Comparing & Choosing a High School: Interpreting the Data

The flurry of a private school admissions process feels, in some ways, more complex even than the looming college process. Parents in the Washington, DC area have a vast number of choices, but they often lack some information that feels necessary to understand what their child’s experience may be like at a given school. Further, the selectivity of many schools is unclear so many families end up adding more schools to their application list than they might like. All of these factors combine to make this choice feel more anxious than exciting.

Let Your Perspective Evolve

When the high school selection process begins, you may already have ideas about where your child should enroll. Of course, your student may also have their own ideas based on their friends, siblings, or classmates. In some cases, you may know enough about school options that you feel confident about your choices, especially if this isn’t your first time at this rodeo. In other cases, you might have no clue where to start. Still, you have to start somewhere.

Fear not: the final list you settle on can look quite different than the original. Think of the process as an evolving one that starts with fuzzy images and vague notions of what four years will be like at any particular high school. As you learn more about each school through visits (whether in person or virtual), admissions chats, parent chatter, and more, your list may very well change. Be open to new possibilities as you take in all the information. Remember, you’re not deciding where your student will attend just yet. You’re aiming to make options you can choose from later.

Separate Facts from Emotions

During the course of your research, you’ll be flooded with many pieces of information, among them both objective data and unreliable scuttlebutt. Work to separate information from the emotions that may have been intentionally or unintentionally infused into this process. Don’t let someone else’s opinion drive your decision-making, as tempting as that may be. There’s only so much information you can collect to help select which schools to consider.

At some point, you may start to get more information than you expected, so it’s important to tease out which information is useful and which is less relevant. Maybe the environment is actually a good fit for your child, but you risk overlooking it because of what you heard from a family whose adult child went there 15 years ago? Maybe the school is highly sought after, but you can’t tell if your son or daughter will flourish in the type of academic or social culture that exists there. Was it a truly lackluster campus, or was it just a gloomy day (or even bad wifi)? Sit down with your family and really evaluate the data and what each high school will offer over the course of four years, not just someone’s off-the-cuff comment or a clunky virtual tour.

The Cart Goes After the Horse

It is common to prematurely focus on admissibility before considering the kind of fit that is right for your student. Initial lists are often built by searching for “safeties” and “reaches.” While it’s prudent to consider admissibility, given the unpredictable nature of private school admissions, it’s probably more useful to envision the environment that’s best for your child first, match that up against what’s available, and then try to determine the admissibility of each school — not the other way around.

Focusing too greatly on admissibility first can create unfortunate limits. Just because a school is rumored to be too easy or too hard to get into doesn’t mean it is or isn’t a great option for your student. Set aside what you know or think you know about private high school admissions and ask yourself which options offer enough of what you want for your child. Remember, there is no perfect school, not even among the most selective. Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to negotiate, then go to a trusted adviser to discuss admissibility and the application process to ensure that every admissions scenario results in choices.

We hope these reminders can help your family sort through the private school choices as you guide your child through this process.

Last updated January 13, 2022. Jeff Knox contributed to earlier versions of this blog.