The Most Competitive Schools of 2018

  • Posted By: Jordyn Vandeleur
  • December 11, 2018
  • 0 Comments
Phillips Exeter Academy

Over the past six years, Test Innovators has helped more than 100,000 students prepare for the SSAT and the ISEE, the admissions tests required for applications to the most competitive independent schools in the country. Every year we review our data from thousands of test-takers to find out the most popular schools students are applying to.

Our long-awaited 2018 results are here! Below are the top 25 most sought-after schools, based on the number of students who stated their intention to apply in 2018.

Keep in mind that there are many lovely schools which may be perfect for you that we haven't included on this list!

We've also put together an interactive visualization of these top 25 at this link.

1. Phillips Academy Andover, Andover, Massachusetts



As one of the oldest academies in the US, founded in 1778 during the Revolutionary War, Phillips Academy Andover commonly called Andover) has grown and transformed but maintained its level of excellence and prestige. At its founding, Andover consisted of an all-male, all-white student body – a far cry from the scene today where it’s 1,150 students represent 49 different countries and women outnumber men. Andover is both a boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12, with approximately 75% boarding and 25% day. Along with over 300 course offerings, Andover students engage in more than 125 clubs and activities ranging from rock climbing to robotics.

2. Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire



Three years after helping his nephew found Andover, John Phillips turned his eyes to Exeter, New Hampshire, and the founding of Phillips Exeter Academy. Exeter not only expects academic excellence but challenges students to take control of the classroom. After a donation in 1930 by Edward Harkness who hoped to create a teaching method where students and teachers discuss and share ideas, Exeter adopted the “Harkness Method.” Today students sit in classes of 12 around a table with their teacher discussing, sharing, challenging, and respecting each other’s ideas. Exeter is known as one of the biggest “feeder schools” with many of its students going on to Ivy League colleges.

3. Harvard-Westlake School, Los Angeles, California



In 1989 the all-boys Harvard School and the Westlake School for Girls agreed to merge, creating Harvard-Westlake, a coeducational 7-12 school in Los Angeles. Harvard-Westlake is split in two campuses – the lower school for 7-9 graders with 730 students, and the upper school for 10-12 graders with 870 students. Harvard-Westlake offers academic opportunities to students with 28 AP courses and opportunities in the arts with concerts, recitals, and 90 art class offerings, as well as an emphasis on community service.

4. Menlo School, Atherton, California



Since its inception in 1915 as a military school with an enrollment of only 13 boys, Menlo has undergone many changes to become the 6-12 coeducational day school it is today with 795 students. Even with a growing student body, class sizes at Menlo remain small with a 10:1 student to teacher ratio. Among the many clubs and activities offered is an award-winning student newspaper, the Coat of Arms, as well as a Mock Trial team that has gone to state and national competitions.

5. Choate Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, Connecticut



Choate Rosemary Hall’s campus covers 458 acres of suburban Connecticut and has 121 buildings for housing and educating the more than 800 high school students attending the prestigious school. One of the most famous alumni, John F. Kennedy, now lends his name to one of Choate’s eight signature programs which include the JFK Program in Government and Public Service, an Advanced Robotics Concentration and an Environmental Immersion Program.

6. Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston, Massachusetts



In 1635, Boston Latin School became the first public school in the U.S. At the time, the student body numbered under ten and learning Latin was a high priority. In the 383 years since then, the school has grown to over 2,000 students, deemphasized the Latin requirement, and seen many iconic Americans graduate (and a few notable ones, such as Benjamin Franklin, drop out). Today, Boston Latin School remains one of the most competitive public schools in the country, accepting applicants in Boston who have achieved academic success and excelled on the entrance exam.

7. Milton Academy, Milton, Massachusetts



Unlike many of the other schools created in Massachusetts during the 1700s, Milton began as a coeducational day school. Then, after 100 years the school divided into separate boys’ and girls’ schools before becoming the coeducational K-12 boarding and day school of today. Milton draws students from 27 states and 28 countries, all motivated and bound together by the school motto ‘Dare to be true’ – a motto embodying the school culture of initiative, respect, and the active pursuit of learning.

8. Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, Massachusetts



After its founding by charter from Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams in 1797, Deerfield saw many years of prestige as many graduates continued on to the Senate and Governor’s office. That is, until the late 1800s when industrialization hurt the rural town of Deerfield and attendance dropped to just nine students. In order to keep the Academy afloat, the administration began recruiting more widely, emphasizing athletics and building the curriculum. Today Deerfield has 650 students and embraces a liberal arts curriculum highlighting the humanities, STEM, and the arts.

9. Lawrenceville School, Lawrence, New Jersey



Among the many prestigious boarding and day schools in New England, Lawrenceville sets itself apart with its distinct House System. Houses are divided by grade levels and genders with older students able to apply to a house either alone or with a group of friends. Students are assigned through a process called ‘House Match’ which aims to form Houses of students with varied interests. Throughout the year the Houses compete for academic, athletic, and service awards. Life at Lawrenceville captured the American imagination when, in 1910, graduate Owen Johnson wrote The Varmint, which followed the adventures of protagonist Dink Stover through his years at the school. The book and accompanying short stories were then adapted to a movie in 1950 immortalizing Dink and Lawrenceville on screen. Today, Lawrenceville has 818 students in grades 9-12 who focus their studies not only on traditional academics but also exposure to global issues and an appreciation of all cultures.

10. Noble and Greenough School, Dedham, Massachusetts



Situated on 187 acres on the Charles River and only 10 miles from Boston, Noble and Greenough boasts not only beautiful scenery but also a wealth of academic, athletic, and arts programs. The stages of Noble and Greenough are constantly bustling with theater productions, dance recitals, concerts, and choral ensembles. The fields and courts stay busy with 24 varsity teams holding several New England Championship titles. Though students stay busy with many different activities, Nobles preserves a sense of community with all-school morning assemblies four times a week, which bring together the upper and middle schools.

11. Boston Latin Academy (BLA), Boston, Massachusetts



Like Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy is a prestigious public exam school. The Academy was founded as the Girls’ Latin School after the community and parents spoke out for women’s education and presented a petition to the school board. From a small beginning with only 37 girls, the academy is now co-ed and has over 1500 students.

12. Horace Mann School, Bronx, New York



Horace Mann located in the Bronx, was originally founded as an experimental co-educational school affiliated with the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Then, in 1947, it became an all-boys school before readmitting girls in 1975. The school is named in honor of Horace Mann, a Massachusetts lawyer who helped lead the way in creating the elementary school system in the U.S. and was a strong proponent of women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and better support systems for mental illness. Horace Mann fosters a challenging academic environment and rich student life emphasizing both intellectual curiosity and a robust and respectful community.

13. Lakeside School, Seattle, Washington



Lakeside School, located in Seattle, Washington, is frequently cited as the best school in the state and counts both Paul Allen and Bill Gates among its alumni. Lakeside prides itself on a high level of academic rigor. Along with academics, all students are expected to complete service hours, and many students take service one step further by participating in the Global Service Learning program. For students in the Upper School this means spending a month living and working on projects in rural, high-needs areas outside of the U.S.

14. The Hotchkiss School, Salisbury, Connecticut



In 1891 Maria Hotchkiss took the inheritance she received from her husband (after a scandalous affair where he moved with his mistress to Paris) to open a library and boys’ school in Connecticut. The school, originally called the Maria H. Hotchkiss School Association, would become The Hotchkiss School in 1927, and after 83 years of educating young men, would admit its first women in 1974. Along with expanding the student body and faculty Hotchkiss has taken major steps in environmental efforts, offering activities such as the Fairfield Farm Ecosystems and Adventure Team, creating an office of Environmental Initiatives, and committing to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020.

15. Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Cambridge, Massachusetts



Buckingham Browne & Nichols (BB&N) was founded in 1974 with the merger of the Buckingham School and Browne & Nichols schools. One of BB&N’s defining programs today is the Bivouac. Through this program, the incoming class of 9th graders spend 11 days in the wilderness camping, hiking, and cooking– all while building trust, respect, and lasting bonds along the way. The Bivouac, along with many other BB&N traditions, embodies the school’s mission to imbue curiosity, motivation, integrity, kindness, and scholarship in their students.

16. Riverdale Country School, Bronx, New York

photo by Riverdale Country School

Situated over two campuses and 27 acres in the Bronx, Riverdale Country School educates 1,170 students from pre-K to 12th grade. Riverdale’s philosophy is centered around three core tenets: developing minds, building character, and creating community. This philosophy is put into action with Riverdale’s three signature programs. The first is Character Education, which works to strengthen character skills like grit, optimism, and honesty. The second program is Design Thinking, which asks students to think creatively about how they interact with the world and work collaboratively to come up with new ideas in design. The third program is Living Mindfully, which emphasizes personal awareness, reflection, and stress management.

