High School Admissions Research: 6 Tips for Families (2020 ed.)

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Eighth-graders are taking on some of their most challenging courses to date, enjoying the last year of middle school, and preparing to launch their high school career. In the midst of all this, parents should make time to help students familiarize themselves with potential high school options through virtual visits, chats with current students, and other research. Encourage students to document their thinking and reflect on what matters to help focus the list. Getting to know each school’s system and culture takes time, and the application process represents a series of significant decisions students should take the lead on, of course with the help of their parents and trusted advisers. It should also be fun! And there are several ways to make this journey both enjoyable and productive.

Target Your List

Learning about school options takes time and work. Almost every school will offer information sessions (virtual or on site), but there may be more secondary schools available to explore than time for your family to explore them all. Even though virtual visits allow for more flexibility than in the past, there still is a limit to the number of schools you can visit and realistically consider during this time. Consider the elements that are important to your student and your family, and cull your list to a manageable group of schools that will allow enough time for thorough research and for the application process itself.

Generally speaking, selecting a core group of 4-6 options works best. In our experience, this will still give you plenty to consider, and plenty of options later on if you move through the process thoughtfully. Fewer than four schools probably means the student should view their public high school as a viable option or have a strong connection to an independent school that is likely to admit them. More than six schools become unwieldy to manage. In every case, there should be specific and strong reasons to apply to whatever schools you consider.

Open Houses and Shadow Days

Open houses should be fun, low-stress events to give you and your student a chance to check out campuses and hear from school staff. Local schools traditionally do their best to offer dates that do not conflict with one another, and they sometimes offer more than one option. This season, a virtual open house should allow your family to interact with the school community while keeping socially distanced. During an open house, you and your child are not under a microscope to be evaluated in any way (though it is possible that schools track attendance if registration is required). So show up, take it all in, and have fun. They’re meant to be informative and enjoyable. Initially, it is not necessary to have a specific agenda or goal; however, if there is a particular program or activity of interest (e.g., athletics, performing arts, academic department), there may be an open house option specifically designed for those programs, and you may have the opportunity to connect with representatives from those departments. 

During a shadow day, your student will follow another student to class and also attend admissions events. They usually last for a half-day, and your student should use this opportunity to interact with teachers, admissions staff, and other students. The experience will be very helpful when they have to answer questions in writing or during interviews about why they want to attend that specific school, so help students document their impressions afterward. Some schools do include an interview during the shadow day; others don’t. In any event, it’s always good policy for students to be on their best behavior. Students may have the opportunity to make an impression and should be prepared for that. Students should also be ready to ask questions.

High School Interviews Are Important

The interview is probably the most important opportunity to learn about schools and the most important component of the admissions process. This is a chance for both the family and the admissions team to envision how the student would benefit from becoming a member of the community. Admissions will want to learn what the student and family can bring to the table and how they might fit best within the school. It is important to prepare for this event. Parents should encourage students to practice articulating their thoughts (ideally in front of a stranger so that they have to go through the awkwardness of talking about themselves to someone they don’t know). Local K-8 private schools conduct mock interviews for their own students, and some organizations, such as PrepMatters, offer these opportunities as well. 

Students might expect one-on-one interviews, which some schools offer. Others want joint student-parent interviews instead of the traditional one-on-one. Depending on a student’s temperament, these settings can help some students come alive while making others more taciturn. It can be useful to talk about these possibilities with your student and make sure they practice at least once with each format. Which interview format do they prefer? What are some strategies the student can practice to make themselves more at ease if they feel awkward interviewing alone or, more commonly, feel shyer with parents in the room? 

As with the other events, but especially the interview, it is important to come prepared with your own questions. You will certainly be given the opportunity to ask them, and it can indicate your level of interest and research. Ask about specific things that interest you and are relevant to your experience. Avoid general questions that can be easily found on the website. Is there a club or elective you particularly enjoyed but didn’t necessarily find in your school research? Perhaps you want to ask about the ability of students to start a new group or to impact their school environment. Students can show admissions what they are genuinely interested in not only through their attitude but the kinds of questions they ask.

After the interview, always follow up with the admissions team members, thanking them for their time and the opportunity. Feel free to handwrite a note, but an email should suffice and allows for a response more conveniently.

Things Happen

Perhaps your plan doesn’t quite come off as expected. Someone gets sick, another family member needs help, or a work situation arises. Don’t be afraid to call the admissions office if you can’t make an event for which you are registered. The admissions team understands that things happen in the busy life of a family. It does not look bad if you have to cancel or reschedule. We would not recommend reaching out to the school just to chat, but it can be helpful to call should something arise to keep you from attending a school event. This unplanned interaction can even sometimes turn into another point of contact with the organization that is helpful down the road.

Above and Beyond

Finally, an important aspect about this process, and life in general, is that we shouldn’t necessarily limit ourselves to the suggested events for applicants. Find opportunities to go beyond the normal tour and open house. You are allowed to go to a school play, art show, or athletic event (once they’re back — in the meantime, ask about getting virtual access to a school event). Talk to a coach or school official you haven’t interacted with yet who could teach you more about a part of the school that is important to you. You will be surprised at how accommodating a school will be.

Six Important Take-Aways

  1. Plan ahead: Fall weekends fill up, so map out dates for these events early. 
  2. Open Houses & Shadow Days: They’re low-pressure opportunities to engage with admissions team. 
  3. Things Happen: Don’t be afraid to call the admissions office if you have to cancel or reschedule. 
  4. Interviews: They are important. Feeling prepared makes them much more enjoyable, so set up practice.
  5. Questions: At each event, ask relevant ones you can’t find on their website.
  6. Order Off the Menu: Go to a fall play or art show, or talk to coaches. Show genuine interest, which can’t be faked.

We hope that you and your family will make the most of the experience and that you can use these steps to make the process enjoyable and informative.

Jeff Knox

Director of Educational Planning

With more than a decade of experience in education and admissions counseling, Jeff Knox is a trusted adviser for students and families, both in the DC Metro Area and around the globe. As Director of Educational Planning, he manages the pedagogy, curricula, logistics, and quality of PrepMatters’ Educational Planning Department range of services, including application and essay assistance, inte...

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