Boarding Schools: The Comprehensive Guide

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If your exposure to boarding school comes from TV and movies, you probably picture elite institutions, preppy uniforms, or even some form of punishment (“That’s it, we’re sending you to boarding school!”). In reality, every boarding school is different, and millions of students across the country choose to attend boarding school.

Boarding schools uniquely prepare students for the independence and rigor of college. They offer a wide variety of interesting and challenging classes, along with numerous opportunities for hands-on learning and personal development.

If you’re curious about boarding school, we’re here to shed some light on what boarding schools are really like. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of attending boarding school, then share a list of the best boarding schools in the U.S.

What Is a Boarding School?

Boarding schools are residential private schools. Students live in dorms or residence halls on campus during the school year, just like in college. However, boarding schools are for secondary students, typically starting in ninth grade.

The goal is to provide a learning community that allows students to focus on their studies, develop important life skills, and prepare for college and careers.

Although most boarding school students live on campus, some boarding schools accept daytime-only students, who can attend the program while still living at home.

Boarding schools offer a rigorous curriculum, and many focus on a specialization, such as:

  •         College preparation
  •         Fine arts
  •         Military
  •         Sports
  •         Religion

What Are the Advantages of Boarding Schools?

Advantages of attending boarding school include small class sizes, receiving a well-rounded educational experience, and impressing college admissions teams.

Unlike public schools, most boarding schools offer very small class sizes, sometimes as few as 10-12 students per class. This allows for more personalized learning and one-on-one time with instructors. At some boarding schools, every student is assigned a mentor.

In addition to challenging classes, most boarding schools emphasize personal development through extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, and opportunities for experiential learning. They want students to receive a good education, but they also want to build leadership skills, teamwork, responsibility, integrity, and other important qualities.

Your classmates will come from across the country and around the world, giving you a chance to mingle with and learn from students with different cultures and backgrounds.

Going to a top boarding school can help you get into a good college. Almost all boarding schools boast college acceptance rates of over 90%. You’ll also be part of a solid network of successful alumni. Other alumni can connect you with excellent internships and career opportunities in the future.

What Are the Disadvantages of Boarding Schools?

The disadvantages of boarding schools include expensive tuition, high levels of pressure, and being away from home.

Boarding school tuition is very pricey. On average, it costs $37,590 per year to attend boarding school. At the most prestigious boarding schools, tuition can cost over $60,000 annually. Most schools do offer financial assistance, but tuition costs are a barrier for many students and families.

Additionally, boarding schools are typically rigorous and competitive, which creates a certain amount of pressure for students. In some cases, this pressure serves as positive motivation. Still, some students find it overwhelming.

Finally, attending boarding school means being away from home for long periods of time. This transition can be difficult for students and their families. It’s hard to maintain friendships outside of boarding school, and living at school can blur the boundaries between “school time” and “leisure time.”

It’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of boarding schools and determine whether you can thrive in a boarding school environment.

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List of the Best Boarding Schools in the U.S.

If you’re interested in attending a boarding school, check out the following schools, which are consistently ranked among the best boarding schools in the U.S.

Applying to boarding schools is similar to applying to colleges. Many of the boarding schools on this list are highly competitive, accepting fewer than 20% of applicants. We recommend applying to multiple boarding schools, including some that are less competitive.

Phillips Exeter Academy

Exeter, New Hampshire

Commonly known as “Exeter,” Phillips Exeter Academy was founded in 1781. It has a long history of academic excellence and is known for celebrating curiosity and cultivating potential.

The coeducational school currently enrolls more than 1,000 high school students from 34 countries. It offers more than 450 courses in 18 different subject areas and has a student-to-teacher ratio of 5:1.

Students can choose from more than 100 clubs, focused on everything from art to zoology. The school regularly hosts dances, festivals, and community service activities, such as beach clean-ups on the nearby coastal beaches.

Exeter has need-blind admissions. They admit students without regard to their ability to pay tuition and meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.

Phillips Academy Andover

Andover, Massachusetts

Exeter’s rival school is Phillips Academy Andover, another coeducational boarding school offering need-blind admissions. Students hail from 47 countries, and 46% receive financial aid.

The school offers more than 300 courses, including 150 electives, and students can get involved in community engagement programs each term. The average class has 12 students and emphasizes interactive learning. There are over 125 student-run clubs and organizations. Like Exeter, Andover doesn’t require uniforms or a dress code.

