Phillips Exeter Academy review by Georgetown University student. Some people argue Philips Exeter is the best high school in the United States. While I wouldn’t go that far to brag about it, I will say that its academic programs far surpassed anything you would find at a standard public high school. With all classes being discussion based, one was required to delve into subjects at a much more intense level than a standard lecture course. It’s been said that Exeter is the more “math-science” school while its sister school, Phillips Academy, focuses more on the humanities. I don’t believe that is true as I definitely recall working very hard and learning quite a bit in my writing based courses. Discussion is very helpful in classes like English and history, where we were given quite a bit of text to question and interpret. The student body is incredibly competitive, and things like college admissions and grades have been known to put strains on relationships. Slackers are not tolerated at a place like this, and there’s a good chance your friends will want to get in an hour of homework on a Saturday night before hanging out. Exeter is said to be the epitome of a college preparatory school. The general lifestyle one is forced to live at Exeter (going to classes, hour and a half windows for hot meals, required sports, and dorm check-in) is in turn great preparation for the kind of time management you will have to utilize in college. Exeter grants a bit more free time than other high schools, and you learn quickly that it is wisest to use that free time to get your assignments done before they come back to haunt you. Exeter’s anti-AP mentality made it impossible for me to transfer any credits to my university and thus I will be taking summer courses in order to pursue a double major plus a minor and graduate on time with my peers, most of whom came in with about three or four classes under their belt. My lack of AP credit also forced me to take a lot of lower level general requirement classes that I personally felt were not challenging and a waste of my time. When I say anti-AP, I mean that Exeter offered no sort of AP or Honors classes. This was because Exeter believed in more “holistic” teaching process that didn’t teach to a test. Overall, I will say that Exeter decently prepared me for college due to the general rigor nature of its atmosphere. The Harkness method is something that Exeter deeply prides itself in. This is the original discussion based teaching style that was introduced to the school in the 1930’s. Twelve or so kids sit around a large wooden oval table and are encouraged to speak for most of the class while the teacher acts more as a guide for discussion versus a lecturer. In some ways, I appreciated this method because it forced me to be more outgoing as well as develop a more eloquent way of speaking. What I didn’t like about it was the way it allowed for certain kids, like me, to slip through the cracks from time to time because I was forced to rely on shaky explanations from my peers to understand a subject that everyone was a novice in; teachers were very reluctant to lecture and expected us to carry each other in the class.
My description of our quality of life would pretty much be what I have already previously written above. Life is always busy and work-filled. Our schedule is designed in such a way that allows little free time, and part of that is probably to prevent high school age kids from getting into trouble. Some people honestly loved Exeter and were very satisfied with the lives they lead there. Many others still resent the place today because of the immense amount of stress that dominated several years of their lives there. I remember reading a review back when I was a prospective student, “This is not a school for the faint hearted.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Although you are surrounded by many intelligent, caring, and resourceful people, the overarching vibe of the school can easily make you feel lost in the crowd. The school culture was undoubtedly liberal (fun fact: our current principal is married to New Hampshire’s democratic governor). When applicable, classes were incredibly liberal and it was obvious that most of the teachers came from stereotypical liberal academia. On one hand, it was great that all students were accepted and things like marriage and racial equality were strongly encouraged. On the other hand, one-sided history discussions dumping on Ronald Reagan got pretty boring after a while. Peers were somewhat hesitant to help each other because of the competitive environment we lived in. Friends studied together, but there was obvious envy among students whenever a test was given back in class or when SAT scores came in the mail. We had a peer counselor program which was a great way to encourage bonding and trustworthiness among students. Typical amounts of high school drama permeated the atmosphere, but people were nice overall. The schools pastoral system was pretty well run. Relationships with dorm parents (who are also school faculty) varied based on personalities and the strictness of that dorm parent. I personally loved the people who worked in my dorm and built some great connections with them. Some teachers really throw themselves into the role and will sit down just to talk about life or edit a paper for you. There were no real tutors at Exeter, you were encouraged to work directly with your teacher which was more effective but also resulted in fewer meetings due to the amount of time that had to be fairly distributed to all students. For the most part, teachers tried their best to work with you whenever you needed it. With everyone living together, however, scheduling a meeting was generally easier than it would have been at a day school because people could meet later at night or earlier in the morning. Exeter is non-denominational but had faculty members of almost all major faiths that served as religious resources for students who sought them (we also had a reverend and a rabbi on campus). The discipline system was pretty liberal compared to most schools. Its main issue was that it lacked in consistency. People were slaughtered for plagiarism but given a slap on the wrist for possession of marijuana. Overall, most of the rules made sense. It’s not easy controlling 1000 minors, some of whom have powerful parents. Drugs and alcohol were obviously not tolerated, and even the 18 year old seniors were forbidden from cigarettes.The restrictions on driving made it hard to leave campus, and because so many kids tried to play the system, leaving campus eventually became almost impossible.
Exeter is undoubtedly focused on academics. Work comes before everything else, even eating and sleeping in some cases. There are still multiple outlets for non-academic pursuits, and Exeter tries its best to carve out time for them. All students are required to either play a sport or take a physical education class during the year and we pride ourselves in having the most extracurricular of any boarding school (there have to be about 100+ clubs). Most students are involved in lots of activities, but you can tell that a lot of them are doing it more for college than for the passion of the activity itself. At the end of the day, however, people are still mostly stressed about homework and classes. Community service groups are pretty well organized on campus. They operate under ESSO (Exeter Social Service Organization). I’d say a majority of students participate in at least one community service club at some point during their time at Exeter. The main problem is that we are located in a small town, and boarding students are not allowed to drive, so service opportunities are somewhat limited and not always very inspiring. I will say, however, that we do have some great programs like Best Buddies (working and bonding with disabled peers) that have been somewhat successful. It is to stay committed to a club because it’s easy for one’s schedule to fill up quickly. I was only able to dabble in service clubs here and there because of my other commitments. We have Academy Life Day which is a half-day committed to doing service in the community, but like I said before, our options are limited. It’s good to know that Exeter does care, though. The kids who devoted the most time to an extracurricular were those who either played a varsity sport or were trying to rise through the ranks of the school paper. That was easily twelve hours a week just for that one activity. An average student like me spent about an hour and a half each school night doing something club related. Having a leadership role would cost you about one to two extra hours of planning time a week. With universal meal times, it was very easy to host a club meeting during lunch or dinner which was very efficient and much appreciated. Leisure time wasn’t much of a thing at Exeter because everyone was so driven in their academics and their extracurricular activities. Saturday nights were the only time people relaxed somewhat, but they were pretty boring anyways because there isn’t much to do in New Hampshire besides eat food and sit around. They put on dances for us, but everyone usually came and left them feeling embarrassed. This environment produced a lot of workaholics and a lot of people who ended up needing anti-anxiety medication, but it at least taught me and some of my friends how to make the most fun out of banal situations. For example, we’d do impromptu dance parties in dorm basements.