You’ve made the decision to apply to private school. You’ve decided where to apply. Now it is on to step three: getting in. For the matriculation process to be successful in this ultracompetitive admission market, you’ll need a solid plan of action. You must jump in with both feet; there is no room for toe-dipping into these waters. To successfully matriculate to a top private school, you must be fully committed to the process. And while the depth of commitment will vary from family to family, each must be fully focused on the project as a whole, as well as on the dates and deadlines inherent in the process. To survive and flourish, you must be focused and well organized, and you must keep your head above water. Falling behind will most certainly lead to less-than-advantageous outcomes.
The benefits of advance planning are that it allows you to 1) stay ahead of the rising wave of requirements and 2) show your most impressive features during each and every step and stage of the process. While many of these stages involve tasks that are routine and perfunctory, each one affords you the opportunity to stand out. The accumulation of these outstanding responses to routine questions and tasks is what will get you noticed and, ultimately, accepted. As the admissions officers scour your application, we want you to produce as much head nodding and deep thinking about you, the candidate, as possible. We want them firmly focused on the academic, social, and extracurricular riches you will bring to the school, to its culture, and to its tradition. Just as each school, during the courting stage, sold you on the dream of attending there, you must now sell admission officers on the dream of you attending their schools.
Stage One: September – June of the Year Prior to Submitting Your Applications
Activity 1: Improve Your Grades
Every school wants students who work hard and make their own successes inside and outside the classroom. Good grades and strong test scores are two such indications of each student’s success. You may be denied entrance to a top-choice school based purely on your grades. And while top grades cannot by themselves get you accepted into your top-choice private school, they most certainly are a key piece in the process. There is perhaps no more convincing argument you can make to a school than to have top grades. A high grade point average (GPA) can do much of the talking (or bragging) for you. To maximize your GPA, increase your classroom participation and raise your own personal standards on homework assignments, long-term projects, and tests. Have an adult proofread all your work before you submit it. If necessary, find a tutor who can help you with the subjects you find most challenging. A good tutor can help you understand things more clearly, help you stay organized and on task, and help make the process of earning higher grades less daunting. If you cannot afford or find a tutor, find a mentor or a fellow student with whom you can share your study time. Working with a study partner makes studying more enjoyable and effective.
Activity 2: Improve Your Academic and Test-Taking Skills
Done correctly, studying for tests is a slow, deep, and gradual process. It involves enhancing your reading skills, math skills, vocabulary skills, and analytical reasoning skills. While test taking can be taught, having a deeper skill base can make the process easier, faster, and more effective. Begin by determining your areas of greatest need (or relative weakness) and commit to a process that will help you improve in these areas. Many pre-assessments and associated test-enhancing study plans are available.
Strong vocabulary skills will not only help you earn higher test scores, but will also help you earn higher grades and make you a better conversationalist and interviewee. You can boost your vocabulary through an understanding of basic etymology and through word groupings. In particular, it is very useful to know prefixes and roots, people words, and double-meaning words.
Strong reading skills allow you to process information more effectively and efficiently. Fast and accurate reading makes everything else about learning better and easier. Focus on the different types of written material as you encounter them. A novel does not present information in the same way as does a textbook. Enhance your comprehension of written materials by reading a wide variety of passages, then by asking yourself questions and answering them. You can also ask yourself questions before reading the passages, then look for the answers as you read. The practice of asking and answering questions is one of a series of strategies that are collectively referred to as “active reading.”
Strong math skills are needed in order to excel in school and on tests. In middle school, the three most important math skills are 1) the ability to set up and solve equations, 2) the ability to extract information from data sources such as tables, graphs, and charts, and 3) the ability to translate word problems into actionable equations. As with all subjects, identifying areas of relative weakness and creating a plan to strengthen these areas is the most important step in improving math skills.
For many students, writing is the forgotten stepsister of education. With so much emphasis placed on math, science, and reading, many feel that writing is becoming a lost art form. The fact is that writing skills are critically important in every aspect of life, including school, testing, and careers. As it relates to private school admission, writing skills translate to better grades, better test essays, and better application essays.
