Why Boarding Schools

The Five Cs that Make Boarding School Special

Sure, we know that boarding school campuses are gorgeous, and lots of famous people went to them. But what are the real benefits that boarding schools offer your child?

Here are the Five Cs that make boarding schools an exceptional gift to your son or daughter. I chose these five elements from personal experience as a longtime boarding school educator, an alum, a parent of two alums – and a consultant who’s guided hundreds of unique students to boarding schools of all shapes and sizes.

1) Community Spirit

Boarding schools provide a special, family-like environment where grown-up role models and impressionable teenagers study and discuss and compete and eat and play under one roof -or at least on a single campus. At all-school meetings and grade-level assemblies, students love hearing “Happy Birthday!” announcements, JV sports highlights, and weekend trip invitations from teachers to ski areas, pro games, or – at least for my sons – the Five Guys at the mall. This common culture of support resembles that of a summer camp’s (except with homework!), so friendships grow quickly and deep. A common complaint is that many boarding schools are “too isolated.” The isolation is actually a benefit, since it fosters community through common meals and weekend activities. (To this day my closest two friends date back to 10th grade at boarding school.)

2) Character Development

The adults in the boarding school community serve as role models for their young charges. Trust me, if you choose a vocation where you devote yourself 24/7 to adolescents and you’re not being paid well, that means you are passionate about helping kids overcome homesickness, navigate their roommate questions, and get the courage to try out for the band or the team. Boarding school faculty set a positive example inside and outside the classroom. They often study over the summer themselves, and emphasize sportsmanship over victories, and effort over performance. Their students mature as a result.

3) Curricular Enhancement

The fact I coached Hugo on the hockey rink in the afternoon, helped him sort out his room in the evening, and ate brunch with him on Sunday morning meant that in my French class he absolutely wanted to do the extra assignment, or join me for a weekend French Club trip to Montreal. Likewise, science teachers recruit the engineers-to-be for the Robotics Club; they also will help the future poet do the best he can with his required Physics class. Then there’s the fact that having 12 instead of 24 students in a class is even more than doubly efficient. Learning happens faster in boarding schools.

4) Co-Curricular Growth

Kids are encouraged to take chances: Supersized Max, the football Nose Guard, took up the tuba at boarding school. Shy Susie’s thespian roommate took her to try out for the play. My liberal son joined the Conservative Club because Mr. M taught him History and coached him football. (That same son learned to harness his ADHD thanks to the structure and brotherhood of an all-boys’ school – and went on to teach History and coach football himself at a boarding school.) Boarding school’s certainly not for everyone, but when we here at McMillan Education provide college counseling for public school students, we start by reconciling the gap between numerous private school and sparse public school extracurriculars.

5) College Choices

The caveat here is that college placement should not be the reason you send your kid to a boarding school. Indeed, the true value of boarding school is the intrinsic and authentic growth that teenagers experience in a residential learning community. But the fact is that a student who is put in a position to thrive and grow ends up with an enriching high school experience – and thus better college options. The first question on the Common App’s teacher recommendation form asks “How long and in what capacity have you known the student?” I used to write: “She lived in the dorm my wife and I ran, she took my 9th grade and AP 11th grade classes, and she played on my tennis team.” Then I would write an incredibly thorough letter filled with anecdotes. (Remember the Conservative Mr. M above? When my son was accepted ED to college, the admissions officer singled out Mr. M’s glowing recommendation.)

There’s actually a Sixth C, though thankfully it is dissolving – boarding schools pivoted quickly and effectively when COVID struck, continuing to offer quality instruction while also maintaining a healthy level of co-curriculars.

So given these Five Cs – Community Spirit, Character Development, Curricular Enrichment, Co-Curricular Growth, and College Choices – how do you choose the right fit? Spending some time on the Owl Boarding School guide can be a good start.

Bon Voyage,
Don McMillan