17. The Harker School, San Jose, California



Harker spans four campuses in San Jose and educates 2,000 students in pre-K through high school, making it the largest elite independent school in California. Harker is guided by a commitment to both academic achievement and civic duty. Harker offers curriculum tailored to students’ needs and a wide range of electives offering students numerous STEM and arts options. Among the many performing arts organizations at Harker is the musical theater department, which has been invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in the London New Year’s parade.

18. The Bishop's School, San Diego, California



Bishop's is located just one mile from the Pacific Ocean in the heart of La Jolla and is one of the top schools in the San Diego area. The faculty at Bishop’s work to create a strong sense of community where each student feels supported and guided. This support is fostered by every student’s daily meetings with their faculty advisor who provides academic and social guidance. Bishop’s promotes global education for its 800 6th through 12th graders both in and out of the classroom with globally focused curriculum, study abroad offerings, cultural exchanges, and international internships.

19. The Dalton School, Manhattan, New York

photo by Jim.henderson

Dalton was founded in 1919 during a time of educational reform. The progressive ideas of the time inspired Helen Parkhurst to create the Dalton Plan, a format and ideology the school still adheres to today. The Dalton Plan aimed to create educational plans tailored to each student’s needs, abilities, and areas of interest, while promoting social awareness and responsibility. Some of Dalton’s notable programs today focus on immersive and activity-based learning such as the archeological study program, chess program, museum program, and their early introduction to world languages.

20. The Kinkaid School, Houston, Texas



The Kinkaid School is a Pre-K to 12 school in Houston. One of Kinkaid’s most distinctive programs is the Interim Term. This three-week period in January allows students to explore classes and curricula of their selection, often involving non-traditional subjects. This program also offers special travel opportunities to students as well as internships for students to explore and develop their career skills.

21. Crystal Springs Uplands School, Hillsborough, California



Crystal Springs Uplands, located in California’s Bay Area, is a grade 6-12 school with two campuses, including an upper school campus situated in a renovated mansion. The school stopped offering AP courses in 2012 to allow teachers more freedom with their curriculum and to allow for more student-designed projects, research, and experiences. Every year students are invited to take part in international experiential learning with trips to locations such as Nicaragua, France, India, and Zambia.

22. The Taft School, Watertown, Connecticut



Taft's school motto is “Not to be served but to serve,” and the school embodies this with a large emphasis on service, collaboration, and building of strong character. The students of Taft comprise a diverse student body with 606 students in grades 9 through 12, hailing from 33 different states and 44 different countries. These students are able to choose from 200 courses, 20 of which are AP, as well as over 60 clubs and extracurricular activities.

23. Castilleja School, Palo Alto, California



Castilleja is an all-girls 6-12 school in the San Francisco Bay area. The school’s mission is based around their five core values, the 5 Cs; courage, conscience, courtesy, charity, and character. Along with a challenging and engaging curriculum, Castilleja has a number of beautiful facilities. These facilities include a fabrication lab with laser cutter and 3D printer, theater, fitness center with an indoor rock-climbing wall and spin studio, and an art gallery with rotating featured exhibits of student and professional art.

24. Lick-Wilmerding High School, San Francisco, California



Lick-Wilmerding considers itself a “private school with a public purpose” and develops its curriculum around fostering learning and growth of students’ heads, hearts, and hands. This curriculum works to integrate arts, humanities, sciences, and technology to give students a well-rounded experience. The focus on technical courses such as metal, robotics, jewelry, woodworking, architecture, and design have long set Lick-Wilmerding apart from many other schools in the area.

25. St. John's School, Houston, Texas



St. John's opened its doors in Houston to its first 344 students in 1946. Since then it has grown to 1,325 students and from its original six acres to 41 acres. As the school has grown, St. John’s has continued to put an emphasis on community and created a house system in 2011 to facilitate community and connection. Upon arriving at St. John’s, students are randomly sorted in to one of six houses which help foster connections between students in grades K-12.


You can view the ISEE and SSAT score data we have on these and other schools here for the ISEE, and here for the SSAT.