You have seen the articles in major publications such as Forbes and Chicago Magazine. "Top 10 Prep Schools" or "Best Private Schools in ____" These lists invariably contain the names of schools which are familiar. But are these schools the right ones for you? Let me explain why I believe that ranking private schools makes no sense for parents like us who are looking for the right school for our children.
A flawed premise
Ranking private schools is intrinsically flawed from get go. Why? Because each private school is a unique entity. The essence of being a private school is that it does its own thing. It accepts the students it wants to accept. It teaches the curriculum it wants to teach. It teaches that curriculum the way it wants to teach. Each private school has its own mission statement, philosophy, code of conduct, programs and traditions. So how is it possible to compare apples to oranges? That is essentially what ranking private schools attempts to do.
For example, look at all the features of Shattuck-St. Mary's. Maybe another school has some of the same features. Maybe it doesn't. It is up to you to determine what you expect from a private school.
Yes, you can compare things like the number of AP courses, varsity sports, extracurricular activities and so on. But you normally will make those comparisons when you are developing a short list of schools which meet your requirements. You see, schools which meet your requirements are the only ones which matter. Those articles ranking schools are not relevant to what you need to do, namely, to find a school in which your child will be happy and which meets your requirements.
Schools not on a top ten list are not second rate.
Schools which don't appear on those top ten lists put out by the media are not second-rate. Far from it. The secret to finding the right school is too organize your search for schools carefully. Ask yourself what really matters. Put those requirements on a list and review as many schools as you want to based on those requirements. The review process is something you can do online at your own pace. Here are the steps to follow. Think of these steps as filters and you will understand how they work to help you refine your search for schools which meet all your requirements.
Start with location.
Location will define your search significantly. If your ideal school must be within commuting distance of your home, that pretty much limits your options. On the other hand, if you are thinking of boarding school, decide how far away you want the school to be. Again, that will help limit your options. In both cases you put a pin on the map and draw a circle. That circle can have a radius of 5 miles or 500 miles. You need to make that decision before you move on to step 2. By the way, are you beginning to see why ranks don't matter?
Compare schools according to your requirements.
Make lists of schools within your location circle. Review their web sites. Watch their videos. Check out their Facebook pages. Did you find any which offer the academic subjects, sports and extracurricular activities you feel are essential for your child? Put those schools on another shorter list.
Video tours of schools will help you make that first cut.
See how ranking has nothing to do with this process? This is all about you. It's like buying a house. There are lots of houses out there. But the one you end up buying has that specific combination of characteristics which only you really want and cannot live without. Same thing with private schools. There are schools which have some of the things you want for your child. And other schools which have just about everything.
Use your list of requirements to filter out schools which do not meet your requirements. Weed out any schools which are not good matches for basic reasons such as religious orientation and educational philosophy. You should now be able to produce a short list of 3-5 schools within your original location circle. And you did that without concerning yourself about ranks, didn't you?
Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. Let's say that you live in Boston. The number of day and boarding school options facing you is daunting, to say the least. Your location circle will fill up with dozens, even hundreds of schools, depending on how wide a circle you draw. But stick to your list of requirements. Eliminate any school which doesn't offer the programs and other attributes you feel are 'must haves'. That should leave you with a workable short list of schools. Workable in the sense that the list has 8-10 schools. You really don't want more than that as that is too many schools to check out in detail.
Maggie Lloyd of TopTest Prep explains what makes certain schools competitive.
Did you notice one or two very competitive schools on your list? They are probably also on one of those beauty contest lists the media loves to create. Schools like Andover and Exeter are simply the best by any measure. Unfortunately they have so many more applicants than available places that they will probably be a real reach for your child. This is where that professional known as the educational consultant comes in. You need her expertise if you truly want to try to get your kid into one of those very competitive schools. She will tell you if it is worth applying. Or not. You may not like her answer. But at least you will have a very good idea of your chances. Again, none of this has anything to do with ranks. It has to do with demographics, location and your requirements, doesn't it?
Your requirements trump everything else.
The final argument I have against ranking schools is all about you. Your opinion. Your judgement. Your confidence. What does it matter if a school is in the top ten on some journalist's list but has none of the attributes your child and you need? You know what matters to you and your child. Your judgement has shaped your core beliefs over many years. You are confident in your choices because you know what is right for your child. That has absolutely nothing to do with ranks.
Read those top ten prep school lists. They will give you ideas and talking points. But ranking private schools is a beauty contest which is irrelevant in your search for the right private school for your child.