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I Went to Public High School and Somehow Ended Up Here: Part I

This is the introduction to a series on how Bowdoin is different from our high school experiences.

From the perspective of an outsider, there is an unspoken bond amongst students of private education. When I was a freshman I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that almost everyone here knew someone else through a privileged system of social networking. It seemed like most of my peers either knew somebody rich, important, and famous or was somebody rich, important, and famous and had the high school connections to prove it.

Apparently I am not the only student who has felt this way. I created a survey on this topic taken by 362 students over winter break, and one anonymous commenter took the words right out of my mouth, or right out of my laptop, since I wrote the previous paragraph verbatim before reading this comment:

 “As someone who went to a public school and wasn’t from the northeast, I felt exceedingly out of place during the first few days of pre-orientation. Conversation focused entirely on which private school in which northeastern state everyone went to, and then on the social connections everyone could form based on those two criteria. It was like watching six degrees of separation, prep school edition.”

The short and straightforward survey asked what kind of high school you went to, what you think the percentage of private vs. public high school students is at Bowdoin, and if you had “any thoughts on the subject” to share in the comments section. Many students brought up issues such as any possible differences in socioeconomic class, if the private school students have an academic advantage over public school students, and differences in the attitudes of private school students compared to public school students.

However, the twenty-seven comments (all shown unedited at the end of this article) all seemed to contradict one another and describe completely different experiences of Bowdoin’s student body. Despite many of the similar themes, it is clear that depending on your group of friends and your exposure to certain types of people in your courses, majors, clubs, and sports, each student can have an entirely different perspective of the student body.

The percentages were almost perfectly dispersed on both ends of the spectrum, and the symmetrical data only reinforces the widely differing perspectives of each student. For those who are interested, the actual percentages are 43% private high school and 57% public – courtesy of Margaret Allen of the Institutional Research office. Apparently this fun fact is shared on tours, which would explain the majority of surveyed students answering 40/60.

Before I received the actual data from the Institutional Research Office, I was convinced the student body was at least 70% from private high school with 30% from public high school. Considering my four current housemates all attended private high school, it is not surprising I had a very distorted perception of the student body. Whenever I would meet someone who revealed they were from public school, I would think to myself, “I’ve found another one!” and would quickly bond about how different Bowdoin is from our respective high schools.

I did not know a single person when I stepped foot on the Bowdoin campus. I was certainly the first person to attend Bowdoin College from my high school in the past ten years, maybe even the first person ever. Nobody at my high school except a handful of people had even heard of Bowdoin, and when I excitedly told my classmates I had been accepted to college everyone gave blanks stares until I lamely said “It’s in Maine,” and just got an uncomfortable “Oh” as a reply. Of course there is a sprinkling of Ivy League acceptances each year amongst the deluge of Rutgers, Penn State, and University of Delaware letters, but who had ever heard of a NESCAC school?

Under notable alums on my high school’s Wikipedia page our main claims to fame are a porn star named Lexington Steele and the guy who created Craigslist, aptly named Craig (this is a fun fact I tell at parties). Admittedly, Lexington does have quite the resume as the first actor to win the Adult Video News Male Performer of the Year Award a whopping three times. Fingers crossed he swings by my hometown for a high school reunion sometime soon if you know what I mean.

Only three things are really important when discussing public school: location, location, location. Many surveyed students highlighted this crucial element of public school education, as neighboring districts can have drastically different experiences, such as the Washington D.C school district (which is consistently ranked as one of the worst in the country) in comparison to prominent suburb districts in Maryland and Virginia.  

I stayed in the same public school system in New Jersey for my entire pre-college academic career. New Jersey is well known for it’s admirable public school system, which means my parents didn’t have to fork over a massive tuition to ensure I had a reasonable education. According to my highly reliable source, also known as Wikipedia, New Jersey is tied with Massachusetts for the second highest number of high school graduates to continue on to college at 54%, losing only to North Dakota’s public school system at 59%.  We also have the highest average scores for AP testing. However, its no surprise we also hold the record for the highest proportion of students who graduate college and then leave their home state. I suppose the armpit isn’t for everyone, but I still rep my Jersey pride…  despite my intentions to move to New York City after graduation.

And with a student body of about 1,500 students, I would say Bowdoin can sometimes feel like high school all over again, but Bowdoin is nothing like my high school.

This introduction is mostly to lay down some boring facts. The thrilling second installment describing various gang fights, riots, a metal detector controversy,  angry security guards, a ridiculous senior prank day, insane house parties, and other “I went to public high school in New Jersey” anecdotes are coming next week.

But just because I have the ability to rant about my high school experience on Her Campus Bowdoin doesn’t mean my story is the only one that should be heard. How is your high school different from Bowdoin? We will be accepting guest submissions and posting them right here on HC Bowdoin. Please email jbuffum@bowdoin.edu if interested.  

Margaret Allen of the Institutional Research office
362 anonymous surveyed Bowdoin students

Comments unedited, grouped by subject


I think it needs to be noted that though a lot of Bowdoin students went to Public school, many people are from affluential areas, which really has an impact on the level of education that someone receives. There are also students from areas where taxpayer funding cannot afford certain benefits that others have had in their public school experience. So though there is a smaller number of private school students, there is certainly a disparity of public/private proportions of where you went to public school – for instance, a student who went to New Trier will have most likely had a better educational experience than someone who went to Lisbon High School in Maine.

The “public” category is far too broad. There is a WIDE range of public schools out there from Stuyvesant and Newton to schools losing their accreditation in rural areas around Maine. To lump these all together is an unfair categorization in my mind. Coming from a failing high school I do not feel comfortable associating myself as coming from similar “public” school backgrounds as most students at Bowdoin.

