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The Boarding School Survival Guide: A Conversation With Justin Muchnick

Boarding_School_Survival_frontcover_FINALEditors note: After working through the boarding school admission process, Phillips Academy sophomore Justin Muchnick thought students like him — students unfamiliar with boarding school who want to go to one- needed a new resource.

Muchnick’s not an expert. So, he turned to students and their experiences. For The Boarding School Survival Guide, he gathered experiences from current and recent boarding school graduates. Their stories are organized around themed chapters.

“…our voices and stories could assist prospective students and their families (and even current ones for that matter!) better understand this unique world. The range of perspectives of my co-authors is as wide as the schools they attend. But we do all have attending boarding school in common,” Muchnick explained.

Our conversation:

What tripped you up in the boarding school search/admission process that made you think “ah, there needs to be more about this?” What was missing?

When I first thought about applying to boarding school, I had no prior background in the boarding school world. No one in my family had ever attended – or knew the name of– a boarding school. When I tried to learn more about the boarding school experience by scouring the Internet and bookstores, I found very limited and practical information. I had to rely heavily on admission officers and official school websites, until my mom and I decided to dig deeper and reach out to current boarding school students and their parents. Because it was tough to find many students in the Southern California area, I started thinking, “Wow, I wish there was an easier way to get this information.” And now, a few years later, I’m very proud and excited to say to the future generations of boarding school students, “There is an easier way!”

How’d that become ‘write a book’ given the world of on-line/free resources?

I have a voracious love of reading. I love paper books. I love the smell, the colors, the wealth of limitless information. I love turning pages and I love feeling the coarse paper of a printed work. I lose a lot of these sensations when I’m reading online, so I’ve never been a huge fan of e-readers or resources like them. I guess, in that sense, you could call me “old school.” Also, my mom is an author, so I’ve grown up around writing. Add to that that I very much enjoy the process and act of writing, and I had a pretty compelling case to get this information out in the form of a book.  I think this book will last a while on the shelves since the contributors are current or recently-graduated students with a wide range of perspectives, nationalities, socio-economic backgrounds, geographic origins, and boarding school experiences.

So you have this idea for book…how did you translate that into a proposal?

Well, I actually co-authored a book, Straight-A Study Skills, last year. Through that experience, I learned a lot about how the entire publication process works. Thus, in addition to having an idea, I was fortunate to already have some background in translating that into a proposal.

Then, most importantly, how did you pitch/persuade/sell Peterson’s to greenlight the project?

Now that is a longer story! The proposal circulated for six months to many publishers, and ultimately three were very interested. Peterson’s finally signed me in February, 2013, and their support has been amazing ever since. I think ultimately it came down to convincing the publisher that there are enough people willing to invest $16.95 to learn more about the unique world of boarding school before making a potential six figure investment in boarding school tuition. And since this book is not just for students but also for parents (or anyone interested in learning more about the boarding school world), I think the book’s worth every penny of the $16.95. It was hard to dig up too many stats on boarding schools but here are some that I used in my pitch with Peterson’s.

Approximately one half of one percent of US school children attend boarding schools (which does not seem like a lot!). But in numbers, that translates to, according to Boarding School Review.com, over 100,000 students.

Furthermore, 170,000 or more apply to boarding schools annually. If even 5% of people applying each year bought the book that would be 8500 books!

Talk a bit about the two biggest challenges that you had to work through to get the book done?

Connecting with all of my writers was pretty challenging. I searched for contributors by emailing schools, heads of English departments, and presidents/editors of school newspapers to get the word out and find students who were willing to write purely because they wanted to share their stories and expertise. I ended up with hundreds of submissions (I joke that there’s enough content for a sequel!), and was fortunate that the range of schools and types of students broad enough that the book is relatable to a large audience.

Believe it or not, getting a cover photo was also a challenge due to copyright and photographer fees. In the end, I was happy to have an image of my school, Phillips Academy Andover, on the cover. In fact, you can almost see my dorm room behind the tree in the upper right corner of the image!

What’s next?

I have a scholarship award that I am giving to 2 readers, each for $1000. The details are in the book. It will be fun to screen the applicants and award the scholarship in June, 2015. Also, this summer I will be cheering on the US National Team in at the World Cup in Brazil with my soccer-crazed dad and two younger brothers. When I get back from that incredible experience, I plan to enjoy doing P90X, running a Star Wars camp for youngsters in my neighborhood, and returning to Andover this fall as the captain of the wrestling team. Life is pretty good!

  • Guest User

    Hilarious–Justin didn’t write any of this; he got eager students (who clearly weren’t well-versed enough in contract law to realize that getting nothing while Justin profits was a bad idea) from across the country to do all the work for him, then just put everything together in one book. It’s sad to see this be touted as a boarding school resource rather than a gimmick to get into college.

    • bfisher

      Guest User,

      I think you’re a bit shrill and unnuanced on the issues you raise.

      You seem irritated by the fact that the book is essentially a documentary studies project (full disclosure my grad school background is documentary studies).

      Yes it’s a documentary project. As far as I can tell everyone received credit for their contributions.

      Documentarians gather the stories of others to paint pictures or tell larger stories. Documentary photo, oral, written, and video projects tell stories all the time. This is what documentarians and their projects do.

      I’ve never had trouble asking someone for an interview or contribution. Rights and money have never come-up.

      Most importantly, you seem to believe that great profits lay on the horizon for this type of project. Justin mentions in the interview (and I suspect that these are Peterson’s numbers) that estimated sales might be 8,500 books annually.

      8,500 x $16.95 (retail price)= $144,075.

      Not an insignificant sum but, not a sum, that, after overhead, will make anyone rich.

  • David Herzhaft

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Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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