What It's Like to go to Phillips Exeter Academy, the "Best Boarding School in America."
Somehow, it's been ten years since I graduated from my high school, Phillips Exeter Academy. And I just returned from my ten-year reunion. Which was fabulous and amazing and looked something like this:
Getting ready for an "Emerging Self" Harkness discussion in Mr. Weatherspoon's class.
Revisiting our amazing, beautiful library. Wonder what ever happened to CinemExeter...
Oh, and there was a little bit of this:
And even some of this:
There were several moments when time stopped and my heart skipped a beat and I thought to myself, "Why is this place so perfect?"
Which made me think it was time to re-post a thing I wrote for Slate back in 2013. You know -- before it was cool to write article after article after article about how prestigious and awesome and "elite" Exeter is. Here it is -- enjoy!
I attended Phillips Exeter Academy from 2001-2005.
I did not know when I applied—nor, indeed, until I was on the bus from the Boston Airport to PEA—about the 8 a.m.-6 p.m. class schedule. I don't think I even really understood about Saturday classes, either. So that was a bit of a surprise.
But once classes started, I didn't really mind either of those things. Classes were awesome. We weren't lectured at. We weren't expected to spend hours memorizing facts and completing busywork. Classes were about thinking and communicating—and what could be more important than that? Everything was discussion-based, and we were expected to learn as much from our classmates as from our teacher.
And I think this is one of the major ways in which elite schools differ from honors programs in public schools. A lot of "honors programs" are the same as the normal program ... you just read the books twice as fast. This is not an engaging way to learn. This doesn't teach you how to think—just speed read and memorize. (And don't even get me started on APs -- which, as I wrote in a recent post, make you look complacent, not curious. Kids at Exeter don't really take AP classes or exams. We didn't understand the point.)
Part of the problem is that most teachers aren't trained to work with gifted youth. And most public schools don't have the resources to provide the richest possible experience to them.
But top boarding schools tend to have experienced teachers, large endowments, and generous alumni. The year I started at Exeter, a brand new, $40 million science building opened. In it, we had an aquarium, touch pools, a humpback whale skeleton, and all kinds of lasers and electronics and chemicals and gadgets to make learning awesome.
Our campus also featured the world's largest secondary school library, with over 100,000 volumes. If, somehow, the book/movie/journal you needed wasn't there, you'd just tell the librarians, and they'd order it for you. We had a nutritionist, free and confidential mental health services, a wonderful music program, and about a billion languages to choose from. These opportunities (and many, many others) are hard to come by elsewhere.
In spite of all that, one of the best and most beloved resources is the classmates. Think of it this way. There are a ton of really bright 13-year-olds in the world. And a lot of them end up going to college and doing great things.
But how many of those kids are so driven and so excited about learning that they can't wait until they're 18 to begin their journey? That they take the SSATs, get 4-5 teacher recommendations, fill out a very comprehensive application, submit their transcripts, and attend either an on-campus or alumni interview? Because they want a bigger challenge? When they're 13?
They are some of the most intriguing and least complacent people I've ever met—and that's awesome. It's wonderful to be around peers who want everything. Especially in a world where so many people are passive recipients of life.
At Exeter, your classmates inspire you, and you form really special bonds with them. You all start out in the same boat—you're there, at this school, 14 years old and (semi) on your own. You live together, study together, play sports together, and eat every meal together. You get up at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday to eat breakfast and go to Latin class together. You get really close, really fast.
It's a special kind of relationship I haven't really witnessed anywhere else. And yet, some of your favorite friendships are with your teachers—many of whom are qualified to teach at a college or university, but who chose, instead, to work closely with a special group of kids at a truly magical place.
One of the most wonderful math teachers and volleyball coaches of all time.
In the old days, they used to say, "Exeter is not a warm nest." But things have changed—Exeter is a very warm nest. If you ever need help on an assignment, your dorm is full of older students who have taken the class and can point you in the right direction. If you do badly on a test, the teacher will invite you to breakfast in her home to bring you up to speed and talk about what you can do differently next time.