Public vs. private isn’t the key issue. You should check out the rankings of most of the public schools kids at Bowdoin went to. My point is, almost everyone at Bowdoin went to very good academic high schools, that they were public or private is inconsequential. For instance, anyone who went to a public school in suburban Mass. or Conn. got a much better education than I did going to my private school.

Student body:

From my perspective, I think most students attended at least a selective public high school, if not a private school. Part of this is probably related to the fact that these schools are more likely to encourage applying to small, competitive schools such as Bowdoin.

sometimes it seems like people who went to public school hang out together, and people who went to private school hang out together, i don’t think that this is necessarily intentional on anyone’s part it’s just a trend i’ve noticed sometimes and certainly not the end- all

As someone who went to a public school and wasn’t from the northeast, I felt exceedingly out of place during the first few days of pre-orientation. Conversation focused entirely on which private school in which northeastern state everyone went to, and then on the social connections everyone could form based on those two criteria. It was like watching six degrees of separation, prep school edition.

I feel like a lot more Bowdoin students went to private school than actually did, since many students here are fairly well-off and might be assumed to have gone to private school since it’s clear they could have afforded it
I’ve read that only 40% of Bowdoin students went to public school, but I feel as though most of my Bowdoin friends went to public school.


It seems to me that the ratio of Public to Private school students at Bowdoin is about 50/50. The private school kids are for sure nicer, better looking, smarter, and more athletic, but we all seem to get along pretty well.    

Coming from a public school, I feel that there is a big difference in the lifestyles and personalities of kids that come from public vs. private high schools and attend Bowdoin. At times, I feel that the students who do come from public schools are looked down upon by students who come from private schools because public schooled students weren’t and aren’t as privilaged. This mentality, to me, also translates from the faculty. There’s almost an air of stereotyping towards students who come from the public school system.

I am shocked that there are so many private school kids who seem to be completely shut off from the rest of the world. Not all of us wear Hunter boots and sperrys. The only characteristic that I find in these people is ignorance but of course they can’t be blamed for their wealth.

Academic Advantages:

More private schools have better academic programs than public schools. I feel being in a private school – especially prep schools – is a huge advantage at getting into top ranking schools.

I feel like a majority of Bowdoin students came from privileged, intellectual schools. Sometimes it seems like they have an unfair advantage over some of us public school kids who really didn’t get that much of a quality education.  

Whether you come from a private or public school, I think every admitted student is prepared for Bowdoin’s workload. Private school students don’t have an advantage over public school students.

Private school kids inherently have a certain edge both in the admissions process and adjusting to college life because of the kind of education they are accustomed to, smart public school kids just need to be given a chance and unfortunately too often they are not. That said I bet a lot of private school students pay full tuition which helps balance the Bowdoin checkbook with all the financial aid they give out.

Many public high schools prepare their students for the top colleges in the nation just as much as private schools, but for the many that do not, those students are left playing a game of catch up. Though intelligent enough to handle course content designated by Bowdoin professors, they are not trained to handle the rigorous schedule and quality of work expected by Bowdoin professors. Public school students do eventually catchup at different rates. Speaking from experience, I (currently a senior) matured by my 1st semester junior year.

Socioeconomic class:

Public V. Private isn’t sufficient to uncover class differences. Some public schools, like those in Bethesda Maryland, are better equipped than most private schools. Rather, the question should be “Did your school pass no child left behind?” In which case, mine did not.

I believe that a fair amount of Bowdoin students come from socio-economic backgrounds that allow their parents or legal guardians to be able to afford to send them to private schools. However, I don’t believe that all of those parents or legal guardians choose that option so the public school percentage outweighs the private school percentage.


I think the private school experience – particularly that of boarding schools in New England – is somewhat uniform. For that reason having a student body that is predominately from those types of schools takes away from Bowdoin’s diversity, even if some of those students are of different ethnic backgrounds.    

The way I see it, as long as you get an exceptional education, it doesn’t matter if you go to a public, private, or charter school.
It shouldn’t matter who came from where. We’re all here in the “Bowdoin bubble” now, and our performance here should be all that counts.    

I remember when I was visiting Bowdoin after being accepted, the head admissions officer proudly told me that the Class of 2012 had more students from public schools than private schools. Coming for a public school, I didn’t understand why this was a big deal, but after having been at Bowdoin a few years and talking to friends at other similar schools, I’ve appreciated the effort Bowdoin makes to reach out to public schools in admission.    

There is no doubt in my mind that public high schools are intentionally underrepresented. It seems like a way in which Bowdoin can remain need-blind while still making sure that wealthy students are accepted.

I think that there really is no difference in attitude, intelligence, or athletic ability between people from private schools and public schools.

I have not encountered any divide or major difference between students from private and public high schools.    
I have two conflicting thoughts:
1) I almost wish that I went to a private boarding school, if only to see how big a difference there actually is between public and private schooling.
2) I have always resented the fact that there is a difference (whether it is perceived or not) between public and private schooling.

private school rulz

Joanna Buffum is a senior English major and Anthropology minor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  She is from Morristown, NJ and in the summer of 2009 she was an advertising intern for OK! Magazine and the editorial blog intern for Zagat Survey in New York City. This past summer she was an editorial intern for MTV World's music website called MTV Iggy, writing fun things like album and concert reviews for bands you have never heard of before. Her favorite books are basically anything involving fantasy fiction, especially the Harry Potter series and “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke. In her free time she enjoys snowboarding, playing intramural field hockey, watching House MD, and making paninis. In the spring of 2010 she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and she misses the friendly, tall, and unusually attractive Danish people more than she can say. After college, she plans on pursuing a career in writing, but it can be anywhere from television script writing, to magazine journalism, to book publishing. 
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