so I worry about the 'top of the class' thing. Sometimes I'm tempted to switch her back into public school. It's so hard to know what to do."
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