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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Preschool to Princeton: Does School Choice Affect Future Success?

Like many parents, I often worry how my school choice will affect their future. While the title might be an exaggeration, we all wonder how their choices for preschool, elementary, middle, and high school will affect their future opportunities. Will elite colleges accept our children from non-elite high schools? Will selective high schools accept our children from average middle schools? Will middle schools consider our children in public elementary schools? Let’s admit it – most parents ask themselves these questions at some point.

College Admissions by High School

In Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, Jeffrey Selingo explains that colleges compare each candidate to their classmates in the same school. In other words, the more competitive the high school, the more difficult this comparison. Similarly, a senior at Lowell High School, an academic-admissions-based public high school in San Francisco, wrote about her challenges with admissions at University of California campuses. Why, then, do elite high schools, such as prep schools and public magnet schools, boast such impressive college admissions results? It’s all in the selectivity of the high school – the schools have more high achievers because of their own admissions process. In other words, there are more high achievers at selective high schools, but the high achievers each individually do not have a higher chance at elite high schools by virtue of their high school.

Let us examine some data comparing Mission High School, a general education public high school in San Francisco to Lowell High School, one where only admissions-based classes have graduated (as an aside, the classes of 2025 and 2026 were lottery-based). As detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Lowell does not have the highest admissions rates within SFUSD. The University of California publishes admissions data by high school, public and private, by campus, so is easier to compare than private college admissions.

Mission High

Lowell High

All California

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San Diego




Santa Barbara








Santa Cruz












Free or Reduced Lunch



Why are the Mission High School rates so high compared to Lowell? I’ll summarize, but you can read more details in the linked SF Chronicle article and Selingo’s book – the University of California campuses admit those who achieve the most compared to their classmates, and give bonus points to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. It is impossible to drill into every single possible outcome, but we can be assured that students from all sorts of high schools are accepted to elite colleges, which want a diverse student body.

High School Admissions

Like private colleges, private high schools do not disclose their admissions rates by the applicant’s school. Anecdotally, among our friends and clients, 8th graders with similar qualifications at different middle schools – public and private – were accepted by similar high schools. In other words, our public school counterparts were equally received as our private school students. The bigger difference was among students who applied for financial aid. The majority of independent high schools practice need-aware admissions, in which students who would otherwise be accepted to the school are evaluated for their financial need. Financial aid is allocated based on both need and institutional priorities. When the financial aid budget runs out, need-aware schools wait pool or decline the students who would not receive a grant. Need-blind schools are not necessarily meets-needs, but will accept students who cannot afford the school and wait-pool their financial aid grant.

Where private school applicants have an advantage is the support from their 8th grade teaching team. Private middle schools provide a high school application counselor to guide them through the process and select target schools, and their language arts teachers review their essays. This aspect can be outsourced with an educational consultant, such as the work that I do.

Elementary and Middle School Admissions

Elementary and middle schools operate similarly to high schools in their admissions practices. Independent schools generally want a diverse student body, and will welcome applicants from all types of source schools. Other than preschools or elementary schools that are a part of the school, there are no “feeders”. More K-8 are need-blind than high schools, but few schools are meets-needs.

Similar to high school admissions, private preschools provide application support to their families, including choosing target schools and reviewing the parent’s applications. This aspect can be outsourced to a consultant, such as myself, to guide the school choice and essays.

What school will give my child the best odds for future admissions?

If schools seek students from all types of feeders, will any one type of school give my student the best chances of future admissions? Yes, but not because of reputation or connections. Instead, this answer depends on your child. Happy Child = Happy Family, and Happy Child = Most Likely to Achieve. Where your student feels safe, secure, and challenged will provide their best preparation for college and beyond. For some students, this means a private school with a low student-teacher ratio. Depending on their personality and learning profile, they might prefer project-based learning (progressive), or they might prefer a more structured school. Some students are more sensitive to their environment than others. Finding the right fit is the key to their happiness and ultimate outcome.

Role of a Consultant

Given the huge range of schools and financial budgets, a consultant can help you narrow down the options, saving you many hours of research. A good consultant will listen to parents and assess what type of school will be the best match for the family – both the parents and the child.

Independent school applications require parent essays, a parent interview, a group event for children, and often videos of children. Middle and high school applications also require student essays and interviews. Your school consultant can review parent and student essays, and prep for the interview. Understanding how to present yourself and your family to each school is critical for essay-writing and editing.

For financial aid applications, your school consultant can discuss the value of the optional essay, what is a realistic “ask” for your aid, and how to choose a school where your financial need will most likely be met.

Lastly, when schools return the decisions, your consultant can help you to weigh the pros, cons, and fits of each choice.

Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help apply to and select public and private schools in San Francisco in an environment of non-judgment. VIP and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, essays, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability.

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.

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