The Private School Admission 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. Therefore, January is your hard and fast deadline to have completed all your research, filled out all your applications, and completed any required standardized testing. Most students begin in the spring or summer for admission the following academic year.

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. In this stage, your child’s unique gifts and challenges should be considered.

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.
  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 exclusively to schools that have acceptance rates of 10% or less, or whose average SSAT percentile is over 90%, for example, is not recommended. For some students, schools of this nature are overly rigorous and not a good academic fit. For others, however, the rigor and challenge associated with these schools 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, you should try to keep stress out of it.  Further, it should yield outcomes that are conducive to helping your child become a confident and successful individual. After all, this is always the ultimate goal. Always consider schools that align well with your family’s values.

Eliminating otherwise tantalizing schools that are not representative of your child’s academic, social or emotional persona is often a painful part of the process. While these considerations may sound obvious, it is easy to lose site of one’s goals while immersed in the search process. You might try writing down on paper the traits of a school that would be a good “fit” or “match” for your child. Refer back to the list often to 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. From this point, you have lots more research ahead.

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 an entire year or more. 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 the application process:

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)?

Visit the schools’ websites.

As you find schools that seem to fit your child, order their catalogs. You should also contact the schools directly and ask to be put on their email list in order to stay informed 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 might be 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 in form and function to the Common Application used by colleges and universities.
  3. Essay Writing
    Essays must be a student’s own work, but advice 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 these essays with the application essays. If there is too much of a discrepancy between the two, it may cause concern or suspicion on part of the school. Note to parents: Some schools require you to complete an essay as well, so brush up on your writing skills!
  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 private secondary schools require the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test), while most private elementary and middle schools require the ISEE. Administered on Saturdays (or Sundays for those whose religious convictions prohibit them from testing on Saturdays), the ISEE and SSAT are most commonly taken in October, November, or December of the year in which students are submitting applications. Once scores have been released, parents may elect to send them to the private schools through the test companies’ respective websites. It is important to note that the SSAT can be taken several times during the year and families can elect which scores are sent to schools.  The ISEE, on the other hand, can be taken only once in a six-month period. Because both the ISEE and SSAT tests can be so challenging, test preparation can be an important differentiator 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 become overwhelming. Stay organized and ahead of schedule. Keep expectations reasonable, and remain focused on schools that provide an environment where your child will feel confident and supported during this incredibly important stage of his life.