High School Admissions Research: 6 Tips for Families

In the fall of eighth grade, students are taking on some of their most challenging courses to date, enjoying the last year of middle school, and preparing to enter their high school career. In the midst of all this, it is important for parents to make time to help students familiarize themselves with potential landing spots for ninth grade. If they have not done so already, it makes sense to keep a “file” on each of the schools – whether electronic or paper – to document their thinking, reflect on what matters, and help narrow the list. Getting to know each school’s system and culture with an understanding how they might fit in your family’s plan is a critical part of this process. This series of decisions may represent one of the first sets of significant responsibilities a student should own. There are several ways to make this journey enjoyable and productive.

Make a Plan

Learning about school options takes a lot of work and time. Almost every school will offer weekend information sessions, but there may be more secondary schools interesting to your family than there are available weekends during the fall and winter. There is a limit to the number of schools you can visit and realistically consider during this time. Generally speaking, finding a core group of 4-6 options is optimal. The PrepMatters Educational Planning team finds that if there are fewer than four schools considered, then you probably view your public high school as a viable option or have a strong affinity for an independent school that is likely to admit. Similarly, if there are more than six schools that raise your interest, there should be specific and strong reasons to apply to that many.

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 the application process itself. In our experience, this will still give you plenty to consider, and plenty of options later on, if you move through the process thoughtfully. The dates for school admissions events are usually released in late August or early September. Gather this information, then sit down with your family schedule and school calendar to efficiently schedule all the open houses, tours, interviews, and shadow days. 

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 do their best to offer dates that do not conflict with one another, and they sometimes offer more than one option. 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 specific program or activity of interest (e.g., athletics, performing arts, academic department), there may be an open house option specifically designed for those audiences, or 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 as an 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 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 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.

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 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. 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 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. People will be able to tell when you are genuinely interested in an aspect of the school.

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 be a squeaky wheel, 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. 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 try to keep your core list to 4-6 schools. 
  2. Open Houses & Shadow Days: 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. Do non-anxious preparation. 
  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.