Demystifying Independent School Admissions

Choosing the right high school for your student can be a nerve-wracking rite of passage for families.  While families steel themselves for the inevitable stresses of college admissions, putting an eighth-grader through that same cycle of standardized tests, admissions packets and interviews feels overwhelming.  Clare Anderson, educational counselor at Clare Anderson Consulting and school placement expert, offers families some practical tips to cut through the noise, stay balanced and ultimately find a school where your student can thrive.

How should families find their just-right school?

In October and November, schools host open houses and group tours.  These are a great way to hear from current parents and a wide range of teachers while seeing the school’s environment first hand.  Avoid preconceived ideas about the “best schools.” Feel free to attend a number of these events, but you really want to narrow down your final list to no more than four schools. It keeps the process sane, and it’s hard to be invested and sincere if you’ve spread yourselves too thin.

Can you explain the major steps in the admissions process?

There are minor differences between Catholic and other independent schools, and some differences in the timeline for lower and upper school admissions.  But with that said, the general formula for upper school admissions in DC area schools generally moves in lockstep. 

Applications are typically due in early to mid-January, but I advise families to have their admissions packet assembled before the December holidays.  An online application, transcripts, standardized test results and other supporting documents – it’s a lot to put together, and you want to give yourself time for last-minute tasks, such as checking in on teacher recommendations, in early January.

All students are required to have an in-person interview, which typically occurs between October and early February. Then, admissions committees meet and make their decisions.  In 2020, all schools in the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington (AISGW) will inform families on March 6.  Finally, families have about two weeks to make their decision, sign a contract and submit preliminary documents.

How do standardized tests fit into the process?

I encourage families to work backwards from admissions deadlines and take the SSAT, HSPT or ISEE in November or December.  The advantage of that timing is that kids are back in the rhythm of school, gaining new Math and English skills, but still have time for a second attempt at the test if needed.  When thinking about prep, I tell families to ask themselves: “How are you going to allow your child to be really confident?” That might mean downloading free practice materials from the SSAT, buying a study guide on Amazon, or working with a tutor.  The key is to ensure it’s the student, not just mom and dad, who is driving the process.

A three-hour standardized test can be incredibly intimidating for an eighth-grader, particularly one who doesn’t feel he or she is a great test taker.  The good news is that many schools are taking a more holistic approach to evaluating the student, which means that less confident test takers need not feel they are out of the running.

How do admissions committees make their decisions?

At the end of the day, schools are looking for teachable students who want to be present and engaged in the community.  They really value the “soft skills,” such as motivation, interpersonal skills and teamwork.  Of course, they are also looking for students who are cognitively within the range where they can feel confident with the school’s curriculum.  Remember that an admissions committee is assembling a class, not just picking a single student.  Diversity of skills, backgrounds, interests and learning styles are all factors in building a cohort that will gel effectively.

How should parents talk to their kids about rejection?

I encourage families to take a neutral and measured approach to admissions.  Explain that there are lots of moving parts that you have no control over.  It’s also important for a student to feel that they have a voice in the process, they’ve been part of the research and due diligence, and for the family to have a reality check on what schools are appropriate and most likely to help their student thrive.  Parents should also have the conversation to explain that there may be a few schools in the mix that are a bit of a stretch, based on test scores or other factors, but that there is no one place where they can succeed and be happy. 

What is your advice on financial aid?

Applying for financial aid is a separate process but follows a similar timeline.  But it requires a lot more paperwork, including tax returns, so it’s important to start early.  Every school has a financial aid director, and they are incredible at guiding families through this process.  You should never be shy to ask questions.  In addition to need-based scholarships, there are a number of schools that offer merit-based aid.  It’s something to consider and you can research these opportunities on any school’s website.

Clare Anderson, an independent school consultant.

Any final words of wisdom for families?

It’s a total myth that finding the right school needs to consume your life.  The truth is that there are a few straightforward steps to the process, and school admissions officers actually want to simplify admissions and stay accessible to families.  I really encourage families to take a step back, focus on the needs and wants of your child, and find the environment that feels good for your family.  If you stay focused on who your child is, you’ll find a school where he or she can thrive.