Phillips Academy Andover begins in the ninth grade. A grueling application process sifts through thousands of teenagers to find the “best” and the “brightest.” The school is exclusive; less than 15% of hopeful students are admitted. Once in, each child is expected to strive to make a name for herself amid a mass of her supposed outstanding peers, a journey that often results in egregious cases of exhaustion, anxiety, and self-depreciation. This is a generalization that does not come close to describing every student at Andover, but it is a reflection of the cultural undertones at the school. It seems that that the system has put forth one model of success that almost exclusively celebrates good grades, leadership positions, and involvement in extracurricular activities. Happiness, passion, and health are hardly taken into account unless they positively influence visible work. I know from experience that many students have felt pressure to apply for leadership positions that I don’t really want, attend clubs that I have no motivation to pursue, work tirelessly in classes that have no meaning to me, and form superficial relationships simply because they might become useful later. Again, these descriptions are not meant to express the views, values, and lives of every student at the academy. I only hope to paint a picture of subtleties that I am beginning to perceive. I know that the members of the admissions office pour their hearts and souls into each decision. They consider every applicant, and genuinely try to figure out which prospective students are good matches for the school. But this necessarily defines the atmosphere of Andover as exclusive; not everybody belongs here. At the beginning of my ninth grade year, my house counselor told me: “We use a different grading system [a scale of 1-6 rather than letter grades] because Andover is so much more challenging than a regular school. It would be unfair for colleges to compare the outstanding work you do here to a less rigorous environment.” During drills, my lacrosse coach often encouraged us with: “You can figure this out. You’re all here, so you’re all smart.” With this mindset so often around us, it is hard not to internalize some of that, to believe that we really are somehow superior to other teenagers.
But we are not.
First of all, Andover admits us when we are thirteen or fourteen, already fully formed teenagers with background knowledge and prior training and maturity. The characteristics of our previous education, family life, and home environment can have massive impacts on our previous development and preparation. Second, very few people are even aware of the existence of prep schools. Although thousands apply, this number is a speck of dust when compared to the hundreds of millions of eligible teenagers across the world. Even if certain teachers and administrators are attempting to move away from the competitive environment and constant praise, the atmosphere remains similar.
The application process for Riverside school seems to be less based on merit than it is at Andover. While visiting, I saw children from the ages of four or five to almost adults. Riverside is involved in some of the earliest stages of development. The belief seemed much less “only special people belong here” and much more “everyone has the potential to be a Riverside kid.” The kindergarteners were eager and rowdy but fairly well behaved, the children who gave us a tour were incredibly well spoken, and the teenagers that presented the ideals of Riverside to us seemed passionate and intelligent. By seeing different steps of the method, I could see Riverside slowly growing within the students. While Andover accepts preformed children and places them in a competitive environment, Riverside seems to act through pedagogy of growth, reflection, and development. While Andover is a performance, Riverside is a process. While Andover is a competition, Riverside is an evolution.
I have faith in my school. In two short years, Andover has given me incredible gifts, and has influenced my adolescence in countless ways. I would not be in India if it were not for the wonderful opportunities that my school provides. Neither model of education is better or worse; they are just different.