Study skills are strategies and techniques that allow students to make the most effective possible use of time spent in and outside the classroom. The difference between an hour of study time utilizing proper study skills and one completed without application of study skills can be as dramatic. It can be as dramatic as the difference between studying for a test and going in “cold.” By employing simple study techniques, students can instantly and dramatically improve their grades, improve their physical and mental well-being, improve their attitudes, and garner the attention of school and admission personnel.
Activity 3: Take ISEE or SSAT Tests for Practice
You control which scores are sent to private schools. Therefore, taking real tests for practice is the best way to become familiar with the test content and feel, to identify academic and test-taking skills that require strengthening, and to measure your progress as you prepare for your actual test day. Who knows—you might even score high enough on one of your practice tests to use it for admission!
Activity 4: Study Your Target Schools
Based on your grades, test scores, and social, personal, and extracurricular attributes, start to narrow down your list of schools to those into which you have a reasonable or high probability of getting in. Then, learn as much as possible about each school’s climate, culture, and history. Follow the sports teams and special activities. If you live close enough, go on campus to see a game. Follow students on social media as they travel abroad. Attend a play or performance at a school. The more you know about each school and its culture, the better prepared you will be to hit home runs on your application essays and in your interviews.
Activity 5: Improve Your Social Media Profile
Find out what is out there on the Internet that schools will be interested in—good and bad. If you discover any problems, clean them up. Make your social media footprint as strong and free from potentially less-than-stellar representations and references as possible. This is especially important for your own social media pages. Clean up your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all other personal social pages. To enhance your social media profile, become associated with causes and activities that have a likelihood of ending up on social media. Not only do these causes help society, they can help you by improving your social media identity. Remember, while not all schools look up all students, they most certainly can, and in some cases will, use social media to learn as much as possible about potential candidates and their families.
Activity 6: Improve Your School Profile and Community Spirit Profile
One of the best ways to improve your school profile and community spirit profile is to become more actively involved in school and community cultural and social activities. Join after-school clubs, engage in sports activities, and get involved in school- and community-sponsored social causes, benefits, and fundraisers. Even better, start your own club or social awareness and fundraising campaign.
Activity 7: Ask for Recommendations
Hopefully, you’ve had positive, rewarding relationships with most of your teachers in the year prior to applying to private schools. While it is generally important to have good relationships with teachers, it is even more important now, since you will be asking these teachers to write you recommendations for private schools. Many schools require recommendations from teachers of specific subjects, such as math and English, while others allow you to choose. Also, you should identify a person who knows you well and is willing to write a personal statement, since most schools ask for, require, or recommend such statements. This should be a person who 1) can write well and 2) can provide insights into your character, special talents, or other praiseworthy qualities. If you were involved in an extracurricular activity such as a school play, newspaper, math competition, or robotics competition, you should consider choosing a person who can discuss your success, your positive attitude, or your leadership in accomplishing a particular task. Note: If the personal statement is coming from someone outside of school, then this can wait until after the school year, in the summer or fall.
Stage Two: Summer Prior to Submitting Your Applications
The summer before applying to private schools is a great time to complete certain application activities that will allow you to make more efficient use of your time during the fall. Also, without the burden of classes, homework, and assignment deadlines, you can focus at least part of the summer on engaging in activities that will improve your chances of admission. Here are some activities to focus on the summer before applying to private schools.
Activity 1: Housekeeping
Use the summer to clean up any activities that have not yet been completed. For example, if you still have schools you need or wish to visit, you can request tours and personal interviews to occur over the summer. While we recommend that you take campus tours while school is in session, this is not always possible. The summer can be a more convenient time to have a proper “handshake” with schools. Also, if you have not yet asked for your personal statement(s), try to secure this (them) by the end of the summer.
Activity 2: Prepare for Tests
A solid performance on a private school entrance exam is critically important to your admission profile. Use the summer to learn, practice, and enhance your test-taking skills. This could also require you to improve your vocabulary, writing skills, reading skills, and math skills. The test essay, while not scored, is considered by many to be every bit as important as the test score itself. So don’t neglect this aspect of your test preparation regimen. In most cases, preparation for the SSAT, ISEE, or HSPT complete tests, including the essays, requires 18 – 36 hours of tutoring.
