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What private schools look for

The dos and donts of the admissions process

 by Bryan Ide

The admissions process can be nerve-wracking for any family. The various choices of schools, the competition, the flurry of information (and the misinformation) – it can all be somewhat overwhelming. You want the best for your child and you are prepared to make sacrifices, but at the end of the day you need to gain admission. And at a number of private schools, especially the more popular ones, the competition to get in is only getting fiercer. Therefore, it’s important for you to know what makes an attractive applicant and how you can keep your child and your family in the running.

The Right Fit

The term “right fit” is often spoken by various private schools, but what does this mean? Remember that each school has its own mission, educational philosophy, identity, history, and culture. Schools want students who will fit in their respective unique environments. The most important aspect is whether a student is admissions-appropriate or admissions-ready. In other words, is the student capable of handling the requirements of the school? Can the student manage the academic, athletic, and extracurricular programs that the school provides? Would the student be a good culture fit? Does the student demonstrate the appropriate level of maturity? These are the main factors that go into determining whether a child is suitable for admission.

The right fit also applies to whether or not the student actually wants to attend the school (or whether it is the parents who are pushing for admission). Before becoming an admissions strategist, I worked in the institutional advancement field at my alma mater, St. George’s School (in Montreal), one of Canada’s leading independent schools and one of the most competitive to gain admission. One of the roles I held was being an admissions and scholarship interviewer. I will never forget an interview I had with a Grade 6 applicant. The boy and his parents were in the meeting room with me and the interview seemed to be going fine. However, when I asked him why he wanted to come to St. George’s, suddenly a scowl appeared on his face and he pointed to his parents and huffed, “They made me!” I can replay those three seconds in slow motion and pinpoint the exact moment his parents’ hearts sank as they realized that their hopes for getting in had just extinguished. The disappointed looks on their faces were crushing. But hey, private schools want students who actually want to be there. It’s amazing how honest some kids can be!

Bumpy, Not Well-Rounded

You’ve probably heard that some schools are looking for or are trying to create “well-rounded” students – that is those students who are good at academics, athletics, arts, and extracurricular activities. In my mind “well-rounded” is probably one of the most tired phrases. Let’s think about this strategically. If all applicants are well-rounded, then they run the risk of looking more or less the same. If your child’s application is similar to others, how is he or she going to stand out among the competition? So then, another factor in being admissions-appropriate is having a unique talent. Perhaps your child is a great athlete, or amazing chess player, or gifted artist, or musical whiz. Your child’s unique talent or gift will be of interest to the school and may give you an edge. I tell my students and their families that schools are not looking for well-rounded kids, but rather bumpy kids – those who have something special to differentiate themselves from the rest.

The Whole Family

Parents, if you think that only your child needs to prepare for the admissions process, think again. In fact, you have just as much homework as your child does since many private schools take the whole family into consideration when making their admissions decisions. Many schools now interview the parents, especially because of the crucial role they play in their child’s success at school. Moreover, they want to know that you’re applying for the right reasons and that you share their educational philosophy. In the end, you need to be on the same team as them when it comes to your child’s education.

I’ll share another story from my days as an interviewer at St. George’s School. On a number of occasions when I would ask parents why they wanted their children to attend St. George’s, the typical answers I would get would be “It’s the best” or “It’s number one” or “I want my kid to go to Harvard.” These types of answers don’t sit well with private schools because a) they show that the family doesn’t share the educational philosophy of the school, b) they don’t demonstrate how the family is the right fit for the school, and c) they suggest that the family is only using the school as a means to a particular post-secondary institution.

Getting Involved

Many private schools want parents who are engaged in their child’s education, but it goes beyond being concerned with just your child. It means being an active member of the school community and supporting the school’s mission. In the advancement world, we called this the Three Ts: time, talent, and treasure. In other words, it means volunteering your time and energy to support school activities and initiatives, whether that’s being a grade parent or chaperone, helping to organize the school fair, or sitting on various school committees. In terms of treasure, private schools value parents’ financial support in providing the best possible resources and learning environment.

The Hidden Agenda

A number of private schools will tell you that they’re looking for kids who can manage the workload, take advantage of the programs the school has to offer, and get involved in school life. And while this is certainly true, there are a number of other admissions factors that schools may not readily discuss. I call this the Hidden Agenda.

Ethnicity: In striving to create a diverse student body, private schools may take ethnicity into consideration. In some cases, one or two ethnic groups will comprise a significant portion of the applicant pool. In these instances, I would argue, ethnicity will play a role in the admissions process. Let’s say your family belongs to one of these significantly-represented ethnic groups, what then? I would say that your competition isn’t the families from other ethnic groups but rather those from your same ethnic group.

