Interviews, The Lists

How to Get Your Child into Private School

Getting children into private school is one of the most emotional and potentially stressful endeavors that parents can voluntarily undertake. In our ongoing series here at Dandelion Chandelier, our Luminary Lawrence Otis Graham shares his inside advice and tips on how to achieve your family’s goals while staying sane and keeping your kids that way, too. This is the second of his entries on how to manage the private school application process.

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the importance of applying to schools that seem appropriate for both your child and for your family. In the mad dash to keep up with friends, neighbors and others who talk about the most popular schools or the most rigorous schools, as parents we can lose sight of which school will provide the best curriculum and approach for our child as an individual.

This next article will address how to best organize and how to best “present” your child and your family during the application process.  Future articles will tell you what to expect and how to prepare for the actual interview, and what to do after decision day has arrived.

Whether you live in a city with a large selection of independent schools or a smaller suburban community with just two or three private schools to consider, my advice is to approach the process with the same attitude. The private school admissions process has become a competitive one in every part of the country, and as the application pools have grown larger, the schools have understandably had to create methods to better scrutinize their applicants.  So, as you contact schools, here are 5 important rules to remember:

Whether you live in a city with a large selection of independent schools or a smaller suburban community with just two or three private schools to consider, my advice is to approach the process with the same attitude. The private school admissions process has become a competitive one in every part of the country, and as the application pools have grown larger, the schools have understandably had to create methods to better scrutinize their applicants.  So, as you contact schools, here are 5 important rules to remember:

1. Maintain an Organized Calendar of Deadlines. Different schools have different deadlines for different stages of the application process, so get yourself a large wall calendar to use just for this year’s admissions experience, where you can note these dates.

  • An electronic calendar is great, and we all use them, but you will gain from having both types because a wall calendar that you can actually see every day on the kitchen wall is a great visual reminder. You will want to note when the online application for a particular school is due, as well as when you are supposed to submit your child’s transcripts from any prior school, as well as when teacher recommendations or standardized testing is supposed to have been completed and submitted. In addition, you will want your calendar to include the dates of your open house visit or your tour as well as your and your child’s interview.
  • If your first contact with a school is by telephone, it is likely that the admissions office will take your name, your child’s name, their date of birth and desired entry grade. But from there, they will often ask you to log onto their website and create a profile for your child.  Do not feel put off by that request because most private schools have moved toward online applications and away from the hard paper applications that were mailed out in large envelopes in the past.  Depending on the school, you might have to create a profile, and choose a login name and password.  It is advisable to note your log in name and password on your wall calendar.

2. Keep Good Written Notes. From the moment that you contact a school’s admissions office, always take good detailed notes because you may learn helpful information or get to talk to speak with certain individuals that you will later want to remember or thank.

  • Each time that you have a phone conversation with an admissions associate or any contact you have with a school representative at an open house or during a tour or school fair, be sure to get the person’s name and respond with a thank you email mentioning your child’s name, the event and the date at which you met the individual.
  • As you begin to complete the application, you will see that some questions apply specifically to you as a parent, while others apply specifically to the student. Assume that they are equally important, so your rule should be not to submit anything that is a first draft—no matter how simple the questions might be.  While some of these online applications do allow you to type answers to some of the answers and then save a draft so that you can complete them later, some of them require you to complete at once and then hit “submit”, so in either case, you may want to just print out each page of the application, and work on a paper draft before you start “saving” anything online—drafts or otherwise.

3. Share Relevant Parent Information. Most of the schools have a section on that application that will ask details about the student’s parents, and it may ask everything from your own school background and occupation, to your volunteer activities or community involvement. It is hard to know how much of a role a parent’s background plays in the admissions process, but it certainly helps the admissions office get a better sense of the entire family and the diversity of the applicant pool.

  • For the very youngest applicants who are applying for the lower grades like kindergarten and nursery, very little is known about the child because they have no past transcripts and student activities and can only be judged by minimum testing, a short interview or play date visit, so some believe that schools might naturally rely more on what they learn about the parents. In that case, it can be helpful to know that the parents went to good colleges and have earned advanced degrees.
  • Some cynics might argue that elite private schools like the snob appeal of being able to say that a large percentage of their kindergarten parents attended Ivy League schools, but it might also be that some admissions officers are looking for ways to determine which parents are more likely to appreciate and support the demands of a rigorous school. And they may believe that it is those parents who had also experienced a rigorous academic experience.
  • More valuable, perhaps, is information that demonstrates a parent’s willingness to volunteer and contribute time, resources and ideas to other organizations, so use the parent application section to share that you are a volunteer or board member or participant in educational or nonprofit groups. Private schools rely heavily on parents to volunteer their time, ideas and resources to help support the schools’ programs and curriculum

4. Help Your Child Tell Their Story. Depending on the age of the applicant, the student portion of the application will have to be completed by the student because students applying for upper middle school and upper school grades will be expected to answer questions in their own words.

