Cracking the Private School Admissions Code (2021-22 ed.)

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Watching this mom walk out of my office, less anxious than when she arrived, I thought about our conversation — a frequent one I have with 8th grade parents as the fall application season starts to take shape. All of them have started to recognize that the private school admissions process in the DMV (and beyond, especially if boarding school is in the mix) feels a lot more like college admissions than they expected. And not in a good way.

The private school world surrounding the nation’s capital is certainly complex, and the process of gaining admission can seem daunting. But it does not have to. It’s a process like any other, so if you use the right tools, you can find a great fit for your child and save some family sanity along the way.

Here’s a list of terms to help you manage this process, plan your timeline, and find the best fit for your student.

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 offer a full slate of programming, including student panels, faculty demonstrations, and school tours. These options will generally be repeated throughout the course of the day’s event so that you can come and go throughout the Open House as you please.

During the pandemic, Open Houses have become more frequent and more varied. Schools are offering virtual general information sessions, as well as virtual Q&A open sessions, for prospective families. Some schools have found ways to invite families to campus for drive-through visits or socially distanced tours. The specific format of Open House will look slightly different at each school, but we are already seeing more opportunities for in-person events this fall.

We recommend you start visiting Open Houses a year before you apply (7th grade for high school placement) so that by the fall of 8th grade, you’ll have an idea in mind of which schools you want to apply to.

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 on each campus to consult later.s on each campus to consult later. 

Admissions Testing

Private schools often require standardized testing as a part of their applications. The SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT are usually the tests your student will need to consider, although a few local schools take different routes: Sidwell Friends and Washington International School, for instance, prepare their own tests, while St. Anselm’s Abbey relies on the OLSAT and the SCAD.

Regardless of which assessment your student eventually takes, one of the frustrations with these standardized tests is that student brains are not standardized. But don’t panic! Indeed, like with any other test, students can prepare for these. They are each a little different from one another, but they’ve all been around for a long time, and there are great strategies out there to make testing much more straightforward. (Check out our blogs on the SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT!)

The pandemic has brought several new testing options to the table. For example, both the SSAT and ISEE are offering at-home options so that students can test from their personal computers in safe and familiar environments. Most private schools have started offering alternative options as well. Some schools have opted to exclude testing entirely from their evaluation process, while others allow families to choose whether to submit scores as a part of their application. Still other schools now provide a further option for students to submit additional material, such as a graded school assignment, to offer additional academic depth to their application package.

Pro Tip: If possible, 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 read your essays to better understand 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. (The SSAT and ISEE also have an essay portion, separate from the high school admissions essay. Check out our blog on the SSAT & ISEE essays)

Pro Tip: Students, do not let your parents or another adult write this essay for you! Yes, you want to make sure that your grammar is correct and your message is clear, so you can certainly ask a parent or an advisor at school to read through them, but it is very important that the essays you submit be in your voice. Admissions teams are experts at spotting an adult voice in a student essay. You have a lot of important things to say, so trust yourself.

Parent Application Essays

Just like with student essays, the parent writing portions of an application are designed to help a 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’ll want to talk about who your child is.

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

Most private high schools typically offer prospective students a chance to participate in a Shadow Day, where you 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 for shadow days with slightly different parameters, but the goal is the same: for prospective students to learn more about the school (and sometimes for the school to learn more about the student). This year, some schools are sticking with virtual visits, but many have gone back to welcoming students to campus in person.

Whether online or in person, 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 will be noticed. Typically, admissions officers ask teachers to share impressions of shadow visitors in their classes, so pay attention and be engaging. Plus, the shadow day gives you access to the best source of information about any school — the 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 until the next class. Also, 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 by being disengaged and on your phone or having it go off and disrupt the class.

Student Interviews

Whether the interview is online, in person, one-on-one, or in a small group, it is designed to be a conversation, so it might feel a little more 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, so 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 and experiences to share.

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 perspectives and experience and give you 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 of which are great reminders of you for admissions officers to tag onto 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 their missions. 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, and every athletics sideline. So, while the parent interview will certainly be about your student, it will also be about you. This is your opportunity to show how supportive and excited you are 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 simply trying its best to find a good fit for each student.

Don’t hesitate to contact the admissions officers with more questions — and don’t forget: we at PrepMatters are available to help you develop an admissions plan, from building a school list through test prep, essays, interviews, and making the final choice. We’re here for you!

Katy Dunn

Director of Educational Planning

Katy Dunn has more than fifteen years of experience educating and advising thousands of students as a teacher, counselor, and administrator throughout the DC metropolitan region. The primary lesson she has learned along the way is that each student needs and deserves a focused educational plan, designed to maximize attention and opportunity while minimizing unhealthful stress.

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