Money: Many private schools will automatically tell you that you cannot buy your way into the school. In other words, a sizeable donation will not increase your family’s chances of being admitted. However, that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it’s all in the wording. Yes, you cannot buy your way in. However, at many private schools, the customary practice is to have newly-admitted families meet with the advancement (a.k.a. fundraising) office. The ultimate objective is to have the family provide financial support. So while you may not provide a donation upfront during the admissions process, demonstrating your family’s capacity and potential interest to give may make you a more attractive applicant.

Connections: Often times, various types of connections will help your application. Connections may come in the form of good words put in by members of the school community including current parents, donors, alumni, and board members. These individuals provide valuable reference checks for the school at the same time as serving as advocates for the family that is applying.

Culture: I talked about right fit before, but there is a little more to it. As part of the admissions process, many schools will try to determine whether or not the family fits into the unique culture of the school. One way that schools can assess this culture fit is through language. I’m not talking about English or French here, but rather your vocabulary. Just as doctors use medical language in a hospital or lawyers use legal language in a courtroom, admissions people have their own unique language that they use in the educational setting. If you know how to speak their “language” you show that you’re the right culture fit.

Dos and Don’ts

Do prepare: There’s a saying in the admissions world – the difference between a successful application and unsuccessful application is preparation. For some tips on how to best prepare your child, I invite you to read my other article that I wrote for Our Kids on the importance of preparation. The best preparation usually involves allowing your child to discover his or her passions and to develop his or her strengths.

Do your homework: Research, research, research. Whichever schools your family chooses, remember to research each school to understand their mission statements, educational philosophies, and programs. It is crucial to know the facts, figures, and history of each school to which you are applying. Imagine how poorly it looks when parents can’t even answer simple questions like “What is the school motto?” or “Who is the Headmaster?” And yes, I’ve witnessed this myself when parents have no background knowledge of the school to which they are applying; only that it is the “best” (whatever that means).

Do create the compelling case: The most important part of the application is making the compelling case as to why your family is a good fit for the school. Each school will have its own admission criteria so your job is to figure out how you meet most of, if not all, those criteria and to think about how best you can articulate your message.

Do be wise in choosing an admissions consultant: A growing number of families are turning to admissions consultants to help them with their applications. Certainly, some consultants are valuable resources guiding families through the often-confusing and complex world of private school admissions. If you decide to go with a consultant, make sure that he or she takes a student-centered, right-fit approach. In other words, the consultant should advise you on schools that are the right fit for your child. Also, make sure your consultant has genuine knowledge of the admissions world gained from actually having worked in private school admissions.

Don’t focus solely on name brand: It’s a message that I keep on sharing with parents and students, and I’ll keep on sharing it. There is no such thing as the best school. That’s right, there is no such thing as the best school, but rather the best school for your child. Focus on finding the right-fit school where your child will flourish and enjoy learning. Of course, the “name brand” private schools have built up a reputation for excellence, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the right schools for your child. Your child’s happiness factor at school outweighs the prestige factor, plain and simple.

Don’t underestimate the competition: At some of the more competitive private schools, there will be anywhere between three to five students competing per spot. Therefore, you need to think strategically about how your child and your family will stand out – what does your child offer in terms of talents and how can you properly articulate those to the school?

Don’t despair: At the end of the admissions cycle, some families will be elated and some will be disappointed. What happens if you’re one of those latter families? To some parents, their precious little one is a super kid, talented artist, top of the class, genius in the making, future Tiger Woods, and so on. What do you mean he didn’t get in? How could the other kids who aren’t as good as him have gotten in? How could the school make such a big mistake? I think one of the hardest things for parents is the first time their child “fails” at something. And being declined admission is often times a family’s first “failure” for their child, the first instance where their super kid may not necessarily be so super. To these families, and to any family that doesn’t succeed the first time, I say try again. Continue to provide your child with the best preparation and apply next time round. In my mind, you only fail if you don’t try again. And I know a thing or two about failure – I performed very poorly on the Grade 3 entrance exam to St. George’s but managed to do well in the application process the following year and was accepted to Grade 4.

Becoming More Attractive

Hopefully you will have gained some insight into the private school admissions process. Now you know what private schools are looking for in attractive candidates. As you navigate the world of admissions, keep in mind how you can make your family one of the more attractive ones.


Bryan Ide, the Education Director of Key Admissions, is one of Canada’s most qualified and experienced admissions experts. He graduated from St. George’s School and holds a BA from Cornell University and an MA from Columbia University. He has worked in institutional advancement for both St. George’s School and the Sauder School of Business at UBC. While at St. George’s, Bryan served as an admissions and scholarship interviewer. He is the past chair of Cornell’s alumni admissions committee for British Columbia. 

