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What to Know About Private School Admissions: Pre-K through High School

By Cheryl, IvyWise WiseStart Counselor 

Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to apply to an independent or boarding school. There’s a lot to consider in this process, and often families are unsure of how this process works and what to expect. Here is an in-depth look at the private, independent, and boarding school admissions process, including where to start and how to prepare.

Where to Begin

The first thing to note is that your child’s age will determine how much input you, as the parent, should expect/require. The older your child is, the more your child should take ownership of this journey. It’s also important to keep in mind which grade your child is in. The key entry points for most independent schools are Kindergarten (or Pre-K, depending on the school), 6th grade (although some schools have a 7th grade entry instead), and 9th grade. All other grades are dependent on attrition. Applications, regardless of the entry point, usually open around Labor Day each year.

Regardless of the entry point or grade to which you are applying, I recommend starting your applications as early as possible so that neither you nor your child get overwhelmed. The application process and materials will differ depending on your child’s age, so I have broken down a few common entry points to make it all a little more digestible.

What to Know About Pre-K, Kindergarten, and Primary School Admissions

Parents, you are in full control of this process! Before diving in, however, you’ll need to consider your needs and goals. For example, if you are looking for Pre-K or K, do you want a school that ends after 5th grade, 8th grade, or a school that goes all the way to 12th grade? If your child’s current school only goes to 8th grade, please make sure to research what secondary schools their middle school graduates attend.

Remember that much like the college admissions process, the independent school admissions process is multi-faceted. In addition to your parent statement(s) and parent interview, there will more than likely be a small group “play-date” for your child. Here, the admissions person will be looking to see how engaged your child will be, how they get along with others, etc. Many schools will also likely require an assessment to be done on your child as well – the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence™ (WPPSI™-III), or the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) are the more popular ones. Practicing letters, numbers, and shapes daily with your child before applying will help prepare them for this assessment well in advance.

What to Know About Middle School Admissions

This should be a joint decision: parents will need to find a balance between taking the lead without doing all the work. Think of this as guiding your child if they are going into 6th grade versus partnering with them if they are going into 8th grade. In the case of the former, you would probably want to find a school that goes from 6th grade to 12th grade (so that you don’t have to go through this process all over again in a few years). If your child goes to a school that goes from 6th-8th grade, make sure to research what secondary schools their middle school graduates attend.

What to Know About High School Admissions 

This boat needs to be rowed by your young adult. Of course, they might not be “gung-ho” about test and interview prep or essay writing, so a little nudging might be in order. By and large, though, this is a process that your high schooler should be fully involved in. Boarding schools usually don’t begin until 9th grade, but other than that, here are some things to consider when looking into high schools.

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 is not about the volume of work a student is given, but about how the student is challenged. 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.

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. 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. Based on your child’s scores, you can determine whether each school they are applying to falls within the reach, target, or likely category. 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 for your child. It is important to apply your child to a balanced list of schools so that your child has the best chance of admission.

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 be asked about their strengths, challenges, likes, dislikes, what makes them unique, and why you think the school(s) to which they’re applying would be a good fit. 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.

As for your child’s essay, make sure that your middle schooler or high schooler thinks deeply regarding their essays. 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 question asked, and remain within the word or character count.

Admissions Interviews

Finally, the interview is also very important. Your young adult 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. 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 want a school community where your child will not just survive, but THRIVE!

The admissions process for primary, middle, and high school can be complex and making decisions about where to apply and how to have the best chance of admission is critical. At IvyWise, we work with families through every part of the independent and boarding school admissions process, no matter when you choose to start. Our WiseStart counselors are experts who have worked directly in independent and boarding school admissions. They have nuanced knowledge of the entire process and what schools are looking at when making admissions decisions. If you are considering applying to independent or boarding schools and are unsure of where to start, contact us today for more information on how we can help you reach your academic and admissions goals.

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