how to pick a high school

At this time of year, my colleagues and I begin to field a lot of questions about high school selection. “Does it matter where my student goes to high school?” “How will colleges compare High School A to High School B?” “Is it true that going to private school helps a student in the college admission process?” Whether the questions are from the younger siblings of our clients or a friendly neighbor down the street, the families are asking simply because they want to guarantee that their students start high school off on the right foot.

In all honesty, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question. Picking a high school is much more complicated than that! However, I do think there are two core pieces of information that all families should consider when they’re choosing a high school.

  1. College applicants are reviewed within the context of their high school. Admission officers do not compare students across high schools. This is because experiences, opportunities, and environment vary widely from high school to high school. Consider this: Would it be fair to “ding” a student in the application process for not taking any AP-level courses, if her high school didn’t even offer any AP courses? Of course not! College admissions officers review your application in relation to what is available at your high school, not what is available down the street. Admission officers spend a great deal of time learning about your high school and its unique offerings by visiting your school, getting to know your guidance/college counselor, and studying your high school profile. Information commonly researched by admissions officers to understand your performance within the context of your high school includes (but is not limited to!):
  • How many honors/AP courses does this high school offer and how many did this student choose to take?
  • What percentage of students from this high school goes on to college and what institutions are they attending?
  • Did the student maximize the opportunities offered at this high school?
  • Within this student’s senior class, is this student below average, average, or above average?

So, when you’re choosing a high school, keep this concept in mind—you won’t be compared to the students or experiences at the high schools you didn’t choose to go to, only to the students and experiences at the high school which you did choose to attend.

  1. The “best” high school experience is the one in which a student can personally achieve the most success. This might seem obvious to you, but think about it another way: Different students will thrive in different types of environments; picking the high school in which you will thrive the most is what will help you in the college application process. For example, some high school students may enjoy large classrooms with lecture-style teaching, where they can comfortably mull over and absorb the material. But there will also be students who flourish more in small, discussion-based classrooms, where they can jump in and participate. Another example might be choosing a school with a specialized curriculum; but if you don’t love the arts (or STEM, social justice, etc.), you probably won’t thrive in an arts-focused curriculum!

We constantly hammer away at the idea that the college choice is about finding the right “fit,” but the same is also true when choosing the right high school. When you pick your high school, think about your learning style, your motivating factors, and your interests and activities. Which of your options best meets your needs in those areas? That’s the school in which you will (most likely) be the most successful and, therefore, most set up for success when it comes to college applications!

It may go without saying, but no one high school is going to guarantee you any specific college decision outcome. If you choose to attend High School A, there is never a guarantee that you will be admitted to College B. You have to do the work to earn your admission to College B, whether it’s at High School A or High School B. So instead of considering the outputs of your high school options, consider the inputs! Where will you be happiest and the most primed for success?


Written by Abigail Anderson
Abigail Anderson is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Abigail received her bachelor’s in sociology from Colby College. Prior to joining College Coach, Abigail worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College and Emma Willard School. Visit our website to learn more about Abigail Anderson.