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Columbia International College (est. 1979)  

  • Hamilton, Ontario
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (1700 students)
  • Day school (Varies)
Columbia International College is a day and boarding school, offering programs to international students in grades 7 to 12. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$8,100 to $18,800 /semester


MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 8100

Chamberlain International School (est. 1976)  

  • Middleboro, Massachusetts(USA)
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (22 students)
  • Boarding school (98 students)
Co-ed therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts for students 11-22 years. Student support is offered for learning disabilities, OCD, anxiety, ADHD, NLD, ASD, attachment disorder, bipolar disorder and depression. [View profile]
  • Traditional
US $60,000 to US $160,000


MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 60000

Neuchâtel Junior College (est. 1956)  

  • Neuchâtel, NE
  • 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (75 students)
Neuchâtel Junior College, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, offers Canadian Grade 12 curriculum and AP to students from across Canada and beyond. [View profile]
  • Traditional
SF 30,000 to SF 56,000


Boarding Coed 30000

McDonald International Academy (est. 1994)  

  • Toronto, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Day school
  • Boarding school
McDonald International Academy offers programs for grades 9 to 12 with 2 locations in the heart of Toronto. Its average class size is 10 to 20 students. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$10,000 to $29,300


HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 10000

Trinity College School (est. 1865)  

  • Port Hope, Ontario
  • 5 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (286 students)
  • Day school (304 students)
TCS students appreciate that school needs to be more than just reaching their academic potential–it’s about exploring all facets of themselves so that the realization of talents reach far beyond the classroom walls. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$25,750 to $59,750

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MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 25750

Stanstead College (est. 1872)  

  • Stanstead, Quebec
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (171 students)
  • Day school (75 students)
Located on the Quebec-Vermont border, Stanstead College offers rigorous university-prep, Grades 7to 12, in a secure, family-focused learning environment. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$21,500 to $63,000

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MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 21500

Bishop's College School (est. 1836)  

  • Sherbrooke, Quebec
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (210 students)
  • Day school (42 students)
Bishop's College School is an English boarding and day school for students in grades 7 through 12. Small in size and culturally diverse, BCS is an IB World School offering the IB DP and course certificates. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
$25,400 to $66,500


MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 25400

Séminaire Marie-Reine-du-Clergé (est. 1956)  

  • Métabetchouan-Lac-à-la-Croix, Quebec
  • 7 to 11 Coed
  • Day school (270 students)
  • Homestay school (5 students)
  • Boarding school (10 students)
SMRC is a coed day and boarding high school in French Canada with a warm & relaxed natural campus, modern rooms, enrichment & support, technology enhanced classrooms & labs, 8 cultural & sports programs, 20+ activities [View profile]
  • Traditional
$2,980 to $28,570


MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Homestay Boarding Coed 2980

Landmark East School (est. 1979)  

  • Wolfville, Nova Scotia
  • 3 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (30 students)
  • Day school (45 students)
Landmark East School offers exceptional programming for LD students from grade 3 to 12. The average class size is 5 students. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$27,900 to $64,900


MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 27900

TAIE International Institute (est. 1998)  

  • Toronto, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (400 students)
TAIE International Institute offers the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, University Preparation Courses and English as a Second Language. Flexible schedule and monthly enrolment at the best location in downtown Toronto. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$35,000 to $46,000


HighSchools Boarding Coed 35000

Montverde Academy (est. 1912)  

  • Montverde, Florida
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • Day school (891 students)
  • Boarding school (325 students)
Founded in 1912, Montverde Academy is an elite college preparatory school for students in grades Pre-K3 through post-graduate studies with a distinct student population from over 80 countries worldwide. [View profile]
  • Traditional
US $7,875 to US $51,350

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Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 7875

Ashbury College (est. 1891)  

  • Ottawa, Ontario
  • 4 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (592 students)
  • Homestay school (Varies)
  • Boarding school (108 students)
This traditional private school in Ottawa, Ontario offers Grades 4 to 12 with 100 boarding and 600 day school students. Tuition is from $23,600 to $58,300. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
$27,750 to $66,970


MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Homestay Boarding Coed 27750

Bronte College (est. 1991)  

  • Mississauga, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (20 students)
  • Boarding school (380 students)
Bronte College is a private International Baccalaureate (IB) World School offering Grades 9 to 12 for day and boarding students. Our academic programming has attracted students from over 30 countries. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
$15,000 to $37,500


HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 15000

Niagara Christian Collegiate (est. 1932)  

  • Fort Erie, Ontario
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school
  • Homestay school
Niagara Christian Collegiate offers both middle school and secondary school programs from Grades 6-12. Graduating students achieve top university placements around the world. We accept both day and boarding students. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$33,050 to $41,050


MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Homestay Coed 33050

Dewey Institute   

  • Bracebridge, Ontario
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (130 students)
We uphold and pursue a pragmatic, balanced education with an emphasis on art, sports and music to cultivate talents to lead the new century. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • Waldorf
$20,000 to $35,000


MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Coed 20000

Kells Academy (est. 1978)  

