It’s that time of year. Private school application time. And you thought Halloween was going to be the scariest thing that would happen to you this month. Think again. Rest assured, you’re not alone. The thought of applying to an elite, selective private day school in the United States strikes fear in the hearts of parents everywhere. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago – there’s no escape. And there are limited ways in which to throw money at this problem. But fear not. As the father of three kids who have been admitted to private day schools (and to New England boarding schools) and having served on the boards of both day and boarding schools, I’ve observed this process firsthand for a while now. While there is no way to make applying for private school completely stress-free, there are some specific steps that you can take, starting now, that will maximize your chances of successfully making your way through the process with a minimum of agita. Over a series of posts, I’ll share what they are.
I understand why this process can be so daunting to families. There’s a lot of hype and one-ups-manship surrounding it. The first thing you should know is that the administrators and faculty who assist in the admissions process are fully aware of how stressful it is. They are working extremely hard to sincerely understand your child and to assess whether your child’s academic needs and approach can be met by their curriculum and teaching style. These are hardworking, well-trained educators who are usually not compensated as much as their public school counterparts. They log demanding hours and endure stressful interactions because they love their schools and they want to make a good match for every child. Keep this in mind as you venture into the admissions process. The school’s staff are not your enemies.
Whether you live in Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta or any other major metropolitan area in the US, the private school admissions process is becoming more sophisticated, competitive and frustrating each year. For the most affluent families in large cities, a great deal of the tension is self-imposed. Parents (and grandparents) can get caught up in long-held ambitions, losing sight of the importance of assessing what is actually best for their child. Families can too often be consumed by comments from strangers and well-intentioned friends who make anxiety-provoking remarks and observations that can leave even the most grounded parent paralyzed with fear. Nothing shakes a parent to the core more than something involving their child’s future, and this is no exception.
So take control of the process, as much as you are able. You should do this starting well before you apply, especially if you or your spouse graduated from a selective private school.
Not long ago, I made the mistake of responding unthinkingly to a Chicago friend who was in town for a visit and casually asked my advice about applying to the top private schools in his beloved Windy City. I knew that my friend, a relatively wealthy businessman, was a graduate of the Latin School of Chicago, one of the city’s most prestigious independent schools. Alumni status on the part of a parent is generally a leg-up in the process.
So I started by saying “the good news is that your daughter will have a nice advantage, since you’ve been a generous alum over the years. That’s definitely going to give her an edge over kids who have no ties to the school. But still put in just as much effort when you apply to the Lab School and Francis Parker, even with your alumni donor connection at Latin.”
He looked at me with a curious expression, and I immediately regretted my assumption. “What do you mean I’ve been a generous alum over the years?” he asked, looking a bit worried. Missing that cue, I blithely continued “well, I know how wealthy your family is, so I assume you’ve been giving generously to their annual fundraising drive—at least during the last few years.” Now of course I have no actual proof that his alma mater – or any elite private school – would favor the child of an alum who has given generously and consistently. But it definitely couldn’t hurt.
I regret not just simply giving him some practical advice, as I am about to do here! I share this story as an example of why you need to brace yourself for the comments, advice and insights (most of it well-meaning) that may be offered by knowledgeable and experienced friends and relatives who might share insights (some of them cynical) that are simply too overwhelming or that arrive way too “far down the road” to be helpful. I really like Craig (not his real name), but I realized that my initial comments only made him more anxious.
The next morning, I sat him down and explained that a good way to feel more prepared for and in control of this process is by breaking it into four stages: (1) pre-interview preparation and planning; (2) completing the application; (3) interview day; and (4) post-decision activities. The last stage won’t be addressed until January or February, when schools notify you of their decisions. Over the course of four posts, I’ll share my tips on how best to manage each stage.
First up, pre-interview preparation and planning. There are 5 key things that you need to do at this stage:
1. Research Entry Points and Available Spaces. This is a crucial starting point. You may quickly find that due to the age of your child or the entry points at a particular school, you need to cross certain schools off your list. While you may be aware of the names of the well-regarded independent schools in your area, don’t rely on what you have overheard at cocktail parties or in your yoga class from other parents about the admissions process.
