As I begin preparations to start graduate school this fall, I am reminded of what this time of year has meant for me for the past eight years: pulling out the suitcases from storage, looking at move-in times, and feeling a general nervous excitement about the coming school year. To me, as a graduate of Phillips Academy and Princeton University, campus life away from home has become a familiar way of life. However, especially during my first couple years at Princeton, a frequent question I would receive was, “Aren’t you tired of living in a dorm?” “Didn’t boarding school ‘ruin’ your college experience? Aren’t they basically the same thing?” I have asked myself similar questions at times too, so I hope to answer them and offer my perspective on the differences between boarding school and college here today.
To start, there are many similarities between boarding school and college, including living away from home in a dorm, since boarding schools are often “preparatory schools” that are meant to teach you necessary habits and get you used to college life. Courses at boarding schools are usually designed to replicate the format of college seminars, and you have more freedom that your peers in public schools to choose elective courses or pursue your own research projects, especially as you enter your final two years of high school. One of my most memorable classes at Andover was an independent seminar on pre- and post-War film theory that I designed myself, an experience that was similar to my independent projects and senior thesis research four years later at Princeton.
The biggest difference between boarding school and college boils down to structure and independence. Since students at boarding schools are younger, often between the ages of 11 and 18, the school assumes that you have less self-control and discipline and therefore often provides a heavily structured day that includes set time blocks for academics, extracurriculars, and social life. For example, in Andover, we all had sports practices right after classes and Saturday morning, and when study hall began promptly at 8 pm on school nights, we were expected to “sign out” to a place of study and return to our dorms by curfew. If we wanted to go off campus, we had to receive permission from both our parents and house counselors, then check back in person when we returned.
My final Andover performing arts tour to San Francisco
Our residential life was also structured to provide a “home away from home,” the dorm at the center of much social activity in most boarding schools. Some of my closest friends from Andover were indeed my dormmates, and I still consider my house counselor to be a close mentor. In addition to our house counselors, who were often our teachers and coaches, there was a team of residential life deans, academic advisors, college counselors, and other administrators who would periodically check in and make sure that we were on the right track in our academic, extracurricular, and social life.
Many colleges, Princeton included, have similar support systems to boarding schools: academic and residential life deans, peer health advisors and residential assistants, and academic advisors. However, because you are given a lot more personal freedom, the responsibility of reaching out to these people and taking advantage of the resources available falls to the individual student, in part because colleges are generally much larger than boarding schools (Princeton, for instance, has about five times as many students as Andover in each class).
Our senior photo from my Princeton eating club, pre-COVID lockdown
(Notice: no adults!)
The autonomy you get in college also applies to your academic and extracurricular work: you need to be the master of your own time. In college, there are no study hall monitors or house counselors to check in on you and make sure that you are going to class, doing your homework, and taking care of yourself. It’s very easy and tempting—and I admit, I am guilty of having done this as well—to spend hours binging Netflix or hanging out with your friends instead of studying.
Despite these differences, at the end of the day, high school is still high school, and college is college. I admit, it was tempting to compare my two experiences when things got tough. However, looking back at the past eight years, I now realize that each year brought new changes and challenges, and I would encourage you to approach both your boarding school and college experiences in the same way!