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Public high school vs. private: Does it affect college options?

Does going to a public school hurt your chances of getting into an Ivy League college compared to your private school peers? Not at all, however, it helps to know a few tips to help sway the odds in your favor.

Student studying at university |

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We spoke with an expert college counselor who gave us the scoop on how to make your college application stand out in a private school crowd.

Good news, parents! You don’t have to send your children to an expensive private high school for them to get into that Ivy League college they have their heart set on. Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors, said that private school students often have more access to a school counselor compared to their public school peers, who many times have only one counselor for an average of 471 students.

So how can public school kids compete with private school kids? “Getting into the school of your dreams comes from understanding the admissions process and committing yourself to maximizing your academic and extracurricular opportunities,” says Heller, author of From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources.” Just knowing how to write an essay, when to apply for admission, how to act in an interview and more can make the difference between admission and rejection. As with most things, knowledge is power.”

When should kids start the admissions process for colleges?

Heller says that with most public schools, college guidance does not begin until the junior year — but if your child wants to attend an Ivy League school they should start as early as ninth grade.

“Starting early enables students to manage their time wisely, familiarize themselves with standardized tests, get involved in extracurricular activities, find meaningful summer opportunities, determine if they need an independent college advisor and familiarize themselves with different college options,” Heller explains.

How many colleges should kids apply to?

Although many parents remember only applying to one or two colleges back in the day, Heller suggests that today’s kids apply to more colleges so they have plenty of options.

“We usually recommend that students apply to at least nine schools — three reach, three reasonable, and three safety schools,” she says. “Every college applicant needs a contingency plan. Not only does it cover more bases, but you’ll have more bargaining power if you decide to negotiate your financial offer with your choice school.”

Does applying to that many colleges sound tedious? Heller says that The Common Application allows students to apply to hundreds of participating schools all in one place.

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What is more important: Grades or ACT/SAT test scores?

You may be surprised to find out that while standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are important, they aren’t the most important factor colleges are looking at.

“The majority of admissions officers consistently place the greatest weight on the strength of a student’s high school curriculum in the decision-making process,” says Heller. “Colleges notice whether you took the most rigorous classes available to you or whether you opted for an easier route. Grades in the challenging classes are runner-up in importance. SAT and ACT scores usually rank third in importance.”

What is the best way to increase standardized test scores?

Most colleges do require students to take the SAT or ACT for their college admission — and Heller says it is never too early to start studying and preparing for the test.

“There are many different types of test prep materials from crosswords and games to flash cards, rock songs, phone apps and traditional study guides. We’ve had many students use resources on their own and do very well, and many students who needed the guidance of prep courses,” she said. “We recommend that students check out all the options that exist and find the one that works best for them.”

There are some classes to help you prepare for the test, however, Heller recommends checking out high school prep courses or community-based organizations that have free or discounted prep programs. “If a student has access to an SAT/ACT prep course, we recommend that they take them.”

How can kids make their application stand out?

How can a student that went to a public school make his or her application stand out in a stack full of private prep school students’ applications? Heller says an eye-catching essay combined with good grades is a great start.

“A good application tells a story. The student’s transcript should show that the student took challenging classes and excelled in them. The student’s extracurricular activities should show commitments to particular activities and leadership roles. The essays should reveal information about the student — achievements, obstacles, goals, passions, personality and character and how that student would be a good fit for a school,” she says. “Letters of recommendation should speak highly of the student’s work ethic, commitment and personality.”

My grades aren’t great. What options do I have?

What should students do whose grades aren’t great or are just average? Heller says there are still plenty of options to help them get into a good college.

“As previously mentioned, strength of curriculum, grades and standardized test scores are usually the most important factors on a college application; everything else is secondary,” Heller says. “There are some colleges that don’t require standardized tests, but they weigh more importance on grades. A student should look at schools where he/she may be an underrepresented applicant; have an out-of-state status; be a legacy; or be able to provide a special talent like art, music or athletics. A student’s best bet is to show a college he/she belongs there and wants to be there by doing homework about the school and sharing knowledge in essays and interviews.”

Heller says another great option is to start off at a two-year college, where students can show their dedication and good grades, and then transfer into that ideal college of choice.

“Real world” jobs vs. internships

“Many college applications now ask for your ‘paid employment’ experiences,” says Heller. “A challenging and educational internship that gives you practical, real work experience can look as good on your college application as attending a prestigious summer school. Admissions officers at several elite schools say they are giving more credit to students who have real-world jobs and less to students who have taken on ‘meaningful’ activities that often say ‘résumé padding.'”

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What about Advanced Placement (AP) classes?

Heller says if you are a strong student, then you should take AP courses or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes because colleges like to see them on applications and it shows that you’ve challenged yourself academically.

“We recommend you take high school classes one level above your comfort level,” she says. If you take AP calculus and get a C, it may not be as good as an A in a slightly easier class. Students should take the most rigorous curriculum they can handle and do well in those classes.”

Where is the best place to find scholarships?

Heller says there are many options to find scholarships and they are available from a variety of sources, such as the federal government, state governments and private sources such as employers, corporations, professional associations, educational institutions and more.

“Several free scholarship databases are available online, offering millions of different scholarships worth billions of dollars. Some of the more well-known sites include, and”

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