Everything Your Need to Know About Private Schools: The Application Process

Finding and applying to a private school can be an exciting endeavor, but it is also a time-consuming and sometimes daunting process. In fact, it often takes over a year of diligent effort and deep soul searching. For most private schools, applications are due in January for admission the following September. So, before January, you must have completed all your research, filled out all your applications, and completed any required standardized testing. The process usually begins in the spring or summer the year before a student applies.

Stage One: Initial Considerations

If your family has already made the decision to apply to private school, then the next step is to identify the attributes that you and your child require or desire in a school. The goal is then to identify schools that address these attributes. This process should ultimately lead to a list that comprises schools that are good “fits” or “matches” for your child’s academic, athletic, artistic, and social needs. Generating an effective list is typically a three-step process:

  1. Identify the values/attributes that you and your child desire in a school. Be sure that these attributes meet your child’s needs, interests, and special talents. (Day vs. Boarding; Co-Ed vs. Single Gender; Academic Support; Athletics, Arts, Community Service Programs, Financial Aid Offerings…)
  2. Identify the schools within your geographic “comfort zone” that meet these criteria. Common geographic comfort zones for families are the Boston area, the New England region, or the mid-Atlantic states.
  3. Identify schools that maximize your child’s opportunity of being accepted. Because competition for seats at the most competitive schools is so fierce, applying only to schools that have acceptance rates of 10%, or whose average SSAT score is 90%, for example, is not recommended. For many students, schools of this nature are often overly rigorous and not a good academic fit. For others, however, they may be just right.  Know your child, and pick your schools accordingly.

By beginning your search with these three considerations, you can focus on schools that meet the specific needs of your child and your family. While the process of applying and being accepted into a private school can be challenging, it should not be overly stressful or yield outcomes that are not conducive to helping your child become a confident and successful student, athlete, artist and individual. Always consider schools that align well with your family’s values, knowing that eliminating schools that are not representative of your child’s academic, social or emotional persona is part of the process. While these considerations may sound obvious, it is easy to lose site of one’s goals throughout the search process. We recommend writing down on paper the traits of a school that would be a good “fit” or “match” for your child. Referring back to the list during the school search process can help you stay focused on the important elements of your search.

Based on these three criteria it is reasonable for you to have a list of ten to fifteen potential schools to consider. You will then want to narrow your list to about six to ten schools to visit, of which you may apply to six to eight schools. To narrow your list of schools you have to do lots of research.

Stage Two: Due Diligence

This is the part of the process that takes the most time. Working backwards from the application deadline of January 1-15 (for most schools), the process of collecting information can take upwards of an entire year. Start in the spring or very early summer of the year before your child applies. Talk with your school’s secondary school placement counselor for advice. He is often your best resource when it comes to choosing appropriate schools to consider. Here are some suggestions to help you navigate the due diligence stage of applying to private school:

Start by asking yourself these 11 questions:

  1. How competitive would you like the school to be?
  2. Do you want boarding (5 or 7 day) or day?
  3. Do you require financial aid?
  4. Do you want a religious school?
  5. What size school is best for your child?
  6. Are you interested in having your child taking AP or IB courses?
  7. Does your child prefer a single gender school or coed school?
  8. What are your underlying objectives in choosing a private school?
  9. Does your child require any academic support or programs such as ESL?
  10. What kinds of colleges/universities do students traditionally matriculate to?
  11. What are the night and weekend activities (boarding schools)?

View the school’s websites.

As you find schools that seem to fit your child, order catalogs. Also, contact the schools directly and ask to be put on their email list of upcoming events for prospective families. Often, open houses and receptions are a good way to get to know a school community and its culture. Of course, you must eventually visit each and every school to which your child may apply, but you can begin by researching schools online and reviewing catalogs.

You might consider hiring a consultant to help you in the process.

A consultant can save you a tremendous amount of time and effort. Typically, consultants charge between $3,000 and $10,000 (or more) for their services. To find a reputable consultant, find out if they are affiliated with an organization such as Independent Educational Consultant Association (IECA) or if they are Certified Educational Planners (CEPs). Ask for references.

Stage Three: Fine Tuning Your List

Each moment you spend researching private schools moves you closer to the point at which you are ready to apply. Once your list is down to six to ten schools, the process becomes far more manageable. Don’t be too concerned that you are eliminating the perfect school. That is a natural reaction to the weeding out process. Shortening your list is both necessary and advantageous. Too large a list can cause you to spread your most precious resources—time and effort—far too thin. Trust your instincts and consult with your secondary school placement counselor for advice.

Stage Four: Planning and Applying

Once your list is down to a manageable number of schools, you can begin the next stage of the application process.

Campus Tours and Interviews – Generally schools require an on-campus interview, though some schools will conduct online video interviews for students who are applying from a great distance. Contact schools in late summer to arrange a day and time to tour the campus and conduct an interview. Most schools will begin offering tours and interviews in the fall. Interview preparation is critical, as the interview itself can make or break a student’s case for admission.

Applications – Consider using an online application platform like the Standard Application Online (SAO) or Gateway to Prep Schools. Hundreds of independent schools accept these applications, and it is an easy way to apply to many schools with one application. These applications are similar to the Common Application for colleges and universities.

3. Essay Writing – Essays must be a student’s own work, but assistance from a parent or professional can be highly advantageous. A word of warning to parents: if you assist your child at all, you must apply a light touch. Too much assistance is both recognizable and a potential disqualifier of your child’s application. Also, each student writes an essay as part of the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test). While these essays are not formally graded, schools often compare this essay with their application essays. If there is too much of a discrepancy between the two, it may cause concern on part of the school. Note: Parents are often asked to write essays, too!

4. Recommendations – Each school handles recommendations differently, but generally, schools require an English teacher recommendation, a math teacher recommendation and a character recommendation. Some recommendation forms can be completed online through application platforms like the SAO or Gateway to Prep Schools while others need to be completed by teachers and school officials and sent to the schools via email or the postal service. Either way, plan ahead, stay organized, and check with your school’s secondary school placement counselor regarding the overall process.

5. Standardized Testing – Most schools require the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test). Administered on Saturdays (or Sundays for those whose religious convictions prohibit them from testing on Saturdays), most students take the SSAT in October, November, or December of the year in which they are applying. Once scores have been released, parents may elect to send them to schools through the SSAT website. It is important to note that the SSAT can be taken several times and families can decide which scores are sent to schools.

Because the SSAT can be so challenging, test preparation is very important and should occur no later than the summer and fall. Hiring a reputable tutor or signing up for a class is the most common way parents help students prepare for the SSAT.

While the process of determining which schools fit your child’s needs may feel daunting, it can also be a time of great discovery and bonding. The key to a successful matriculation into private school is not to let the process overwhelm you, your family, or especially your child. Try your best to stay organized and ahead of schedule. Keep expectations reasonable and remain focused on schools that are a good fit both for you and for your child.  After all, this is where your child will spend most of his time for the next several years.