- Different schools have different entry points (some start at age 4, others at kindergarten, and some as early as age 3). Your first stop should be the admissions pages of each school’s website. In many cases, there might be 20 or more new spaces opening up for a 3 or 4 year old, but maybe only 2 or 3 new spaces available for kindergarten. And in some circumstances, there are schools that have a nursery class, but which also double the size of the class the following year, so that the entry points are equally plentiful in both nursery and kindergarten.
- Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten (ages 4 and 5) are the most common entry points. The second most common is 6th grade, and the last is 9th grade. In New York City, most of the top private schools —like Dalton, Collegiate, Trinity, Spence, Chapin, Brearley and others begin at kindergarten. A few, like Ethical Culture Fieldston, Riverdale Country and the Horace Mann School, start in the nursery years. All of them also accept large numbers of new students in the 6th and 9th
- Of course, there are prestigious independent schools that have unusual entry points — like two of the best-known Los Angeles area private schools, Marlborough School and Harvard-Westlake School. Their earliest entry point is 7th grade. Similarly, two top private schools in Washington, D.C.—St. Albans School and National Cathedral School—have a unique entry point. They both begin at 4th grade. So before you get your heart set on a particular school, research that school’s typical entry points and the number of spaces that are likely to be available for the grade relevant for your child.
- Just because they are not applying for an entry point grade does not mean that your child cannot apply and gain admission. You should ask the admissions officer if he or she can tell you the approximate number of spaces they are seeking to fill in the particular grade your child will be entering. There will almost always be a handful of openings in every grade. Sometimes the website or the admissions office will tell you that they will not be taking any students for the grade your child is entering, or they may mention that there will only be 3 or 4 spaces. This will give you a sense of the odds you will be facing.
2. Take a realistic assessment of your child. Before you contact a school or plan a visit, be sure you take time to realistically assess your child’s academic abilities, potential and learning style. Not what you hope, but what the reality actually is. Then, do the same thing in terms of the social side of the equation. In order to decide where your child will be most comfortable and will thrive, think about your child’s interests, personality, and social skills (aim to be able to explain all of this in just a few words). Not every school is right for every child: some are extremely rigid academically, while others are more unstructured in their academic approach. Some are socially competitive, and others very relaxed. Some are formal, with dress codes and mandatory ways of addressing teachers – while at others, all teachers and administrators are addressed by their first names and there’s no dress code at all. One kid would find that liberating, while another would benefit from more structure.
3. Think about your own personality and that of your family. It’s not just your child’s personality that you need to consider – be sure think about your own personality, and even the ambitions that you might have for your child. I say this because if your child is seeking to enter an early grade, you should expect that a new school community is not only going to play a major role in their life – it will also play a major role in yours.
- Parents who choose to send their children to private schools as early as kindergarten are usually ones who are willing to become extremely involved in the daily academic, social and extracurricular lives of their children. This means that they are regularly interacting with the other parents—whether it is through arranging group playdates, attending children’s birthday parties, volunteering as parent speakers, serving as a parent liaison for school fundraising, or sharing special coaching or tutoring sessions.
- Think about where you and your family might naturally fit. This is not to say that a very liberal parent with a child who has been raised in an informal, less-structured home can’t gain admission to a conservative school with a highly structured approach. Just like a job you might take, this about fit – and thinking in advance about who you and your child are, and where you both tend to thrive. One way to do this is to honestly describe yourselves on paper. This is a description for your eyes only, so go for it. Be honest with your goals and ambitions for your child and be honest with what you feel you would want, tolerate or accept from a school community.
4. Prepare emotionally for the interview – rehearse what is likely to happen in advance. Depending on the age of your child, an admissions office may request that you and your child be interviewed together, or interviewed separately. That can be unsettling, and the best way to handle this is to prepare and rehearse in advance.
- Do you best to find out in advance about the process to be followed on interview day. The admissions office will give you some sense of it, but if you know anyone who has been through the process, now is the time to ask for their insight and advice.
- If your child is interviewing for kindergarten, it is very possible that he or she will be asked to come to the admissions office at the same time as three or four other children hoping to enter the same grade. This situation is basically a playgroup or mini-class, where one or two admissions officers bring the group of children into a classroom for a 20 or 30 minute activity that involves group discussion, following instructions, identifying objects, and classroom play.