Andover’s campus features an archaeology museum, an observatory, and a renowned art gallery. The campus is arranged into five residential neighborhoods called “clusters,” each with its own dorms, faculty families, deans, student leaders, activities, and events.

Groton School

Groton, Massachusetts

Groton School is a college preparatory boarding school open to girls and boys in grades 9-12. Its tight-knit campus, home to 379 students from 21 countries, is known as “the Circle” and built on a family model. The student-to-faculty ratio is 4:1, and the average class size is 11 students. 43% of Groton students receive financial aid.

Groton School’s mission is “To inspire lives of character, scholarship, leadership, and service within a diverse, inclusive, and close-knit community.” The curriculum emphasizes critical thinking, speaking, writing, quantitative reasoning, and problem-solving. Students study ancient civilizations and Latin alongside STEM courses, music, theater, philosophy, and more.

Community engagement and community service are key pillars of a Groton education, and students can also participate in clubs ranging from cooking and rockets to mock trial, investment, and poetry.

Groton’s small dormitories house 12-24 residents, creating a warm, home-like atmosphere. All dorms have a nightly gathering known as check-in, where residents gather with the faculty member on duty to discuss their day.

St. Paul’s School

Concord, New Hampshire

On its 2,000-acre campus, St. Paul’s School offers 175 classes, over 60 clubs, and 17 different sports. The student-to-faculty ratio is 5:1, with an average class size of 10 students. Teachers are available for evening advising hours. 39% of students receive financial aid.

St. Paul’s approach to education is called “SPS 360” and integrates social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth into all aspects of student life. Students are encouraged to blend their studies with community engagement, religious services, and performing arts.

Students live in 19 residential houses on the grounds that are home to about 30 residents each. Each house has a comfortably furnished common room with kitchen facilities and a fireplace, and every new student is assigned a “Big Sibling” to help with the transition to boarding school life.

Deerfield Academy

Deerfield, Massachusetts

Deerfield Academy is set in a historic village surrounded by rivers, hills, and farms. It offers a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and a supportive residential environment designed to encourage the development of “an inquisitive and creative mind” and “strong moral character.”

Its 655 students are from 47 countries, and Deerfield has a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio. 40% of students receive financial aid. Students can choose from 170 courses and a wide variety of clubs, organizations, and sports. They climb mountains, hike trails, and are actively involved in community service and raising funds for causes they care about.

Classes are held Monday through Friday starting at 8:30 a.m., with three periods each class day. There are typically 12 students in each class, and every student has a faculty advisor. Students live in one of the 16 dormitories on campus. The campus also features 90 acres of athletic fields, a planetarium, robotics facilities, lab spaces, a health and wellness center, and more.

The Lawrenceville School

Lawrenceville, New Jersey

The Lawrenceville School aims to prepare young people for lives of learning, integrity, and high purpose. Its mission is “to inspire the best in each to seek the best for all.”

To promote active, collaborative learning, Lawrenceville classes are organized around conference tables that replace lecture and memorization with shared discovery. Discussion-based classes are organized across departments including English, history, interdisciplinary studies, language, mathematics, performing arts, religion and philosophy, science, and visual arts. Students also participate in cultural experiences, hands-on activities, and travel opportunities.

Campus Houses are at the center of life at Lawrenceville. Each student is assigned to a House, and faculty members serve as House administrators. Houses bring students together, foster community, and promote leadership, inclusion, and cooperation. Each House has its own unique identity and events, and students spiritedly participate in the House Olympics each year.

Middlesex School

Concord, Massachusetts

Located 20 miles outside of Boston, Middlesex School is a place for students to discover their talents, passions, and potential. The school’s 419 students are from 18 countries, and there is a 4:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

Academic life at Middlesex begins with a comprehensive progression through core divisions, departments, and disciplines. Students also participate in signature programs like The Writer’s Workshop and a four-course rotation in the fine arts. Middlesex offers over 20 AP classes and dozens of electives, including Composition and Music Theory, Chinese, and a course on the connection between Shakespeare and Harry Potter.

Favorite activities on campus include the Random Dance, Spring Carnival, Fall Field Day, the Benefit Ball, and senior prom at Gillette Stadium, in addition to a variety of community service projects. Student-run clubs range from Bonsai Club and Fishing Club to the Creative Writer’s Association, Hip Hop Music Club, Horror Movie Club, and Astronomy Club.

