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Getting into private school: what schools look for

Expert advice and insights into what private schools look for in applicants

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We provide all the information you need on the application and admissions process on OurKids.net. Here we focus on what private schools tend to look for in applicants. We asked school officials and education consultants to weigh in on this question. What follows are valuable insights to help you get into your school of choice.


For expert advice on a wide range of questions related to “getting in,” read our comprehensive guide. For valuable insights on the more general question of choosing the right school, read our in-depth education expert, parent interviews, and choosing guide.

On what schools look for

“Like many schools, we look for students with a strong academic background who will also contribute meaningfully to our community through sports, fine arts, or the leadership side of school life.

When we meet students, we look for a spark or passion in them. We also look at how curious and open they are about learning. As an international day and boarding school with over 40 nationalities represented, SMUS offers an enriched, multicultural environment. Students who embrace this do exceedingly well.

It can be very obvious when it is a parent who is pushing their child, and those applicants are often not granted admission. The applicant needs to be excited about their future and the opportunities at a school like SMUS.”
—Alexis Lang Lunn, Assistant Director of Admissions, St. Michaels University School, Victoria, British Columbia


“In building each incoming class, we seek to admit students of good character who stand out from the crowd in a variety of ways—academically, socially, and through co-curriculars. Our students come from a wide range of backgrounds and, with the support of their families, have the motivation to grow, develop, and be engaged in all aspects of school life.

Our advice for students [during the application process]: be yourself, and remember, report cards matter. Always try your best. We are less interested in straight A’s on reports than we are in your overall growth and development. Bigger questions on our minds: Have you been working to capacity? Are you a good listener? How are your social and regulation skills? What makes you proud?”
—Chantel Kenney, Executive Director of Admissions, Upper Canada College, Toronto, Ontario


“At KEY, we say that private schools don’t accept students, but rather they accept families. So, it’s important for parents to understand just how much they and their actions can impact—either positively or negatively—their child’s chances for being admitted. In fact, parents have just as much homework as their child does in preparing for the private school application process.

Schools are looking to admit families whose educational values are aligned, which means schools want parents who will take a positive and active role in their child’s life and education, and who are willing to make the necessary time investment in raising a happy child who has a life balanced with academics, extracurriculars, and social skills. Moreover, each private school will want to ensure that its applicants are the right fit. The difference is the fit—the applicant being able to succeed given the school’s academic and other requirements. Whereas one school may fit a particular child, it may not suit another child. So, we advise parents to focus on the concept of fit—where their child will be able to thrive and love learning. Factors such as prestige or ranking shouldn’t be the emphasis.

Acceptance rates at some private schools are lower than even some of the most competitive universities in the world. At more competitive private schools, candidates don’t simply need to demonstrate they meet the minimum requirements and can stand out in a sea of other qualified candidates. Oftentimes, successful students will have a spark factor—something that makes them stand out. Take for example one of KEY’s students who was successfully admitted to a number of top private schools for Grade 8. Not only did she have a personality that could brighten any room, but she also had strong grades, and she was very active outside the classroom. She was a vocalist, school crossing guard, and student council member. She exuded a mature confidence, being able to engage with anyone in confidence.

For the more competitive private schools, we generally recommend families to plan several years ahead, ensuring that their children have the appropriate academic and social-emotional development, as well as meaningful extracurricular activities. By thinking ahead, parents can get ahead of the game by doing some simple planning for their child’s learning and non-academic activities.”
Bryan Ide, Educational Director, KEY Education


“We don’t want our student community to all be the same. Quite the opposite. We embrace students who have unique skills and interests and want to share those with the community. So there are a number of factors taken into consideration when admitting a student. This includes their academic ability/potential, desire and motivation to attend Appleby, and involvement in extracurricular activities (e.g., athletics, arts, service). Parents should also be aware of how competitive the application process is, and appreciate that not all students will receive an offer of acceptance.”
Luke Seamone, Executive Director of Admissions, Appleby College, Oakville, Ontario


“Trinity College School is looking for academically motivated students with a wide range of interests that match our co-curricular program offerings. The ‘fit’ for TCS is a student who will get involved in all areas of school life and who will be a positive member of the TCS community. We also focus on students who really want to be at TCS. Strong letters of recommendation and demonstrated leadership experience will strengthen an application. The single biggest misconception regarding the kind of candidate TCS is looking for would be the idea that all students need excellent academic results. Trinity takes a holistic view of all applicants and while reports will certainly play a role, so will citizenship, areas of interest, character, and personality. We value diversity and recognize that all students have potential and can add to the wonderful community at TCS. If a student is ready to work hard, engage in our co-curricular programs, and be a positive member of the community, they will have a strong application.”
Kathy LaBranche, Director of Admissions, Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario


“Schools look for balance in their school population, often a gender balance (if it’s a coed school). They also look for balance in strengths. For example, is the student artistic? Musical? Athletic? Schools assess the whole child: socially, emotionally, and academically.”
Ann and Karen Wolff, Education Consultant, Wolff Educational Services


“We look at both the student and her family. Do they understand what Havergal has to offer and does it match what they are looking for? Has the student demonstrated that she can be successful at Havergal? Is being engaged in the school something that works for her? We want to work in partnership with parents, as together, we help their daughter become all that she wants to be.”
Maggie Houston-White, Executive Director of Enrolment Management, Havergal College, Toronto, Ontario


“I think most schools are concerned that the student will fit the school AND the school will fit the student. At UTS, we want to admit students who can do the program and who will be important members of the community. At the same time, we also want to make sure that the student will benefit from the school and that we can offer what the student needs, whether it is academic support or specific programs that suit his or her goals.”
—Garth Chalmers, Vice-principal, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario


“At Branksome Hall, we look for students who are curious and interested in learning. They should be well rounded with diverse interests. Applicants should have a solid academic standing with mostly As. Extracurricular interests are important, but we are looking for quality of experience over quantity.”
Kimberly Carter, Director of Enrolment Management, Branksome Hall, Toronto, Ontario


“We want all of our students to be happy and successful. An ideal candidate is a student who really wants to work hard and avail him/herself of the many opportunities that the school provides. An ideal candidate embraces our Be More philosophy and is excited about the four pillars of our educational experience (academics, athletics, arts, and community service and leadership).”
—Chris Strickey, Director of Admissions, King’s-Edgehill School, Windsor, Nova Scotia


“There is no one thing that we look for in a student: our students are academically strong, able to contribute to activities outside the classroom, have a good sense of self, and are keen to learn and be engaged.”
—Louise Paoli di Prisco, Assistant Director, Boarding Admissions, Ashbury College, Ottawa, Ontario

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