Phillips Exeter Academy review by Stanford University student. Phillips Exeter is famous for its Harkness style of teaching. Basically, every class -- including math, science and art -- takes place around a round table, called a Harkness table, after philanthropist Edward Harkness. Every class is like a debate, a dialogue or a lively discussion. Teachers often have to shoo students out of the classroom at the sound of the bells, because everyone is so involved in the discussion. Exeter's way of teaching math is simply unparalleled, and our classes often played host to observers from schools all over the world. There are no text books -- teachers get together and write all the problems themselves. There is no busy work. Every problem builds a new skill or introduces a new concept. The problems are never graded. Instead, they are discussed, Harkness-style. Math at Exeter is actually FUN. I can say honestly that the teachers at Exeter are all amazing -- most are qualified to teach at any university, but they CHOOSE to teach at Exeter, where the level of engagement they can have with a self-selecting group of motivated, intelligent students is more important than publishing or perishing. If anyone ever feels even a little bit behind, they can talk to the teacher. It is pretty common for teachers to invite students to their apartments for breakfast, or to offer extra help to those who ask for it. Exeter is a warm nest. Exeter's new, $40 million science building has more technology within its walls than I had ever seen anywhere else (I've since worked at SLAC, and they seem to surpass the Phelp Science Center by a little). If you have an experiment you want to try, Exeter will fund it. There are aquariums, skeletons, touch pools, physics labs with revolving floors, engineering labs with materials and power tools, and even a scanning electron microscope (SEM). If there's something you need that Exeter doesn't have, they will order it for you. Grading is heavily based on class participation. We do have exams or papers due two or three times a term, but they are hardly the emphasis of the class (with a few exceptions). Memorization and repetition is completely unimportant. Having a solid command of course concepts and the ability to apply what you have learned to situations you have not yet encountered is what counts. As far as strengths and weaknesses, I really cannot think of any department that I would NOT consider very strong. Even our music and art programs, though not strongly emphasized, are hardly lacking. If you want to learn an instrument and we don't have a teacher for you, we get you one. If you want to learn an art for which there is no class offered, you can register as independent study. The average class size is probably about 8-12, but I have taken classes at Exeter with only one other student. Once I was in a class with fifteen students, and every day someone would complain that that class was just "way too big." Harkness teaches so much more than math and English. It teaches a way of thinking, communicating and problem solving that I can honestly say about 99% of my classmates at Stanford (and I'm a senior) lack. It is a difference that teachers can spot a mile away. I was in a large lecture hall once, my first year at Stanford. A quarter of the way through the lecture, I had a question, so I asked. The professor answered, and I asked a follow-up question. A little later on, I made a comment about a slide that I thought connected well to a previous point. At this point, the prof looked at me for a minute and said, "You went to Exeter, didn't you?"
The dining halls at Exeter are great -- for dining halls. I have very few complaints. Of course there are bad days, but there are so many options -- cereal, salad bar, fruit bar, frozen yogurt, wok, pasta, veggie burgers, dessert and a main entree -- available at every meal that you're pretty much always going to find something you like. The dining halls are also great because they are open all day -- from 7am to 7pm -- and people can go in and eat and socialize whenever they want. They're a great place to meet up with friends to work on an assignment together, or just to talk. Also, the dining hall staff is super, wonderful, friendly and warm. They become just as important to your meal as the food you're eating. You look forward to breakfast because you know they'll be there smiling when you get there. Housing at Exeter is also pretty great -- my single room in Langdell Hall my senior year at Exeter was just about the same size as the one-room quad I shared with three other girls me sophomore year at Stanford. A lot of thought and effort goes into the residential program, and there are lots of fun dorm activities and outings to the beach, Frieldlies, or wherever. You grow to really love your dorm, since, unless you want to switch, you can live in the same dorm all four years. You learn and grow together. Older students are available to help younger students with questions about life, school, scheduling or anything else. It's definitely a great atmosphere. Dorms definitely develop their own "personalities" over the years. I think it's pretty easy to get a single room at Exeter after your prep (freshman) year, but this is highly dependent on which dorm you're in. Exeter is such a diverse place that I think it's impossible NOT to learn and grow, just by being there. The learning does not stop when you leave the classroom. I could have skipped every class, every day, and still learned more than I would have at home. I feel like I've done a poor job of describing the magic that happens in the Exeter community. But basicaly, it's like this: you fall in love with everything. The buildings. The fish. The squirrels. The dining hall staff. Your teachers. Your friends. Your work. Your activities. Exeter is just a magical experience, and one that still takes my breath away.
On the surface, the Exeter academic schedule looks very daunting -- 8am to 6pm during the week, and 8am to 12:35 on Saturdays. However, there are specific, one-hour "meetings" blocks two mornings a week, during which many clubs have their meetings, and others meet after classes end at 6pm. There is also a 30-minute "universal free" four afternoons a week. Varsity and club sports practices are scheduled into your day, usually taking place after lunch (1:30-3:30) or at the end of the academic day (3:30-6). So it's not like you're going to get out of class at 6:00 and have to go straight to the gym. Of course, you're going to have to sacrifice some activities and interests in favor of others, maybe especially at a place like Exeter, where you're going to have a substantial work load. But, all in all, I think you can still manage to do the extracurriculars you want to do. I was a tri-varsity athlete who was also active on the club fencing, debate and rugby teams. I was also an elected dorm representative in Student Council for two years, and a dorm proctor my senior year. I also played in a rock band and took music lessons once a week. The amount of time you put into things is completely up to you. Everyone is going to be "busy" no matter what, but I would say most people also have lots of time for fun -- it's never hard to get a game of pickup frisbee going, or to have fun on a dorm-sponsored outing. One thing that I think is really important about Exeter: If you want to do something, but you can't afford it, Exeter can offer you financial support to buy the equipment or pay the entrance fees or whatever other costs are associated with your extracurricular. Most clubs, though, are well-funded and free for everyone.