Cultivating Responsibility Through High School Admissions

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Many families with rising 8th-grade students are well into the process of looking at potential secondary schools for their children. Although parents naturally want to do everything possible to ensure their student’s successful entry into the right school, it is important during this process to recognize opportunities to shift a sense of responsibility for this work to the student. Offering your child a seat at the search table can help them start to recognize what they value in an education and encourage them to be more active participants in shaping their lives moving forward. Even now, amidst the uncertainty of an ever-changing landscape, students can take steps on their own to engage in the process of applying to private high school.

Who’s Driving the High School Admissions Process? 

When your son or daughter was three years old, you probably took full control over what they wore and, to the extent you could, what they ate. Now that they’re tweens, perhaps they get to make those decisions, within reason. The gray area of who gets to decide what and when becomes larger and fuzzier the further into adolescence your child grows. It’s key, then, to create a line of communication about how to navigate that gray area. The private high school admissions process is an excellent opportunity to show your child that you trust them to make important decisions while also setting clear limits on the non-negotiables for your family.

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What Do You Say?
By Bill Stixrud & Ned Johnson

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parents need, more than ever, tools for communicating effectively with children.
What Do You Say? could not have arrived at a better time and is essential
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The admissions process offers the chance for children to gain more independence in and responsibility for their educational development. Students should be applying to schools that offer an environment they find attractive. But in order to do that, they must both have the opportunity to and then feel the responsibility of determining what is meaningful to them.

At every practical step, parents should give children the chance to develop ways of thinking about important decisions, such as identifying what makes a good learning environment for them. This collaborative approach moves both parent and child forward, thoughtfully and deliberately, toward an outcome to the high school admissions process that everyone will celebrate.

This approach will also likely pay off in other important ways. If students are invested in their high school decision, they’re more likely to take advantage of their school’s programs, work a bit harder on their grades, and think critically about who they are and what it is they like to do. Further, it sets a wonderful template for the college search, which (difficult though it may be to hear) comes just a few years later. By building critical reflection skills now, students will be better equipped to handle the road ahead.

How to Hand Over the Keys to School Research

A simultaneously productive and low-risk way that students can take more ownership of this process is by conducting their own research about high schools and admissions processes. Students should visit websites of schools that interest them and take the time to learn about each one.

Nowadays, students can take advantage of many virtual visit options and ask important questions about each school: What are its core values? Where is it located? What clubs and activities are available to its students? How do the current students and teachers describe themselves and the school environment? What is the school looking for in its applicants? If the student has more questions, a follow-up email to admissions (perhaps proofed by a parent) can yield additional information.

Of course, parents will conduct their own research as well. Throughout this process, there should be frequent parent-and-child check-ins to compare notes and discuss differences and similarities between schools. Parents, think of your child energetically beckoning you to the computer screen to show you the neat thing about a particular high school – not the other way around. That’s the goal.

This initial research will prove invaluable when it’s time to start narrowing the list and begin interacting with school and admissions officials at their preferred options. Especially during interviews, the student’s familiarity with the school will be evident. They will have clear and well-thought-out answers about what they like about the school and why they want to attend. They’ll be able to discuss in some detail how they can contribute to the community without having to look to Mom or Dad for validation.

Admissions officials notice and appreciate the student who is prepared and confident. There is an obvious difference between a student who has been dragged to an open house and one who has chosen to attend. If a student has done the homework, it will not be a struggle for them to project a higher level of maturity or to communicate their ownership of this process. 

Watching Them Turn the Ignition on Academic Engagement

OK, you’re a believer. You’re committed to using this process to help build your child’s independence. What’s the next step? What do you actually say to your student? Here is some language that might help you set the tone:

Your current school ends this year, and that means you will have to attend a new school next year. [Alternatively, if your school doesn’t terminate in eighth grade, you can simply state that the start of high school is a natural checkpoint to assess your current educational options.] We would love to know whether you’re open to checking out other options and, if so, where you would consider going to school next year. If you’re not sure yet, we would be happy to help you figure out a way you can learn more about different school options. If you decide to apply somewhere, you will have additional work to do, and so will we. For your part, you can let us know how often you’d like us to check in with you and how we can help you through the application process. When in the next few days might you like to talk about this?

Ultimately, we want students to feel that they have directed the application process and gained admission themselves. Let your child know that they have your support and that you are open to questions at any time. After all, you’re there to help. We hope that this approach makes the high school admissions process less stressful and even enjoyable and productive beyond just “getting in.”

Original version of this blog developed by Jeff Knox.

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