Dorms are home to 25-30 students, two or three resident faculty members, and their families. Some dorms even have pets, and Middlesex’s website claims that there are 35 dogs on campus. The campus also features Bateman’s Pond, a non-denominational chapel, dining hall, and a student center with ping-pond, foosball, and pool.

Milton Academy

Milton, Massachusetts

Located eight miles from downtown Boston, Milton Academy is a college preparatory K-12 school that offers boarding for grades 9-12. 304 students live on campus, and the average class size is 14. Every student has an advisor to guide them throughout their time at Milton. 35% of students receive financial aid.

Through an active learning environment in and outside of the classroom, Milton Academy develops creative and critical thinkers who are prepared to seek meaningful lifetime success. Learning is collaborative and discussion based.

Students typically take five classes each semester and have 185 courses to choose from. Academic departments include Classics, Computer Science, English, History and Social Sciences, Mathematics, Modern Languages, Music, Performing Arts, Physical Education, Science, and Visual Arts. Outside of the classroom, Milton offers 20 student-sponsored social events monthly, along with a wide range of clubs and activities.

The 130-acre campus has nine “family-style” residential houses, with an average of 35 residents each. Students live in the same house for their entire time at Milton, and faculty families are connected to every house. Houses meet for family-style dinner with faculty members three times per week. And every house has its own traditions: scavenger hunts, pumpkin carving, caroling, ping-pong tournament, themed dress-up bowling, and more.

Choate Rosemary Hall

Wallingford, Connecticut

Choate Rosemary Hall, located on a beautiful 458-acre campus in the scenic town of Wallingford, offers an education that is uniquely tailored to each student’s talents and interests. Its mission is to provide an experience that “enriches [students’] lives and prepares them to contribute to an ever-changing world” through guided independent learning, active campus engagement, and formation of character.

The school’s curriculum balances tradition and innovation, with classes in Arts, English, History, Philosophy, Religion, Social Sciences, Languages, Mathematics, Science, and a variety of multidisciplinary courses.

Signature programs include an advanced robotics concentration, environmental immersion program, global engagement program, science research program, the John F. Kennedy Program in Government and Public Service, and more. Students can also pursue a custom interest through the Directed Studies Program.

Choate offers a wide range of student clubs, organizations, community service projects, and activities like concerts, races, and reading events, along with plenty of student-focused spaces and amenities. Students can live in either large, dynamic dorms or smaller, close-knit houses.

The Thacher School

Ojai, California

The Thacher School offers a unique combination of demanding academics, character-building challenges, and a highly supportive community culture. 228 students board at Thacher, and the average class size is 11.

Located on a 427-acre campus in Ojai, California, the school gets 269 days of sunlight each year. It’s surrounded by mountains, blue skies, and acres of orange groves, and the beach is just a few miles away. The campus is home to an observatory, a pool overlooking the Ojai Valley, an outdoor theatre, barns that house 120 horses, an outdoor chapel, a center for the performing arts, and more.

In the first two years at Thacher, students build a broad foundation of knowledge across English, history, language, mathematics, science, and the arts. During their junior and senior years, students are challenged to demonstrate mastery, often by following their passions and solving problems of their own choosing. Every senior chooses one essential question to explore, conducts research for several months, and presents it at the annual Senior Exhibition.

On top of clubs and activities, students can participate in community service, independent projects, the horse program, the outdoor program, visual and performing arts, or some of the school’s 28 sports teams. The Thacher School offers 62 camping trips per year, along with off-campus study programs like The Maine Coast Semester and a school year abroad in China, France, and Spain.

The Hotchkiss School

Lakeville, Connecticut

Founded in 1891, The Hotchkiss School educates 599 students in grades 9 through 12. With more than 200 classes in seven departments and small class sizes, the school cultivates curiosity, excellence, and creativity. The average class size is 12, and every class is interactive and inclusive.

Hotchkiss also offers real-world learning opportunities like study abroad, sustainable acres on the school’s 287-acre farm, student newspapers, innovative experiments in the Engineering, Fabrication, and Exploration Lab, and more.

After classes, all students participate in an organized sport or activity, such as yoga, fly fishing, sports media, dance, ceramics, or club soccer. 96% of the student population boards on campus in the school’s 13 residence buildings. Residence halls range in size from six to 65 rooms, and most of the rooms are singles.