  • For younger children, the parents will take the lead on describing their child’s personality, strengths and areas where further development is needed. Try to craft a compelling narrative that honestly captures who your child is, how they learn and relate to others, and why they would be a good addition to the school community.
  • Even if your child is completing these questions themselves, be sure that they first print out the questions and complete a draft on hard paper before typing the final answers into the online form. Even if the child makes the final changes themselves, insist that they allow you to read over the questions or answers because sometimes children misunderstand the simplest of questions or forget to include various experiences or details that can prove to present them in a more accurate light.
  • For example, if a student is applying for a space in the tenth grade class, and is asked to list his summer activities and school year activities for the last 4 years, it will be helpful if you assist them with the list and check over to be sure that they have included everything. A 14 year old can easily forget experiences or programs that they participated in when they were 11 or 12, and these details can serve to create a more well-rounded application.

5. Prepare for Essays or Questions requiring Longer Answers. As schools attempt to assess a student’s application, they are trying to evaluate several things, including a student’s intellectual curiosity, the student’s work ethic, the student’s ability to get along with peers, a student’s enthusiasm to be in a school environment as well as the student’s specific interest in that particular school.

  • For the youngest students, the essay questions or long answer questions are directed at the parents so that the parents can describe their child in a way that gives the admissions office a sense of who that child is and what type of student that child is likely to be. Some schools might ask a parent to share personal anecdotes and recent experiences of the child that reveal qualities or character traits about the applicant. My advice is to first think of the qualities that you feel best describe your child.  And while you may come up with five or six, think which ones are actually worth sharing.  While you want to be honest, you want to focus on the positive ones which will enhance their application.  Your child might be talkative, opinionated, affectionate, outgoing, forgiving, resilient, and fearless, but you should focus on just two of these qualities that show him or her in the best light: In this case, you might focus on ways to show how the child is both affectionate and resilient.   And share honest examples of how your child has demonstrated those qualities, and why you think this will help him or her become a good member of the school community.
  • The school might ask you to talk about yourself, your career, your home environment and your goals for your child. Even though the questions are focused on you, remember to consider what you have read about the school and incorporate some of the qualities that you feel that you share with the school.  Yes, they will be impressed to hear about your magna cum laude degree from University of Pennsylvania and your role as trustee at the local museum, but they would also like to hear how you embrace some of the philosophies that they share in the discussion of their school’s mission and approach.  While you want to show yourself as an accomplished person who values education and hard work, you also want to subtly demonstrate that you will fit in with and contribute to the school in a helpful manner.  Schools can quickly recognize boastful or demanding parents, and nothing sinks an application faster than presenting yourself as a parent who will be difficult for the teachers and administration.

6. Gather Transcripts and Recommendations from Counselors and Teachers. Now, there are other elements in the application process that are less in your control, but which you should be sure to keep track of and they include any documentation or letters that need to be submitted by those not including you, your spouse and your child.

  • If your child has attended a prior school, be sure to find out the dates that the prior school’s transcripts are due to the admissions office and be sure you have made personal contact with the prior school. It is never enough to rely on email requests to the prior school or to rely on the admissions office to chase down the prior school’s placement office or guidance department.  Pick up the telephone and actually speak to the prior school to be sure that they understand your request and the deadline for the information.  In fact, it may be better to give them a deadline that is a week or ten days before the actual deadline in case they fail to meet it and you have allowed yourself a few days as a buffer in case they are not timely with forwarding records.
  • Another important factor in your child’s application is what prior teachers have to say about your child. Be thoughtful about who you ask to write on behalf of your child.  Some schools might specifically request that it be a teacher from a specific discipline—like math or English.  If you are given a choice, try to select a teacher who you feel is particularly enthusiastic about your child and your family.  Of course it is ideal if you find a teacher who gave your child a strong grade and is also fond of your child, but what matters most is that it is a teacher who you feel will take the time to write about your child in a detailed and supportive way.  Never ask the teacher to show you what they write and never offer to write a draft, but it can be helpful to ask the teacher if you or your child can provide a list of activities that the student participates in, or bullet points highlighting the student’s experiences and activities.

Getting through the application process can feel overwhelming and intimidating because of the various elements that play a role in completing the application. Because the completion of your own forms, the submission of essays, requesting recommendation letters and transcripts can take place over a series of weeks and months, remember to rely on your wall calendar and your notes.  Write everything down so that you do not have to rely on your memory for the different deadlines.  And if you are concerned that you have failed to submit something or have lost track of a particular due date, do not spend days trying to search through emails or through your online file.  Pick up the phone and call the admissions office directly.  These officers and their assistants are accustomed to fielding calls from parents and student applicants who want to check on the completion of their files.  They understand that the process is complex, and as long as you present yourself as calm, organized, patient and polite, they will be happy to assist you.

In the next article of this series on private school admissions, I’ll share the interviewing tips that will help you present yourself and your student applicant in the most impressive and memorable way. In the meantime, remember: stay calm. You can do this.

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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