Private School Admissions Parent Essays

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Sometimes they look a little sheepish when they ask.

“Katy, do you have any advice for us about the parent questions?”

The private school admissions process is often one that seems to throw unexpected curveballs every step along the way. And right when it feels like you are rounding third base, you notice that the application asks not only for your student to write an essay (or four…) but also for you to do the same. The request seems at once totally reasonable. It makes sense for a school to want an adult perspective on a young applicant. And yet it also seems out of the blue — after all, the parent isn’t the one applying to school!

The struggle with these questions tends to fall in to two camps:

“What are they looking for? Am I being evaluated?”

And

“I think my child is amazing, but I don’t want to brag.”

What are they looking for? As with every time an admissions officer at any level of education is asked this question, they would say that the answer is authenticity. In this case, they’re usually looking for two things. First, how will your family connect with their community? Are they likely to see you at the sidelines of every field hockey game or front and center at the Annual Gala? Or both? They do not necessarily bring an agenda to reading these essays — every school needs both sideline spirit and Gala guests. But they are trying to envision the class community they are building as they look at all of the applications.

The second thing they’re looking for is your insight on your child. Even the most delightful and reflective 13-year-old is still a 13-year-old. Middle school students are just starting to develop the parts of their brain that allows them to understand some of their gifts and challenges. But the parents who love them probably have a good idea. So they are asking you to introduce yourself and your student to the admissions team.

Which brings us to the second anxiety: how much to say and how to say it.

I see parents falling into three traps with this issue: brevity, oversharing, and listing. While you always want to respect suggested word limits, I’d encourage you not to err too much on the side of brevity. When I was reading applications for private schools, I’d often read ten or fifteen applications at a time (hopefully in a quiet coffee shop, preferably with a fire, on a Saturday in January). If one of those applications has just a sentence or two and several others offer two or three paragraphs of insight on what this particular student may have to share, I felt a bit disappointed in the quick answer. It just did not give me much to go on.

But of course, be careful! The opposite can also happen. Several years ago, I read a response by a lovely parent of a lovely 8th grader. The question asked, “How does your child handle personal responsibility?” Much of the answer was a reflection on the parent’s part, that her daughter had not really ever been given responsibility. The answer detailed the parent’s guilt over this fact and dwelled more closely on the parent’s sense of having failed the child than on the answer to the question. It felt deeply personal and authentic, but it still missed the mark.

Listing is perhaps the biggest pitfall I see. We are, naturally, quite proud of our child’s accomplishments. As good and supportive parents, we want to place our child squarely in the limelight, to let their experiences and triumphs speak for themselves. I often see parents use this space as a chance to list the things they are proud of: Her 3rd grade spelling bee ribbon; his 5th grade sportsmanship award. The problem with listing accomplishments is that probably these things are listed elsewhere in the application, under awards or extracurricular activities. So, you are essentially ceding your chance to show the great parts of who your student is as a person … but it’s the person that the admissions team is looking for.

My advice to every parent is that you take this opportunity as a chance to thoughtfully consider both who your child is and what you want from the next school community you choose. Those answers are always a home run.

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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