Peddie School

Hightstown, New Jersey

At Peddie School, students experience a “high-powered academic program” alongside excellent opportunities in service, athletics, and leadership. Students are encouraged to explore new possibilities and discover their passions. Every student has an advisor who meets with them on a regular basis, and they frequently share meals with their advisee group.

Peddie’s curriculum emphasizes curiosity, growth, and intellectual discussion through classes in mathematics, English, science, history, language, and the arts. During their junior and senior years, students design their own program of independent research or creative work, pursuing it under the guidance of faculty mentors. Recent topics have included “Exploring the Influence of Sports Markets in China,” “The Architecture of French Gothic Cathedrals,” “Predicting Malaria Outbreak in Namibia Using Machine Learning,” and “Good Enough: A Screenplay.”

The school offers many clubs, affinity groups, activities, and community service projects. Peddie holds a weekly student-run community meeting that features pep rallies, class contests, and guest speakers. Every dorm has a dorm parent, and students enjoy family-style dinners, school picnics, and activities like kickball, Cake Wars competitions, and yoga.

The Taft School

Watertown, Connecticut

The Taft School encourages students to develop their academic, artistic, and athletic talents. It’s located on a beautiful 200-acre campus amidst a warm, spirited, and fun community. Students benefit from the academic and extracurricular opportunities of a large school in an intimate, communal environment.

Taft offers more than 200 courses every semester in the arts, English, global studies, history, mathematics, science and technology, and world language. In addition to the core curriculum, students have numerous experiential and applied learning experiences, including the school’s independent learning program and unique partnerships with The New York Botanical Garden, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and more.

Students also participate in sports, clubs, activities, and spirited traditions. Residential students live in eight houses and halls, with resident faculty, dorm heads, and dorm monitors available to make these spaces a true home away from home.

The Webb Schools

Claremont, California

Located on a 150-acre campus in the foothills of Claremont, California, The Webb Schools is committed to academic excellence, team sports, outdoor adventure, and participation in the arts. 100% of each graduating class attends a four-year university, and 90% of Webb graduates attend colleges and universities in the top 10% nationwide.

Webb offers an innovative, rigorous education in the liberal arts and sciences, along with field study opportunities and engaging academic partnerships that promote the school’s philosophy of “learning by doing.” Students take courses in science, mathematics, computer science, humanities, world languages, and fine arts. The school offers Advanced Studies courses in fields such as paleontology, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology. By junior and senior year, students have license to define their own educational focus.

The school teams up with universities and research institutions to help students extend and deepen their learning beyond Webb classrooms. Students take 30 or more field excursions per year to places like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Library.

Webb offers more than 70 student-led clubs and affinity groups. The campus features an accredited museum of paleontology, a dining hall complete with a noodle bar and panini station, two libraries, an observatory, a 21,000-square foot gym, an aquatics center, and numerous outdoor sports facilities. It also has an art studio and two theaters, along with 10 on-campus dormitories for residential students.

Cranbrook Schools

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Cranbrook Schools cultivates curiosity, creativity, resilience, and collaboration through an innovative curriculum. Faculty average 22.4 years at Cranbrook, making it one of the most experienced faculties of any school in the nation. 90% of the faculty have advanced degrees in the subject they teach.

At Cranbrook, the on-campus experience is more like a small liberal arts college than a typical high school. Students take courses in history, English, religion, world language, mathematics, science, computer science, and fine and performing arts. They can choose from a wide range of courses, including Current Middle East Conflicts, Creative Nonfiction, Stellar Astronomy, Metalsmithing, Stagecraft, and Multivariable Calculus.

Cranbrook offers 64 clubs and organizations and has 45 athletic teams. Students have plentiful opportunities for community engagement and leadership, including Wilderness Leaders, which culminates in an eleven-day backpacking trip. The 319-acre campus is home to an art museum, Institute of Science, Williams Natatorium, a recently renovated ice arena, nature trails, beautiful gardens, and five residential halls.

Final Thoughts: Best Boarding Schools in the U.S.

Boarding schools offer living and learning communities that prepare students for college, careers, and life. In addition to a rigorous academic curriculum, most boarding schools have plentiful extracurricular opportunities, hands-on learning experiences, and unique on-campus resources.

More than traditional public school and private school students, boarding school students say they were both academically prepared for college and prepared for the non-academic aspects of college.

If you believe you would thrive in a boarding school environment, the schools on this list are an excellent starting point for your search.

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