Phillipian Commentary: Selling Andover Short

Andover pitches itself as a place of unmatched opportunity for ambitious high school students. Just take a look at the front page of its website, where the school boasts its 300+ courses—including 150 electives—and 60 teams in over 21 sports. Click a few more links, and we see information about the 125+ clubs offered and 5:1 faculty-student ratio, gorgeous image galleries displaying state of the art facilities and equipment, and gushing testimonials from students and faculty alike about the wonderful opportunities that Andover offers. All of these elements come together to paint a picture of an environment dedicated to maximizing someone’s academic, athletic, and general life experiences.

While it’s undeniable that Andover is a rare community with equally rare experiences to offer (our Learning in the World program comes to mind), the problem is that nobody can take advantage of all of these opportunities. Sometimes, it can feel like the school is falsely advertising itself as a kind of utopia where students are able to leverage all of those opportunities.

I became a tour guide this fall, and my experiences opened my eyes to how Andover is perceived by an outsider’s point of view for the first time since I applied to the school. The usual spiel I give to these kids and their parents generally focuses on how much freedom we have to pursue the opportunities that the school offers—a point to which I often get a wide-eyed look of amazement and something along the lines of ‘Wow, there are so many things I want to do here!’ I remember having the same experience on my tour as a prospective student. Even as a newly matriculated Junior, I remember saying that I wanted to take six courses every term I was here, just so I could make the most out of Andover.

After a couple of years at the school, I’ve realized that there just simply isn’t a way to do all of the things that you want to do at Andover. 300+ classes are a lot to choose from, and students end up having to make sacrifices in what courses they take. In many cases, these decisions are influenced by outside factors like advisors, college counselors, and parents who pressure students into taking specific classes.

Taking a look at the numbers can also tell us more about the true amount of opportunities students can take advantage of. Incoming Juniors have, at most, 72 course slots over four years to maximize their Andover experience, most of which will go to required courses. In fact, the recommended course load for 4-year students (4 years of English, science, language, math, and the multitude of graduation requirements) take up 62 of those slots.[a][b] [c]That leaves a measly ten slots to take advantage of the 150+ electives, and that’s assuming the best-case scenario, where a student would be taking six courses a term every term for four years. In my experience, most students usually only take five classes a term, leaving many with only two or three slots by the end of it all. The problem is even worse for new Lowers, Uppers, Seniors, and PGs whose timetables are even more limited. In this light, the sea of classes that Andover pitches are shrunk down to only a handful.

But classes are only one aspect of the Andover experience. Another big part is the extracurriculars that the school offers. Sports, arts, clubs, and community engagement activities are important and many of my tourees frequently ask about the vast diversity of those programs we have available at our fingertips. Coming in, students seem to have an unrealistic expectation of how many extracurriculars they will be able to balance, but over time, as they realize that they can’t juggle everything, they slowly drop these activities one by one.

A good example of this phenomenon is the dropoff in club attendance from the beginning of the year toward the end. I’m sure you’ve seen it: a club will start off their first couple meetings with a room packed to the brim with people, but as the year gets busier, people slowly stop coming, until suddenly at the end of the year, the club is lucky if they’ve managed to keep even a third of their original pool of members. This is yet another way that the image of limitless opportunity is dismantled by reality.

There are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in the week, and as schedules fill up with more and more work, eventually many of the things that students came in initially wanting to pursue get put on the back burner for things that are required of them. And then the harsh truth reveals itself: no one can do everything that they set out to do once they arrive on campus for the first time. While this can seem like a sad inevitability, it doesn’t have to be as depressing as it sounds. In an environment where time is the most valuable resource, people are forced to find what their true priorities are, which in the long run can lead to an overall more successful and less stressful life.

I think that it’d be hard for Andover to stop boasting about everything that it has going for it and, in a way, it shouldn’t have to—that’s not what I’m asking for, because we do have a crazy amount of classes, electives, clubs, teams, facilities, dedicated faculty, and much more that all come together to create a community with some of the most unique opportunities that many of us will ever be afforded in our lives. However, I do think that it is important to recognize that the image of unlimited experience waiting to be tapped is misleading. Going forward, we should realize that we don’t have all the time in our schedules to do everything we want and that there can only be a limited amount of things that we love to do. If we don’t give it our best shot, we’ll all be selling Andover a little short.