Cracking the Private School Admissions Code

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Originally published November 21, 2019

Starting the private school admissions process can be a study in opposites. On the one hand, it is so exciting that there are many great options! On the other hand, how do you tell the differences amongst the schools? On the one hand, schools work hard to give you many opportunities to visit and explore! On the other hand, the calendar fills up quickly with Open Houses, Shadow visits, and tours. Never fear: here’s a handy list of terms to help you manage the process, plan your timeline, and find a great fit for private school. 

Open House

An Open House is just what it sounds like. Schools welcome visitors to campus, usually on a Saturday or Sunday during the fall semester. They will typically have a full slate of programming, including student panels, faculty demonstrations, and school tours. These options will be repeated throughout the announced time frame so that you can come and go throughout the Open House as you please. The specific format will look slightly different at each school. We recommend you start visiting Open Houses a year before you apply (7th grade for high school placement) so that you have an idea in mind of the schools you are considering. 

Pro Tip: To make the most of your Open House visit, take notes. After a few visits, schools start to all sound the same, so you’ll want to have some clear notes to consult. 

Admissions Testing

Private schools typically require standardized testing as a part of the application. Those tests include the SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT. Locally, a few schools take different routes, such as Washington International School, which prepares its own tests, and St. Anselm’s Abbey, which relies on the OLSAT and the SCAD standardized tests. 

Like any standardized test, one of the frustrations with these assessments is that student brains are not standardized. But don’t panic! Indeed, like any other test, you can prepare for these. They are each a little different from one another, and even more different from the tests you likely have taken in high school. But they have been around for a long time, and there are great strategies out there to make the testing much more straightforward. (Check out our blogs on the SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT!)

Pro Tip: Think about your testing plan early in the process so that you can plan your test dates for the fall, and arrange for some test preparation without overloading your 8th-grade year.

Student Application Essays

Private schools typically have a strong sense of mission and community. They are reading your essays to see what you will bring to that community and how your goals and experience fit in with their mission. Truly, they just want to get to know you, so be yourself. Take some time with these essays. They will probably feel a little awkward at first, so just be patient and expect to do a lot of revision. (Check out our blog on the SSAT & ISEE essays!)

Pro Tip: Do not let your parents or another adult write this essay for you. Yes, you want to make sure the grammar is correct and your message is clear, so you can ask an advisor to read them. But it is very important that the essays be in your voice, and admissions teams are experts at spotting an adult voice in a student essay. So trust yourself – you have a lot to say. 

Parent Application Essays

Just like with student essays, the parent writing portions of the application are designed to help the school get to know your child and your family. Don’t use this time to rehash your child’s accomplishments; spelling bee ribbons and basketball trophies will be accounted for in other parts of the application. Here, you want to take about who your child is. 

Think about the characteristics that seem central to your child’s personality and character, and reflect on those. Maybe he’s an athlete who thrives in helping engage others in spirit and community building. Maybe she’s an artist who observes the world and shares her perspective in insightful and unusual ways. Maybe you see in them a budding leader or a deep thinker. Whatever the characteristics and mindsets are that stand out, reflect on those. Give examples of how you have seen this characteristic grow and change over the years, helping your child become the young adult whom you are proud of. 

Pro Tip: Be specific with your examples, and don’t shy away from a little bragging! You are proud of your child, so take some time to show why – concretely. 

Shadow Days

For most private high schools, your student will be offered a chance to participate in a Shadow Day, where your student will spend a day with a host student, attending class and learning about the school from the inside. Parents do not attend shadow days. Each school arranges the shadow days with slightly different parameters, but the goal is the same: for your student to learn more about the school (and sometimes for the school to learn more about your student). 

Be thoughtful as you navigate the day: look around and ask yourself, “Is this a place I could see myself?” Some schools will include a formal interview on shadow days, but even without an interview, students should assume that their behavior may be noticed. Typically, admissions officers ask teachers to share impressions of shadow visitors in their classes. Pay attention and be engaging. Plus, the shadow day gives you access to the best source of information about any school – STUDENTS! Ask questions of your host and other students so that you can learn what the student experience is really like. 

Pro Tip: Bring a book. Your host student may have a test or a quiz, and you’ll want something to do to pass the time. And consider leaving your cell phone at home. Schools often have strict policies about phones, so you don’t want to make a poor first impression. 

Student Interviews

Student interviews happen in all sorts of formats, but the fundamental goal is the same: to determine if this school is a good fit for this student. Admissions teams rely heavily on interviews to help make their decisions, so the student interview can be a critical factor in the admissions process. But rather than let that fact cause any stress, I encourage you to think of it as an opportunity. Here is your chance to build a relationship with the admissions office. 

Whether the interview is one-on-one or in a small group, it is designed to be a conversation, so it might feel a little casual. But remember, you are also trying to put your best foot forward. This balance between feeling comfortable and showing your best side is sometimes a tricky one. It is important to prepare for these interviews. Before your interview day, take some time for reflection. What parts of your personality and experience are most central to show to the school representatives? Once you have done some reflection, you should have a list of things you want to mention. 

Additionally, remember that the interview is a chance for you to learn more about the school. Ask questions! Plan open-ended questions like, “What do you like best about this school?” or “What are some of your favorite traditions here at this school?” These questions give the admissions officer a chance to share their perspective and experience to help you get a glimpse of life from an insider’s point of view.

Pro Tip #1: Always send a thank you note! You can write a card or send an email. Whatever the format, a thank you note is a way to show your interest, your maturity, and your gratitude for the admissions’ team’s time – all great reminders for your application. 

Pro Tip #2: Consider doing a mock interview with a PrepMatters Educational Counselor or Specialist! Contact Educational Planning for more information.

Parent Interviews

Private schools are mission-driven organizations that make curricular and planning decisions based on whatever their mission might be. They have a strong sense of what it means to be a Panther, a Gator, or a Little Hoya. The parent interview is a chance for the school to get a sense of what role you might play as a family within that community. They hope that this school will be a place for far more than just classes for your student. Parents are a part of every celebration, every field trip, every athletics sideline. So the parent interview will be about your student, but it will also be about you. This is your opportunity to show how supportive and excited you will be to be a member of this new school community.

Pro Tip: The parent interview is a great chance to share about your involvement in your current school community. 

One final pro tip for the road: don’t be alarmed! This process feels complicated, but in the end, each school is trying its best to find a good fit for each student.