Making the Final School Choice

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By Jeff Knox and John Jones

This is it. Your student has been working towards this very thing. They have taken tests, written essays, completed applications, interviewed with admissions, and visited school campuses—with your help, of course. The schools have sorted hundreds of applications and made their decisions. Your child has been accepted to some and now must make a decision. You and your family have gained the lead in this admissions dance. Now your family gets to finally select where your child will spend the next four years. The decision can be a hard one—not because there is a right or wrong answer, but because there is more than one excellent option, and they’re excellent in different ways. It is important then to find the best path forward, one that weaves together all of the components of a successful high school experience. Here are some guidelines that might help you and your child to make a decision and move forward without looking back.

What’s in a Name?: Prestige vs. Fit

Choosing the right school with your student is more about your kid than it is about the school. The focus shouldn’t be on where your student attends, but how your student will attend. It’s about finding an environment that will encourage your child to emerge as a leader—academic and otherwise—and to be on track to become the best young adult version of themselves. The student should develop because of the environment, not in spite of the environment.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to know which school will do exactly that, so it’s understandable that parents will—knowingly or not—rely on a school’s reputation or name recognition to be the tiebreaker. However, the name of a school can have an oversized impact. It can install preconceived notions that unduly factor into the decision-making, which is especially worrisome if those notions come from scuttlebutt and vague descriptions from other parents (or kids) who have the best intentions but can easily sway you away from more objective thinking. 

Instead of looking primarily at the name of the school (that “bumper sticker” excitement), parents should ask which school offers the smoothest transition into the rigor of high school for their student. Which school will put them in that “zone of proximal development?” This is the place where your student will be appropriately challenged and still be within reach of mastering the skills needed to do what is expected of them.

Additionally, consider where your student will be successful—not only in the classroom but in sports, extracurriculars, socially, and so on. The school’s culture is a big factor that also should be considered. Does the school put a lot of personal responsibility on the student, or does it rely on more of a team-oriented approach? Do students who are less inclined to get involved in athletics feel left out at this school? Is this the kind of school that invigorates students who seek academic competition but stamp out the confidence of those who flourish in a more collaborative environment? There are many facets to consider.

Of course, there is no need to throw your kid in the deep end for the sake of prestige with a dear hope that it’ll work itself out. If the student is likely to tread water the entire time and struggle to keep up, then it will be more difficult than it should be for that student to build a concrete foundation upon which to stand in the following year. Grades are important, but more important is genuine learning and the skillset that prepares a student for the next level of duties and responsibilities in and outside the classroom.

Speaking of grades, it makes sense to note that a common myth about school prestige is that a school’s reputation will add extra weight to a transcript and bolster any lackluster academic performance. True, some of the “top” private high schools offer tremendous rigor, and people (including college admissions offices) know that. But the argument that “a B at one school equates to an A at another school” doesn’t fly. It’s simply untrue in the world of admissions. The goal is for your student to obtain the strongest grades possible (whatever those may be) while flourishing in the environment that best fits. It’s better to look at it as college admissions offices do. That means considering the context of your student’s high school and picking a place where they can rise to the top of what they are able to do academically. 

Private Schools Don’t Enroll Students. They Enroll Families.

During the testing, interview, and application process, the student, deservedly, has been the focus. Hopefully, your student has taken more ownership of the process as the year has progressed, and you have had the opportunity to watch them take more responsibility and really drive the process. Now that it’s time to choose a school, it might become clearer that this is a decision that is not just about your kid but about your entire family joining a school community. Yes, the parents also need to feel good about the potential school matches. Presumably, you started with a list of schools that have cultures that match your values. Ideally, this culture matches the way you already help your student grow. And naturally, you’ll want a value system and academic program that help your student go in the direction you want them to grow. 

As parents, you’ll want to consider the new “family” you will join, too. Think about what experience you want for yourselves. There are pragmatic considerations such as commute times and tuition costs, of course. But just as your student will be joining a group of other students, you will be joining another group of parents. So, as your student learns more about their peer group, you might try to do the same. Ask yourself some questions that relate to this. What are your plans for involvement in school events and activities? Some schools involve parents more than others. How will your personal network grow and change? The parents of other students will be the people you are spending time with over the next four years. 

Indeed, the process of selecting a private school should be driven by the student, but since the whole family is enrolling, this decision should be a family decision.

It’s Just High School

A final observation that might put this process in greater context is this: Your student’s high school experience offers a chance to take the best lessons from your own time. Step back from the present day, and look back on your own high school experience. Acknowledge the bad and the good of that time. Despite the triumphs and setbacks, high school, for most of us, was by no means fully indicative of how the rest of our lives unfolded. The coming years are important but, of course, only a temporary period in your child’s life. Let’s keep the big picture in perspective. How will the positive and negative experiences help your student develop resiliency and the ability to persist? Your own experience can bring context to that question. At the end of the day, what role did the events play in your journey? How did you learn to appreciate the tough times: the academic, social, and personal? How did they equip you for other conflicts you faced later in life? 

No school is perfect. Frankly, you don’t want your student to have a “perfect” experience. It’s high school. There should be ups and downs that your student will learn to navigate so that they can manage the more significant ups and downs of college and life beyond. We should remember that these four years of high school should be about building a toolkit. Growth comes from having a combination of victories, defeats, and stalemates that help build one’s character. Your student will have an important and formative experience, regardless of where they attend. Your role as parents is to let them know they can count on you, that you support them, and that you trust them to take it from here.

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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