Phillips Exeter Academy review by Washington University in St. Louis student. Everything about Exeter -- be it the classes, the sports practices, the orchestra rehearsals, and the dining room conversations -- ultimately tie back to the Harkness education. Created in the early 1900s by a generous donation from oil magnate Edward Harkness, the system involves, on a bigger scale, collaboration and discussion between individuals to understand new ideas. Keep in mind that many boarding and private schools offer "Harkness-esque" classes, but Exeter definitely takes the debates to a much more critically deeper level of understanding, and the method is implemented in every class at the Academy. Looking back from the perspective of college now, the engagement and breadth of discussion in the classroom is something quite remarkable, and something that I highly doubt most of my peers had the opportunity to see in their high school years. No other institution (from what I know) places so much emphasis on articulation and specificity, and forces you to hold dynamic opinions on ideas. As you might imagine, learning through this process ultimately creates individuals best described as conscientious, focused, and driven -- qualities that help students think, communicate, and solve problems that most people in my experiences post-Exeter lack when it comes to comparing them to my high school classmates. In addition to Harkness, the Academy also has a remarkable amount of resources at its disposal, creating an environment where truly anything is in the realm of possibility. Take a moment to just flip through the course catalog -- the classes offered border on the breadth of most liberal arts colleges. If you ever vist, walk into the library -- the largest of its kind in the world, and where if you ever need help getting a book or finding a resources, people are there to immediately help. Although the school is known for individual talent in STEM subjects, I feel like Exeter's best and most profound offerings come in the humanities -- especially history and english classes -- because Harkness works most effectively here. One of my favorite classes was the second trimester of the required US history sequence, which covered the pre-Civil War Era, through the Gilded Age, and up to the first World War. For part of the course, our teacher (who incidentally did his master's thesis at Yale on the role of religion in the Gilded Age) specified a few dates relating to important events in the era, and asked us to write a page on a few articles published from those dates, bringing these thoughts in to discuss in class the next day. Projects like this are the epitome of Exeter -- with a clear focus on research, discovery and making connections, while articulating them succinctly in writing -- and the ones that defined my academic experience there. Be warned -- the Exeter experience can get rough. Classes supposedly give out 50 minutes of homework per class, but it can often be more; however, the school implicitly wants you to essentially cut some corners, since there isn't enough time in the day, between classes, extracurriculars, and "assigned work". Nevertheless, you'll be very, very busy with work -- something that was definitely worthwhile, making time management and stress in college not nearly as difficult as it was at Exeter. Help -- whether it be from your dormmates, your teachers, or peer tutoring -- is always available, and something to be sought out if needed. People want you to succeed.
Student life at Exeter definitely centers around your dorm if you're living on campus -- after all, it's your home for the next few years. What I found great about dorm life was how tight-knit it was, and how you got to really know kids that you may have not had the chance to interact with in your classes and activities, and especially kids that are older and younger than you. Most of the dorms on campus have an indescribable personality to them, and are a source of pride for most students, surrounding the tradition of their dorm. Housing at Exeter was quite good, and although you may not get a single your first year, most do for the rest of their time at the Academy. Most rooms are spacious, and some even have lofts -- qualities that can get difficult to find in college. The campus at large is very tight-knit and collaborative -- there's lots of camaraderie involved in sharing the Exeter experience, and people want to help and see you succeed. At the same time, there's also a competitive nature surrounding the school, that can best be described as intrinsic, coming from within the individual and manifesting itself as an inner desire to "succeed" according to the social standard. We definitely work ourselves too hard, and there's been a push recently to make Exeter a more hospitable place, but I think this rough quality of the school isn't something to fear, but rather to be very proud of. I've met too many people in college just not ready for the work ahead, who can't control themselves, who can't manage their time, and who expect to get handed a near-perfect GPA. Exeter is a bit of a reality check early on, and teaches you to push past adversity and to really draw from it when encountering new obstacles. The harsh reality the glue of the place -- what makes that island of red brick buildings in rural New Hampshire "turn boys into men." The school's approach to discipline, as you can imagine, was a bit rigid, towards drinking and drugs, but most especially to plagiarism. If you stay out of it's way though, it shouldn't affect your time on campus -- the temptations are definitely there, but most students value the investment that their families and the school puts into them, and decide that the costs far outweigh the benefits of drinking, smoking, and cheating. What I still miss about Exeter is the people. In the past, prep schools have been known for attracting the "old money, WASPs from Greenwich" type, but the school makes a big effort to seek individuals from all over the country, and all over the world. The result of this is a diverse student body, ready to make interesting conversations and discussions around the table. The school also strives for socio-economic diversity -- over 60% of kids at Exeter (from what I can remember) are now on some sort of financial aid, and tuition is free for families making less than $70,000 a year, a promise that most colleges haven't even made. The best word to describe kids from Exeter is definitely "interesting" -- everyone has their own sort of quirk, but it really makes for a great student body.
Schoolwork alone will definitely keep anyone busy, but I think that there is a good kind of social pressure that forces you to "get out there" and get involved with student life at Exeter. The opportunities and options border on the endless, and if there is something that you'd like to bring to the school, it's certainly feasible to get done with the resources at hand. There's no doubt that you'll be pressed for time, but you really learn to be efficient and manage your time well at Exeter -- a skill that's very useful for college. The time students spend on solely extracurriculars per week definitely varies, but it generally increases per year (as you get more involved with organizations, and get involved with things that are reserved for upperclassmen), and probably averages around 3 to 4 hours per day, between sports practices, music rehearsals, and other possible club meetings. I'd say that the first two definitely take up the most time -- sports generally have a "double bloc" of time at the very least, adding up to roughly two hours per day, four days a week, and the music groups hold rehearsals at least twice a week, for an hour and a half. It's possible to do both (I personally did), but again, they're both large time commitments and require a fair amount of focus and drive to get through. What still strikes me as remarkable about Exeter is the culture around "success" -- at least here, it's the individual involved with a few extracurriculars quite thoroughly, all while still getting the grades and keeping a strong social life. In college, I've noticed that the kids viewed as "successful" are extremely good at one subject, and aren't nearly as well-rounded as some of my peers at Exeter. One of the largest organization at Exeter is ESSO -- the "umbrella" for most of the social service clubs on campus. Most of the school is involved with at least a single ESSO club, and the organization is divided up into different themes and focuses, such as "global justice" -- the one I involved in. The school made a big effort to get kids involved in ESSO, although it wasn't mandatory. One of the heights of my ESSO involvement in "global justice" was creating a Skype Q and A with teenagers in Egypt in the height of Arab Spring.