As recently as 20 years ago, many boarding schools didn't have as much Internet as they do now. They had one phone per dorm, and students would call home once a week. But today, there is Internet in every building. There is one phone line per person per dorm room (in addition to the cell phones almost every student carries). It's very cheap and easy to stay in touch with your family—and even if it weren't, you'd probably be too busy to miss them, anyway.
Finally, there is a common misconception that people who go to boarding school are rich snobs. This is not so. Apparently money used to be big, and need-based scholarships used to be stigmatizing. But today, most of the top schools are either need blind, or offer generous financial aid packages to their middle- and low-income students. When I went to Exeter, something like 35 percent of us were on some form of financial aid. Today, that number is closer to 50 percent.
In fact, Phillips Exeter Academy is free to those with need. As of 2007, any student whose family makes $75,000 or less attends the academy for FREE. (Normal tuition, room, board and mandatory fees total about $46,900/year.) Moreover, the admissions office spends a lot of time and money recruiting students from rural and inner city areas. This all makes Exeter a more diverse experience.
I can't speak highly enough of my experience at Exeter. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask.
7/21/2016 03:23:06 am
I was accepted into PEA as a new lower, and I'm a little worried. I was wondering if after a year of getting to know each other so well, will the rest of my class already be best buddies and not have room in their friend groups for anyone else? I'm coming from a public school that is basically the epitome of the Mean Girls stereotype. I'm hoping that kids at Exeter will be different, and open to new students. What was it like for you when you had 50 new students enter your class Lower year? Did you end up being close friends with any of them?
7/21/2016 08:48:44 am
Congratulations! I'm super excited for you -- Exeter is one of the most magical places in the world :)
11/2/2016 05:05:22 am
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12/31/2016 05:35:48 am
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2/24/2019 12:45:33 pm
2/25/2019 08:34:52 pm
6/17/2019 06:59:10 am
Hi Eva, Thanks so much for this. We are thinking about Exeter (and other similar schools like Groton) for our son for next year. He is super smart and incredibly passionate about learning, and our town has hardly any options. BUT he's also quite shy and not part of the social "scene" at his middle school here, never has been. He always says it's because he can't find kids here with his interests. But do you think you need to be a very outgoing super-socialized kid to do well in boarding school? One always hears the social world, sex world, there etc. is VERY intense. Do you think a shyer kid (very sweet, funny, again super smart, but also bad at sports, not very into pop culture, etc.) could do OK there, or would he be eaten alive? Thanks so much!
6/18/2019 02:22:17 pm
Exeter would be a strange place if the only people they accepted were extremely extroverted. The student body is made up of students of all personalities and interests, from all over the world. I remember two students who were extremely shy and only ever seemed to speak to each other... and I think we were all a little jealous of their intense personal and intellectual bond. The other thing is, there are a ton of opportunities to learn and get involved in sports, service, and more -- and a lot of clubs and team come with their own built-in social network. Then there's the dorms. He'll have a roommate, floormates, and dormmates, and each dorm and house has activities meant to help students get to know each other. Even if he's super shy, I think he'll meet plenty of people. I spent four years at Exeter without ever attending a single dance.
5/13/2020 03:13:30 pm
7/6/2020 02:35:39 pm
Everyone at Exeter is EXTREMELY talented at something. "Earth shaking merits"? Sometimes! Here's the thing. While not everyone who's qualified to thrive at Exeter gets accepted, NO ONE gets in by accident. That means if you get in, you've earned your spot, and you belong!
7/6/2020 01:06:12 pm
Hey there! I was considering applying to PEA. I’m in seventh grade. What should I do to prepare for the application process? I was also a little worried about the workload. I’ve heard from a lot of alumni that the amount of work is overbearing. Thanks!
7/6/2020 02:40:03 pm
Don't worry about the workload. It's heavy, but you'll figure out a way to get it done! If you get in, they'll WANT you to succeed, meaning everyone's door -- your older dormmates', your teachers', your advisors' -- is always open. Some nights, you'll end up getting less sleep than others, but you'll manage -- ESPECIALLY if you can turn off all your social media and other notifications and distractions while you're working. Research shows today's teenagers spend more time SITTING in front of their homework than previous generations... but you actually spend less time DOING the homework. Develop good study skills and you'll have a better time at Exeter.
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