All Aboard! Should You Join the Rush to Boarding School?

Anxious parents are frequently seen in our offices at this time of year.  The beginning of a new school year often brings fresh questions about the excellence of our Shanghai International schools in terms of teacher quality, course offerings and college admissions.  Boarding school is often looked at as a panacea against the concerns that parents have about school outside of their primary country. Parental concern is increasing as college admissions, including admissions to top colleges and universities grow ever more competitive, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. The purpose of this article is to set the record straight in terms of what Boarding Schools are really all about and what they may offer to students and their families.

We begin by dispelling the basic misperception that drives many parents to consider boarding school in the first place: the belief that admissions to a top boarding school will guarantee admissions to an ivy league university.  The truth of the matter is that admissions to any of the top 20 colleges and universities is largely dependent on the academic success and personal factors of the individual student, not the name of the school that a student comes from.  This holds true whether the student attends a public school with few resources, an international school or a top boarding school. Moreover, colleges and universities seek to admit a broad range of diverse students and regardless of what kind of High School they have come from, colleges look to bring in students who have made the very most of their secondary school experience and seek evidence of this in their applications.

Now that we have established that boarding school is not THE BEST PATH, we will assert another truth: There is NO SINGLE BEST PATH to college.   The best way to ensure that your child will be accepted into the university of his or her choice is to have them attend the best fit high school for them, encourage them to make the most out of their high school experience and do their academic best.

Boarding school then, is just one of a number of possible excellent choices for your child’s secondary education and the decision to send your child to boarding school should not be taken lightly.  So how might one decide whether or not a child would really benefit from attending boarding school?  We strongly recommend that the process begin with a rational assessment of your child’s current school.  If your child is currently attending foreign international school in Shanghai or Beijing, there is a great likelihood that the breadth of courses offered is comparable to a good number of boarding schools.  Foreign international schools also offer a good number of clubs and activities covering a wide enough range of interests to appeal to most students. Moreover, schools in these locations are filled with a good number of bright and ambitious students, which results in good classroom discussions and a sense of competition. Also, many of these schools can boast of a reasonable number of admissions to a range of foreign universities and colleges, including those considered to be among the most desirable.  Given that the key components for education and college admissions are well covered, why might a family consider sending a child to one of the 400 boarding schools located in the UK, the 400 in the  USA, the 100 in Australia or the handful in Singapore? (boarding schools are schools where more than 50% of the student population lives on campus)

While the reasons for sending a child away to school are highly personal and varied, some of the key considerations for international families who may be considering boarding school are as follows:

Quality and Consistency of Teaching staff: The majority of boarding school teachers have advanced degrees in their subjects or in general education.  Also, a vast many of boarding school teachers are vested in the communities they live in and move infrequently, therefore improving the chances that the teacher your child cultivates a relationship with in 10th grade will be there to write their letter of recommendation for their college application. That being said, boarding school is not a guarantee that your child will like all of his or her teachers, nor that they will suddenly perform well in classes in which they previously did not shine.

Breadth and Depth of course offerings: Many, but NOT all college preparatory boarding schools offer great breath and depth of courses in all of the key academic areas. The numbers and depth of courses available in some boarding school English, history or arts departments rivals that of some small colleges.  Others have impressive curriculums developed around subjects such as oceanography and environmental science or offer top-notch studio art, theater or music programs.  This is of particular relevance to students whose interests or level of expertise require more than schools can offer here in China.

Outstanding facilities: While many international schools offer good facilities in terms of theatre, music and athletics, overseas boarding school facilities are often outstanding.  In addition to large expanses of private land, boarding schools often boast top quality laboratories, athletic buildings and art facilities.  Additionally, boarding school facilities can give students the ability to learn or compete in sports such as Tennis, Soccer, American football, Rugby, Cricket or crew (rowing) at a significantly higher level than what is available in China.

Stability: One of the harder things for many international students to deal with is the constant attrition of dear friends whose families are called to move away long before high school graduation.  Boarding school students generally stay on through to graduation, thus the opportunity for intense and close friendships are one of the benefits of attending. Boarding school can also be an excellent option to provide consistency of High School education for students whose families are required to move frequently.

Independence: While boarding school students generally enjoy close relationships with their teachers and advisors, they are fully responsible for managing their own schedules, deciding their own activities and keeping their living spaces livable.  This offers considerable more independence than many international school students have at home, especially in China where their ayis, drivers and parents can sometimes make life too easy and impair the development of adolescent independence.  Boarding school students are generally well prepared for the independence of college and spared the shock that many international students suffer during the first term of university.

Country Specific College Admissions expertise: Boarding schools generally offer excellent and personalized university admissions advice specific to the country in which they are located.  Admissions to outside countries however may largely be lacking so parents should carefully consider in which country they wish their child to attend university and focus on boarding schools in that location.  Also, parents should note that having a strong college admissions staff at school does not and should not replace their role and input as parents.

Despite the apparent positive aspects of boarding school, parents would be wise to consider the following:

Colleges and universities seek to admit students who have made the most out of their high school experience.  The question asked in college admission offices will be “Did you push yourself to take advantage of all that was available to you?” It would follow that the more that is available to students, the more they are expected to have taken advantage of.  Also, the top colleges and universities, particularly those in the USA and UK, largely limit admissions to the top 10% of the senior year class.  Parents should carefully consider the type of environment and support their student needs in order to perform at his or her very best. The value of support and discipline that comes simply from living at home should not be discounted, moreover, it is not a good idea to send a child away to school who clearly does not want to go as they are less likely to thrive…

After all, the primary questions colleges ask applicants are: What did you do? and how well did you do it? not, where did you attend high school?

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Tess Robinson