The Boarding School Experience: Preparation for College and for Life


Nguyen Xuan Toan

 This guest post was written by Nguyen Xuan Toan, a student from Hanoi who attended Hanoi-Amsterdam High School and graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 2010.  He is currently  a student at Amherst College

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I often joke that boarding schools are basically colleges for high school students. In some ways they are. The boarding school experience resembles the college experience, albeit with much more discipline and structure. That discipline and structure, along with the rigorous boarding school academic experience, have prepared me much better for college in the US.

 Boarding school taught me the habits necessary for a good college experience, such as having a regular and adequate sleep pattern and exercising regularly. Without those habits (forced upon me by boarding school discipline in some sense), I would have a much worse college experience.  I would have pulled all-nighters, gained weight and mismanaged my commitments. In short, the years at Andover taught me to live the college experience:  to manage time well and to balance my life well in an academic environment.

The boarding school experience also taught me the basic skills necessary at American colleges that Vietnamese high schools could not offer, such as writing coherently, conducting independent research, and critical reasoning inquiry. Boarding school improved the quality of my writing immensely, especially with teachers going over my papers and pointing out the errors and redundancies that I would never recognize if I were simply learning English as a foreign language in Vietnam. 

And more than a rehearsal for college, boarding school gave me the experience of a lifetime: I got to meet cool speakers, teachers, and friends. It’s awesome to…

  • learn American literature and post-colonial Africa literature from a teacher who can read Truyện Kiều in Vietnamese and know famous Vietnamese scholars personally.
  • discuss Islamic tradition, sometimes in Vietnamese, with a French Muslim (who knows quite a bit of Vietnamese).
  • play in the same student-run student-conducted orchestra with people who play the cello yet can play incredibly complicated piano pieces by sight-reading.
  • learn from a friend who wins both the International Mathematics Olympiad and the International Informatics Olympiad.
  • try speaking several languages to a friend who know 6 languages. (I have more or less the same experience at college, though at high school such a concentration of cool people is astonishing.)

Also, Vietnamese students often have a hard time getting recommendations from Vietnamese teachers and counselors to apply for US colleges — writing a recommendation has yet to become a part of the Vietnamese education culture. But at boarding schools teachers write recommendations regularly and wrote frank and insightful recommendations for me. Boarding school also provided professional admission counselors, who advised me well.

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