Activity 3: Find Activities That Provide Self-Improvement and Enhancement
Summer activities are abundant. Find an activity that helps you further a particular interest that is likely to also be viewed positively by private schools. Whether you love science, history, video production, graphic design, art, music, math, writing, or virtually anything else, there are lots of summer options for you. You might consider attending robotics camp, visiting historic sites, or observing a session of Congress. You could write a book or a blog, or create a website to display your talents. You could take a class or classes as well. Many private schools and colleges offer classes over the summer. Keep in mind, however, that a camp or program that takes place at a school and uses the school’s name is often not affiliated with the school in any way. While this is not a problem, you should still be aware of this so that you do not assume that taking these classes will improve your chances of matriculation.
Activity 4: Pre-Learn and Remediate
There is certainly no better time to prepare for the upcoming school year than the summer. Far from making your academic life harder, pre-learning and remediation can dramatically ease the stress brought on by taking challenging courses. Identify subjects that are consistently problematic for you, and find remediation sources such as tutors and classes. Also, seek out pre-learning opportunities for what promise to be your most challenging courses of the upcoming school year. Often, you can find classes or tutors who will work with you on your upcoming classes, even using the exact textbooks you’ll be studying during the school year.
Activity 5: Build Confidence and Public Speaking and Interview Skills
Summer can be a convenient time to take a class (or to get coaching) on skills that will improve your confidence and public persona. Having confidence while speaking to individuals or in a public setting can go a long way toward making you a more attractive candidate to schools. Certainly, being a clear and confident interviewee can tip the admission decision in your favor.
Activity 6: Enjoy the Summer
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that summers are a time to unwind and decompress. So don’t forget to have fun over the summer. If possible, engage in family adventures, trips, and even stay-at-home activities. Whenever possible, try to be active and enjoy the sunshine while also getting a healthy dose of vitamin D. Enhancing skills and opportunities is important, but it is equally important to have time to roam, play, relax, and explore.
Stage Three: September – January of the Year You Submit Your Applications
Activity 1: Take Admission Tests One, Two, or Three Times
Popular dates for the ISEE and SSAT are in October, November, December, and January. Check for registration and test dates near you. Sign up at least a month in advance, as popular dates and locations can reach capacity. While you can take the SSAT whenever and as many times as you wish, you may take the ISEE only once during each of the three testing windows: August – November; December – March; and April – July, up to a maximum of three times in a 12-month admission cycle. You have full control over the scores that are sent to schools, so the best strategy is to take tests early and often. You may take one Flex Test (private administration) per year for both the SSAT and ISEE. Some students find the private setting less intimidating than large school settings.
Reminder: Both the SSAT and ISEE require a written essay. While your essay will not be formally graded, it will be read with great scrutiny by admissions officials. The essay is your opportunity to give admissions officials insights into your personality, sensitivity, social awareness, and maturity.
Activity 2: Complete Your Applications
Fortunately, many schools use one of two common applications, the Gateway to Prep Schools or the Standard Application Online. We recommend that you seek assistance from a knowledgeable professional, especially when it comes to the essays. Both the student and parent essays must be high-quality and error-free. And speaking of the essays, be judicious in your use of adjectives. Use of superlatives, for example (great, terrific, smart, amazing, incredible, unparalleled, unprecedented, fantastic) almost always has the exact opposite effect of the one intended. Since you can’t be present during the selection process, the application will, in effect, be your representative or proxy. A clean, attractive, error-free, polished, consistent application will represent you far better than one that is erratic, inconsistent, and full of errors.
Application deadlines for most private schools fall in January. Most schools do not accept applications after the deadline has passed. Therefore, all activities associated with the applications must be completed. These include: tours, interviews, essays, personal statements, and recommendations. In some cases, schools will allow you to send scores and recommendations after the deadline has passed. Please check with the individual schools for their application completion and submission policies.
Stage Four: March and April—Acceptance and Final Decisions
Most schools notify students and parents of their application decisions on or around March 10.
If you are accepted to more than one school, you may want to revisit these schools before you make your final decision. Within one month, you are required to submit a signed contract and nonrefundable deposit. After one month, your seat may be offered to a wait-listed student. To help you make the right decision, you may want to consider factors such as cost, financial aid or awards, opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, reputation, location, special services, campus culture, and matriculation records.