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.
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.