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Cracking the Private School Admissions Code

Even in a typical year, the private school admissions process is a daunting one. And like with everything else in 2020, it feels even more confusing this year.

As you look forward to the spring of 2021 and think about how to get started on this journey, here is a quick round-up of what we know, what we have seen, and what we expect may be still to come as we navigate the current landscape. As you start to dig into the weeds, here’s a list of terms to help you manage this process, plan your timeline, and find the best fit for your student. 

Open House

An Open House is just what it sounds like. Schools welcome visitors to campus, usually on a Saturday or Sunday during the fall semester. They will typically have a full slate of programming, including student panels, faculty demonstrations, and school tours. These options will generally be repeated throughout the course of the day’s event so that you can come and go throughout the Open House as you please. During the pandemic, Open Houses have become more frequent and more varied. Schools are offering virtual general information sessions, as well as virtual Q&A open sessions, for prospective families. Some schools have found ways to invite families to campus for drive-through visits or socially distanced tours. The specific format of Open House will look slightly different at each school. I expect we will see more opportunities for on-campus activities in the summer and fall of 2021.

We recommend you start visiting Open Houses a year before you apply (7th grade for high school placement) so that by the fall of 8th grade, you’ll have an idea in mind of which schools you want to apply to.

Pro Tip: To make the most of your Open House visit, take notes. After a few visits, schools start to all sound the same, so you’ll want to have some clear notes on each campus to consult later. 

Admissions Testing

Private schools typically require standardized testing as a part of their applications. The SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT are usually the tests your student will need to take, although a few local schools take different routes: Washington International School prepares its own tests and St. Anselm’s Abbey relies on the OLSAT and the SCAD. 

Regardless of which standardized test your student eventually takes, one of the frustrations with these assessments is that student brains are not standardized. But don’t panic! Indeed, like with any other test, students can prepare for these. They are each a little different from one another, and even more different from the tests you’ll likely have taken back in high school, but they’ve all been around for a long time, and there are great strategies out there to make testing much more straightforward. (Check out our blogs on the SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT!)

The pandemic has brought a number of new options to the table in regards to testing. For example, both the SSAT and ISEE are offering at-home options so students can test from their personal computers in safe and familiar environments. Most private schools have offered alternative options for families who might have trouble accessing testing at all. Some schools, for example, have opted to exclude testing entirely from their evaluation process, while others allow families to choose whether to submit scores as a part of their application. Yet other schools provide a further option for students to submit additional material, such as a graded school assignment, to offer additional academic depth to their application package.

Pro Tip: Think about your testing plan early in the process so that you can plan your test dates for the fall and arrange for some test preparation without overloading your 8th-grade year.

Student Application Essays

Private schools typically have a strong sense of mission and community. They read your essays to better understand what you will bring to that community and how your goals and experience fit in with their mission. Truly, they just want to get to know you, so be yourself. Take some time with these essays. They will probably feel a little awkward at first, so just be patient and expect to do a lot of revision. (Check out our blog on the SSAT & ISEE essays!)

Pro Tip: Students, do not let your parents or another adult write this essay for you! Yes, you want to make sure that your grammar is correct and your message is clear, so you can certainly ask a parent or an advisor at school to read through them, but it is very important that the essays you submit be in your voice. Admissions teams are experts at spotting an adult voice in a student essay. You have a lot of important things to say, so trust yourself.

Parent Application Essays

Just like with student essays, the parent writing portions of an application are designed to help a school get to know your child and your family. Don’t use this time to rehash your child’s accomplishments; spelling bee ribbons and basketball trophies will be accounted for in other parts of the application. Here, you’ll want to talk about who your child is. 

Think about the characteristics that seem central to your child’s personality and character, and reflect on those. Maybe they’re an athlete who thrives in helping engage others in spirit and community building. Maybe they’re an artist who observes the world and shares their perspective in insightful and unusual ways. Maybe you see in them a budding leader or a deep thinker. Whatever the characteristics and mindsets of your child that stand out to you, reflect on those. Give examples of how you’ve seen particular characteristics in your child grow and change over the years, helping your child to become the young adult whom you are so proud of. 

