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Choosing the Right Boarding School: A Comprehensive Guide

Aerial view of Mercersburg's campus in the fall

Selecting the right boarding school is a pivotal decision for students and their families—one that can shape the trajectory of a teenager’s life. As you navigate your search, here are some criteria that may be useful in determining if a school is a good match for you.

The setting of a boarding school can greatly impact your experience. Proximity to home might be comforting for some but a distraction for others. Being near a city might be appealing because of the energy and hustle and bustle, or you may prefer the tranquility and natural beauty of a rural area. The amenities of the community where your school is located, as well as what’s available within walking or driving distance for weekend activities, should also be considered.

The number of students at a boarding school can affect your experience. For example, enrollment size may influence the number and variety of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities offered, as well as the level of competitiveness to access those opportunities. In a small school, relationships may be easily formed and familiar faces quickly become part of your daily interactions, while a large school may offer a wider variety of social encounters and more opportunities to meet new and different people. Of course, we all define “small” and “large” differently, so you’ll have to decide what those terms mean to you!

The heartbeat of a boarding school is its culture. Sometimes culture is tricky to identify, and other times it’s obvious right away. The best way to determine culture is to visit a campus and talk to the students, faculty, and staff. Ask lots of questions. Do you like the answers you hear? Do they ring true? Do the conversations seem authentic? Walk around and gauge the atmosphere. What do you feel? What do you see? What vibe do you sense? Can you picture yourself being enrolled there? Then take advantage of follow-up communications, whether with current students, your admission counselor, or other adults from campus. The more interactions you have with members of the school community, the more a school’s culture will become evident to you.

Evaluate the academics of a school through research and a campus visit. You can even ask to observe classes. What are the class sizes, and what teaching styles are common? What do the academic spaces look like? Talk to faculty and ask students about their experience. Investigate what the curriculum offers. Are there courses that appeal to you? Explore whether there are opportunities for field study, capstone projects, self-directed work, etc., and determine what support structures or learning services are in place if you need a bit of extra help in a given area.

A wide range of extracurricular activities enables students to thrive beyond the traditional classroom setting. Whether it’s athletics, the arts, student clubs, or other opportunities, check to see if the school’s offerings align with your interests.

College Counseling
An established path to higher ed is one of the reasons to pursue a boarding school education. Assess the school’s college counseling program, its college-counselor-to-student ratio, and its track record for college and university matriculation. Ask questions about their college counseling philosophy, and determine what their role would be in supporting you during your college search.

The quality of a school’s facilities contributes to your everyday experience. Inspect the dormitories, dining hall, library, and other spaces through virtual and in-person tours. The state of these facilities not only speaks to the school’s investment in student well-being but also reflects the quality of life you’ll have.

Financial considerations are pragmatic and essential. Boarding schools come with different price tags and different financial aid packages. Depending on your family’s financial situation, the amount of aid offered may be a factor in which school you choose.

Ultimately, making an informed decision about the right boarding school requires thoughtful consideration of these criteria and many others. If chosen well, boarding school can offer a transformative education—one that not only prepares you academically for college but also fosters personal growth, creates long-term friendships, and sets you up for a lifetime of success!