- Although they are generally checking to see how your child responds in a group setting, and with children and adults that are not in their family, sometimes the most important aspect of such interviews is how your child separates. Most children under 7 or 8 are not willing to quickly separate from a parent or caregiver when they have just been brought to a new environment, around other children and adults that they do not know. I recall visiting an admissions interview with one of my children where as soon as we and 6 other children and their respective parents entered the lobby of the school, the admissions officer called out loudly, “Moms and Dads, thank you for arriving on time. Hi kids, my name is Mrs. X and we are going to go upstairs in this elevator to a classroom on the second floor. We will be doing some fun class activities for a few minutes with one of our teachers, so say goodbye to your parents because they will wait down here and see you when you come back down in 30 minutes.” She stepped halfway into the elevator and waved the kids in with a big smile. Understandably, at least 3 or 4 of the children stood motionless at their parents’ side. Since the elevator, the building, the other children and Mrs. X were all unfamiliar, the bulk of the children and parents were unprepared for what was basically a test of the child’s ability to follow instructions and to confidently separate from a parent.
- Rehearsal pays off. In this particular situation, my 4-year old son gave me his coat, kissed me and my wife and then marched onto the brightly lit elevator. Two other children did the same. A sign of a mature child who knows how to separate? No, the sign of a child and parent who had learned days earlier that this was a school that had been using the practice of “immediate separation” as a way to screen out children. So we talked about it and practiced it in advance. That day, two children would not separate easily from their parents, and they were both politely thanked as their parents slowly digested that they had better look elsewhere.
- Even if you and your child don’t experience a separation that is quite this abrupt, tell your son or daughter to expect that you will not be in the same room with them for most of the visit, and that the separation may be within five minutes of you entering the admissions office.
- Of course, this test of the child’s ability to separate (and to answer questions the interviewer’s questions without turning to one’s mom or dad for an answer) is even more important for older children who are applying for admission to the upper grades.
5. Consider hiring an educational consultant. While it is not entirely necessary, you may feel so overwhelmed or intimidated by the application process that you want to hire an educational consultant who specializes in independent school admissions. Some consultants charge by the hour, and some have a standard fee for advising you through the entire process. They cannot guarantee admission, but they can give you and your child a sense of how to prepare for each stage of the process, from researching schools, to preparing for the parent interview and the student interview, to completing the application and advising you on the proper entrance exams or letters of recommendations that might be required for students of different ages.
- These individuals can be especially helpful if you are new to a community or if you do not have any knowledgeable friends who have recently gone through the process.
- When you contact the consultants, feel free to interview them with polite, but blunt questions:
- List the schools that you are considering, and ask them to share how many students they have helped gain admission to those schools in the last 5 years.
- Ask them if they are able to look at your child’s record and your own background and predict the likelihood of admission before you even begin the application and interview process.
- Ask them if they personally know the admission directors and/or headmasters of the particular schools.
- Ask if they will be working with you and your child directly, or if another associate in their office will be personally handling your child’s application.
- Ask if they do any specific coaching for you and your child for the parent interview or student interview.
- Ask if they have ever had taken on clients who did not gain admission to any school, and how they counseled those families.
- By the time you are ready to sign the contract or retainer agreement with the consultant, you want to feel that this is a person you respect, who you trust well enough to share your or your child’s fears and weaknesses, and who you believe has made enough of a personal connection with you and your child that they will advocate for you when they talk to the admissions officer after you have had your school interviews and submitted the application.
That’s it for stage one. In my next post, I’ll share my tips for a successful application, including how to best describe your child and your family in your application, parent essay, and student essay. I’ll also suggest some resources to call on to strengthen your application. But for now, just remember to breathe. And take this process one step at time.
Lawrence Otis Graham is a real estate attorney in New York and is a New York Times bestselling author of 14 nonfiction books including Our Kind of People: the History of America’s Black Upper Class (HarperCollins). A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, his work has appeared in The Best American Essays, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, where he has served as a contributing editor. Graham has appeared on The Today Show, ABC News’ Nightline, PBS’ Charlie Rose and other programs. He sits on the boards of the Horace Mann School, Eaglebrook School, and State University of New York-Purchase College.
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