Pro Tip: Be specific with your examples, and don’t shy away from a little bragging! You are proud of your child, so take some time to show why — concretely. 

Shadow Days

Most private high schools typically offer prospective students a chance to participate in a Shadow Day, where you spend a day with a host student, attending class and learning about the school from the inside. Parents do not attend shadow days. Each school arranges for shadow days with slightly different parameters, but the goal is the same: for prospective students to learn more about the school (and sometimes for the school to learn more about the student). This year, some schools have shifted the process to a virtual one, offering more targeted, shorter shadow visit opportunities in virtual learning.

Whether online or in person, be thoughtful as you navigate the day: look around and ask yourself, “Is this a place I could see myself?” Some schools will include a formal interview on shadow days, but even without an interview, students should assume that their behavior will be noticed. Typically, admissions officers ask teachers to share impressions of shadow visitors in their classes, so pay attention and be engaging. Plus, the shadow day gives you access to the best source of information about any school — the STUDENTS! Ask questions of your host and other students so that you can learn what the student experience is really like. 

Pro Tip: Bring a book. Your host student may have a test or a quiz, and you’ll want something to do to pass the time until the next class. And consider leaving your cell phone at home. Schools often have strict policies about phones, so you don’t want to make a poor first impression by being disengaged and on your phone or having it go off and disrupt the class. 

Student Interviews

Student interviews happen in all sorts of formats, but the fundamental goal is the same: to determine if this school is a good fit for this student. Admissions teams rely heavily on interviews to help make their decisions, so the student interview can be a critical factor in the admissions process. But rather than let that fact cause any stress, I encourage you to think of it as an opportunity. Here is your chance to build a relationship with the admissions office. 

Whether the interview is online, in person, one-on-one, or in a small group, it is designed to be a conversation, so it could feel a little more casual. But remember, you are also trying to put your best foot forward. This balance between feeling comfortable and showing your best side is sometimes a tricky one, so it is important to prepare for these interviews. Before your interview day, take some time for reflection. What parts of your personality and experience are most central to show to the school representatives? Once you have done some reflection, you should have a list of things you want to mention and experiences to share.

Additionally, remember that the interview is a chance for you to learn more about the school. Ask questions! Plan open-ended questions like, “What do you like best about this school?” or “What are some of your favorite traditions here at this school?” These questions give the admissions officer a chance to share their perspectives and experience and give you a glimpse of life from an insider’s point of view.

Pro Tip #1: Always send a thank you note! You can write a card or send an email. Whatever the format, a thank you note is a way to show your interest, your maturity, and your gratitude for the admissions’ team’s time — all of which are great reminders of you for admissions officers to tag onto your application. 

Pro Tip #2: Consider doing a mock interview with a PrepMatters Educational Counselor or Specialist! Contact Educational Planning for more information.

Parent Interviews

Private schools are mission-driven organizations that make curricular and planning decisions based on their missions. They have a strong sense of what it means to be a Panther, a Gator, or a Little Hoya. The parent interview is a chance for the school to get a sense of what role you might play as a family within that community. They hope that this school will be a place for far more than just classes for your student. Parents are a part of every celebration, every field trip, and every athletics sideline. So, while the parent interview will certainly be about your student, it will also be about you. This is your opportunity to show how supportive and excited you are to be a member of this new school community.

Pro Tip: The parent interview is a great chance to share about your involvement in your current school community. 

One final pro tip for the road: don’t be alarmed! This process feels complicated, but in the end, each school is simply trying its best to find a good fit for each student.

Don’t hesitate to contact the admissions officers with more questions – and don’t forget: we at PrepMatters are here to help you develop an admissions plan, from building a school list through test prep, essays, interviews, and making the final choice. We’re here for you!

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