While traits like a billion dollar endowment or that 83% of the faculty holds advanced degrees certainly set Phillips Exeter Academy apart from the formidable boarding school pack, its most fundamental difference is the Harkness method. While some schools offer a few subjects in a discussion format, at Exeter every course from Calculus to Existentialism is taught around an oval table with a maximum of thirteen students. Yet this system is more than just a peculiarly shaped table, it is an educational philosophy that permeates the entire institution. Its underlying principle-which seems simple at first, but is actually quite radical-is that students have as much to contribute to each other's education as their teachers do. The best teachers under this system are those that can subtly steer conversation with an occasional interjected clarification or explanation to help the students reach a deeper understanding of the material. My peers and I have often tried to quantify the advantages of the Harkness method, and the best summary we've come up with is that it rewards (and therefore develops) the skill of making connections. Unlike traditional education, which is about memorization, when you discuss an idea with your peers you gain a mastery of the material that allows you to apply it to other contexts whether that be college or a career. In short, the Harkness table resembles the boardroom table-where large amounts of information have to be integrated to make informed decisions-a lot more than it resembles a classroom desk. As you can probably already tell, this style produces a student body that is passionate and serious about its work. Late night debates often spring up about the material from that day’s classes. Furthermore, because the traditional divide between teacher and student is all but eliminated, students feel comfortable interacting with their teachers outside of class whether they need extra help or just want to know more about a particular area of interest. All that said, this kind of intellectual rigor comes only through a considerable amount of work. There are classes six days a week (from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for four of those days) and first year students can expect three hours of homework in addition to their extracurricular commitments. It is incredibly rewarding if you can handle it, but it is never easy.
Exeter has over 100 clubs. Just sorting through these options can take a number of years. I'll comment first on the music scene on campus because it's an area I know many are curious about and then talk about one of my particular areas of involvement. Exeter offers a number of music groups ranging in skill and commitment levels including an orchestra, band, glee club, and various a Cappella groups. There are also private lessons offered in pretty much any instrument one could want to learn. They range from staples like the violin and guitar to relative rarities like the bagpipes, harp, and penny whistle. I took guitar lessons for three years and although it was not one of my central commitments it was an enjoyable experience. Exeter music teachers understand the rigorous academic environment and understand that some weeks students will have time to practice and other weeks they won't. However, this highlights one of the central problems with the music program at Exeter. Despite having significant resources, the limited time to practice makes the music program a good part of an Exeter education, but never its central theme. In other words, if you like music Exeter can be a great school for you. If you want to dedicate your life to music, Exeter is not the right place. At the peak of my extracurricular involvement, I was part of nine different organizations (not something I particularly recommend), but the organization I was most proud of my involvement in was the Environmental Proctors. This group of seventy students is responsible for pushing for sustainable and environmentally friendly programs on campus. During my tenure on the board we instituted a trayless program in the academy dining halls (because people waste less if they don't take as much food), started the Interscholastic Green Cup Challenge (a competition to save electricity that has grown from three to thirty schools since its inception three years ago), and met with a trustee about alternative energy solutions on campus. This is just one example of the change students can make in the extracurricular programs at Exeter. While this was my niche, there are enough opportunities that with a little work every student can find theirs.
Boarding students, who make up 80% of the school, are placed into dorms at the beginning of their Exeter career and (except for rare circumstances) stay there for the rest of their time at the school. Dorms are single-gender and house roughly thirty students and one faculty member for roughly every ten students. The benefit of this system is that younger students are immediately exposed to older students who can help them with everything from course selection to paper editing to dating advice. Speaking of which, dating is less common at Exeter then at others schools as there is little time left over after academics. However, it does happen but like any other commitment requires good time management to prevent a decline in performance in other areas. As far as social events go, there are always a variety of activities each weekend from movies to dances to visiting performers. They are generally of good quality considering that the school is located in semi-rural New Hampshire. However, with Saturday classes, there is unsurprisingly little free time left over and students often spend this time relaxing with friends in dorms or on the quads (in the fall and spring). Exeter is located in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire and has had pretty good relations with the town over the past 227 years. While occasionally there is some antagonism between local high school students, it is rare and never actually dangerous. In addition to local police, Exeter has a significant but unobtrusive security presence on campus and they do a good job of keeping crime to a minimum. That said, there have been a number of incidents relating to racism over the past year, though these are certainly fairly rare and the school is predominantly accepting and supportive of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and religions. One of the nice things about the school's location is that it is an hour train ride from Boston making weekend trips a good getaway. However, students and faculty alike often talk about the "Exeter bubble" in reference to both its cultural and physical separation from the "real world." This is a valid phenomenon. When you live in an intellectual surrounded by 1000 other bright students in a place that never has to worry about economic fluctuations or global politics, its possible to forget that there is a world out there. Fortunately, Exeter's teachers do there best to make sure you remember your education is about benefiting the world rather than just personal gain.
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