  • Montreal, Quebec
  • K to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (40 students)
  • Day school (400 students)
Kells Academy is a private school in Montreal which offers Kindergarten to grade 12. Its average class size is 15 students. We offer boarding facilities & separate Elementary,Middle and High School campuses. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$15,300 to $38,000


Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 15300

Léman Manhattan Preparatory School (est. 2010)  

  • New York, New York(USA)
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (100 students)
  • Day school (800 students)
Léman Manhattan - the only boarding school in Manhattan, New York that delivers academic excellence that inspires your child for a lifetime. IB Diploma program and unique internship opportunities offered in the city. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
US $5,500 to US $93,000


Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 5500

J. Addison School (est. 2002)  

  • Markham, Ontario
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • Day school (300 students)
  • Boarding school (200 students)
Since 2002, J. Addison has provided a stimulating education for students. Located at the corner of Woodbine and Valleywood Drive in Markham, ON, Canada, you will find our state-of-the-art 58,000 sq. ft. facility. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • Montessori
$15,000 to $42,450


Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 15000

A+ World Academy (est. 2015)  

  • World-wide travel
  • 11 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (62 students)
A+ World Academy is an international boarding school on a Ship. 62 students in grades 11-12 and gap year live and sail on the 90 year old Tall Ship, ‘Sørlandet’, while they take AP classes and travel the world. [View profile]
  • Traditional
EUR €62,900

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Boarding Coed 62900

King's-Edgehill School (est. 1788)  

  • Windsor, Nova Scotia
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (135 students)
  • Boarding school (215 students)
King's-Edgehill School offers programs for grades six to 12 in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Its average class size is 15 students. [View profile]
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
$18,800 to $58,800


MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 18800

Shawnigan Lake School (est. 1916)  

  • Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia
  • 8 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (430 students)
  • Day school (80 students)
Shawnigan Lake School is the largest boarding school in Canada. Located in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, we offer a comprehensive program to 500 young men and women in grades 8-12. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$28,500 to $71,300


HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 28500

Briercrest Christian Academy (est. 1946)  

  • Caronport, Saskatchewan
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (60 students)
  • Day school (90 students)
BCA combines a private Christian school experience with the best of public education and Saskatchewan curriculum. Our small school shares facilities with Briercrest College and Seminary on a campus of 900 students. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$3,135 to $33,061

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HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 3135

Admiral Farragut Academy (est. 1933)  

  • St. Petersburg, Florida
  • 8 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (315 students)
Admiral Farragut Academy is located in beautiful, sunny, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. Farragut is a military style school offering unique classes such as Aviation, Scuba, and AP Capstone. [View profile]
  • Traditional
US $51,800


HighSchools Boarding Coed 51800

Class Afloat - West Island College International (est. 1984)  

  • World-wide travel
  • 11 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (60 students)
Class Afloat - West Island College International offers leading experiential education opportunities for Grade 11, 12, University and GAP year students. Students attend classes aboard a majestic tall ship, exploring over 20 ports of call worldwide. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$52,000


Boarding Coed 52000

College Bourget   

  • Rigaud, Quebec
  • PS to 11 Coed
  • Day school (1450 students)
  • Boarding school (100 students)
Collège Bourget is a day & boarding school situated between Montreal & Ottawa, that exceeds Quebec curriculum guidelines & ensures our students grow through different spheres: arts, sports, community service & science. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$4,700 to $35,000


Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 4700

Athol Murray College of Notre Dame (est. 1920)  

  • Wilcox, Saskatchewan
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Boarding school (275 students)
  • Day school (50 students)
Notre Dame is a private, independent co-educational high school with an exceptional educational & boarding experience with a balance of strong academic, athletic and spiritual growth in a safe & caring prairie community. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$11,100 to $54,600


HighSchools Boarding Day Coed 11100

North Star Academy   

  • Laval, Quebec
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (150 students)
  • Boarding school (Varies)
North Star Academy Laval is the only private English high school in Laval. We offer small classroom sizes for individualized attention. We teach not only for school but for life! Certificate of eligibility not required. [View profile]
  • Traditional
$12,700 to $30,200

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MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 12700

The Gow School (est. 1926)  

  • South Wales, New York(USA)
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (15 students)
  • Boarding school (135 students)
The Gow School is a special needs private school that offers programs for grades seven through 12 in South Wales, New York. [View profile]
  • Traditional
US $48,000 to US $68,000


MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed 48000

Princeton Academy of Canada (est. 2000)  

  • Markham, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • Day school (150 students)
  • Boarding school (50 students)
  • Homestay school (50 students)
Princeton Academy is a reputable private high school that offers high school credits from grades 9-12 to those who are working towards their Ontario Secondary School Diploma. The average class size is about 8-15 students [View profile]
  • Traditional
$10,000 to $18,800


HighSchools Day Boarding Homestay Coed 10000

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