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Applying to Private Day and Boarding Schools

By Cheryl, IvyWise WiseStart™ Counselor

After many conversations and much soul searching, you’ve decided to enroll your child in a private day or boarding school. This is a big decision with many moving parts, so it’s important to start the test preparation and application process as early as possible so that you (and your child) don’t get overwhelmed.

At IvyWise, we advise families to start preparing for the private day or boarding school process the spring and summer before they a plan to apply. While there will be a lot of family involvement in this journey, parents need to let their students take the lead on the actual application process. They may not be enthusiastic about the necessary steps like test and interview prep and essay writing, so a little nudging might be in order. Here are some things to consider when looking into private day and boarding schools.

Boarding School Application Timeline

Applications to private day and boarding schools often come out around Labor Day of every year, so we advise spending some of the summer researching schools and doing test prep. The key entry points for most boarding schools are the ninth and 10th grades — entry at other grade levels is typically on a space-available basis. This means that families who are looking to apply for ninth grade admission need to start the research process the spring and summer before eighth grade, with the goal of applying during eighth grade for ninth grade admission.

Building the School List

First you need to consider what kind of school would be the best fit for your child. Consider the size of school — does your child perform better as a big fish in a small pond or as a small fish in a big pond? Also, consider whether you are looking at an urban school or a suburban school and the various opportunities each option offers.

Another factor that might be important to you is the academic rigor of the school. Academic rigor addresses how the student is challenged through their coursework. Most independent day and boarding schools are shying away from traditional AP classes — instead, they are now offering advanced classes. If your student’s academic rigor is important to you, make sure your chosen school(s) offer either AP or advanced classes. Another benchmark of academic rigor is where the schools’ graduates go onto college. A large portion of alumni going on to highly selective colleges and universities is a good indication that the school’s curriculum is appropriately rigorous.

It is important to apply your child to a balanced list of schools so that they have the best chance of admission. Once you’ve done your research, make a list of reach, target, and likely schools using your child’s assessment exam scores as a guide. What does this mean?

  • If a school usually admits students with higher scores than those of your child, it is a reach school, making it more difficult to gain admission.
  • If your child’s scores are within the range of scores the school typically accepts, it is a target school.
  • Likely schools typically admit students who score less on the assessment exam than your child, making the chances of admission more likely.

Independent schools require applicants to complete either the SSAT or ISEE, so make sure to check with each school about which they prefer, although most will accept either. Both the ISEE and SSAT have reading comprehension, verbal, and two math sections, as well as an unscored essay section. The main difference is that the SSAT has two Quantitative Reasoning sections, whereas the ISEE has one Quantitative Reasoning and one Mathematics Achievement section.

Another assessment tool some schools utilize is the Character Skills Snapshot. With the increasing number of applicants, independent day and boarding schools have started adapting additional testing tools to the application process. The Character Skills Snapshot offers a more well-rounded view of the student apart from standardized tests, essays, and interviews. Unlike the ISEE and SSAT tests that you can take multiple times, the Character Skills Snapshot can only be taken once.

An increasing number of schools have added this test as either a requirement or a recommendation. We recommend contacting schools individually to determine if this test is a part of their application process.

Admissions Essays

During the application process, both you and your child will be required to write admission essays. Parents, be prepared to talk honestly about your child, both in the essay and interview. You will likely be asked about their strengths, challenges, and why you think the school(s) to which they’re applying would be a good fit, among other questions. Answering each question honestly will not only help the schools determine whether your child is a good fit for them, but also whether they are a good fit for your child and your family.

As for your child’s essay, make sure that your student thinks deeply regarding their essays and starts working on them in plenty of time so that they aren’t rushing through this important component of the application process. This is a time for them to highlight other aspects of who they are apart from standardized test scores and what’s important to them. Resist the urge to take over their essay writing, however tempting it may be. The essay portion of the application is extremely important, and it is imperative that your child’s essays are written in their voice and are reflective of who they are and their values, hopes, and dreams. They should think about the essay prompts, answer the questions asked, and remain within the word or character count.

Admissions Interviews

Finally, the interview is also very important. Your student should be able to answer questions about their favorite (or least favorite) subject, the books they read, what they will bring to the school, etc. Remember that there is no magic right answer the interviewer is seeking. These questions are all about your student and are the school’s attempt to get to know them better aside from what they will find in the application. Some students don’t like “bragging” about themselves, but the more information they can give the interviewer, the better.

In the end, the school — as well as the student and their family — are all looking for the best fit. Just as they are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them. You also want to come up with at least two or three questions to ask your interviewer. Your rising high schooler should be in an environment where they will grow both academically and emotionally in their home away from home.

Choosing a private day or boarding school is no small task. If you need help with this process, IvyWise offers School Placement services to guide you through each stage — from building a school list to submitting a strong application for admission. Contact us today to see how we can help your child achieve their academic goals.

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