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Getting into Private School: A Complete Guide

A group of private school students around their chemistry teachers desk.

There are many reasons a family might decide to apply to a private or independent school for their child. It could be that the public schools in your area do not meet the academic standards you’re seeking, or they might not be able to provide the educational support your child needs. With smaller class sizes, more personalized advising, and a distinctive learning philosophy, a private school may well be better than the local public school for your child’s education.

Unlike public schools, however, private schools require an application, and the more prestigious the school, the more selective the admissions process is. Whether you’re applying for middle school, high school, or boarding school, it’s important to know how the application process works and what admissions committees will be expecting.

Once you’ve done some initial research on the right schools for your family, you’ll want to keep these tips and guidance in mind as you approach the private school admissions process.

Eleven Tips on Getting into Private School

If you’ve decided a private school education is right for your child and your family, keep these tips in mind to ensure the process goes smoothly and successfully:

1. Start Early

Most private school admissions deadlines come early in the calendar year, usually January or February. However, the application process begins much earlier in the school year! In addition to researching the right schools for your child, you’re going to need at least six months, and ideally a full year, to ensure he or she has everything needed to apply.

Your exact timeline will depend on whether your child is applying to elementary school, middle school, or high school, as well as your child’s individual needs and goals. But in general, try to start requesting information from schools sometime in the spring or summer.

2. Understand Your Child’s Interests

As you research and prepare, it’s important to frequently check in with your child and make sure he or she is engaged in the process. Do these schools have the extracurricular activities your child wants, like sports or theater? Are the academics at the right level? If the school offers boarding and day school options, which does your child prefer?

Checking in with your child ensures that you’ll find a good fit, but it’s also essential to the admissions process. In writing and in person, your child will need to articulate why he or she is excited about each private school, so it’s imperative to include them in the process.

3. Seek Out Additional Academic Enrichment

Whatever grade level you’re applying for, schools are going to care about your child’s past academic performance. If you’re applying at the secondary school level, it’ll be even more important that your child be able to articulate his or her favorite subjects (and why). And, of course, admissions officers will evaluate his or her performance in school.

For those reasons, it’s important not only that students do well in school, but that they also pursue some form of academic enrichment outside the classroom, too. Whether it’s through the math team, debate club, or language lessons, developing an academic passion is crucial to admission at highly selective private schools.

4. Evaluate Your Child’s Extracurricular Profile

Similarly, just as private school admissions committees will consider your child’s academics, they will also care deeply about what your child does outside of class. That means sports, arts, and community service. While they care about a student’s academic performance, they care most of all about what your child will bring to their school community.

Extracurricular activities show private schools what your child is passionate about and help them see where he or she will fit into the student body. Activities in which he or she interacts with others, cooperates on a team, and helps others all show maturity and empathy.

5. Prepare for Standardized Testing

Just like colleges, most private schools use some form of standardized test scores to evaluate their applicants. The most common tests are the ISEE (for elementary school) and the SSAT (for secondary school). These standardized tests are another reason to start early, as doing so will allow your child time to prepare through self-study or tutoring.

Other private and independent schools use a school-specific entrance exam or admissions test. This is common at charter and Catholic schools, among others. A few secondary schools rely exclusively on the results of this entrance exam, but most schools consider test scores as part of a holistic review of your child’s application.

6. Get Letters of Recommendation

Another feature of the private school application process that you’ll want to consider early on is the letters of support you’ll need for the application. Most private schools ask for two recommendations, often from math and English teachers. These letters will be stronger and more positive if you give your child’s teachers plenty of notice!

Additionally, you may be able to submit additional letters of support. If your child intends to play a sport at the new school, consider getting a letter from a coach. Similarly, a letter from an art or music instructor can speak to your child’s passions. Additionally, if you have a connection to a school, such as knowing a board member, that kind of support can be effective, too.

7. Prepare Your Child for the Personal Interview

No matter what grade level your child is applying for, it’s almost certain that there will be a personal interview stage of the private school admissions process. Depending on your child’s age, this may be one-on-one, an observation of a social interaction, attendance in a class, or some combination of all three, so the admissions committee can get to know him or her.

There’s a lot you can do to prepare your child for the interview, including practicing answering (and asking!) questions, working on body language, and preparing a few strategies. It’s also a good idea not to schedule the first interview with your first-choice school; give your child at least one or two official interviews to work out some of his or her nerves first.

8. Attend Schools’ Open Houses and Tours

Attending school tours and open houses are critical pieces to the application process, so be sure you know when these are and clear your schedule to attend. Most open houses take place in October and November, and while some schools have a few options, they are not limitless. Thus, it’s important to create a visiting schedule before the fall arrives.

On your visit, you’ll likely meet members of the admissions office and hear from the admissions director. Encourage your child to ask questions on the tour, and make sure your own questions are answered, too. If you have questions about financial aid, academic advising, or other unique aspects of the school, make sure you get those questions answered!

9. Help Your Child Write Strong Essays

While the interview is certainly an important part of your child’s application, admissions committees will also rely heavily on his or her written responses to essay questions to see how he or she will fit into the school community. These questions ask students to reflect on their favorite subjects, ways they’ve matured or grown, and what activities mean the most to them.

It’s important that students write as much of these essays themselves as they can; admissions officers can tell if an essay was written by a child or an adult. At the same time, make sure you talk to your child about how to approach the essays and help proofread their responses.

10. Remember That You’re Applying, Too

It sometimes comes as news to parents applying to private schools that this is really about your whole family, not just your child. In fact, you’re almost certainly going to have to write essays yourself and attend an interview, just like your child. These schools want to know that you’re going to be a friendly and supportive part of their community, too.

You probably don’t need to become a better applicant by seeking out new activities, but it is important that you take the parent parts of the application seriously. Consider having a friend or advisor look over your essays and do a mock interview. Private schools look for certain qualities in parents the same way they do in student applicants.

11. Don’t Miss the Deadlines

This probably sounds obvious, but keep in mind that there are a lot of deadlines involved in the private school admission process, not just the final one in January or February! Most schools have only a few open houses and set deadlines for scheduling tours and interviews, while the ISEE and SSAT only offer a limited number of test dates each year.

As you embark on this project, it’s important to make sure you have a clear grasp of the timeline, to ensure that everything gets done and you don’t miss any crucial steps. A good independent school admissions counselor should help you do that.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re looking for primary or secondary schools, are interested in day or boarding schools, are applying for the first time or the third, the independent school admissions process requires as much consideration and effort as applying to college. However, by knowing what admissions officers will be looking for, and making sure you manage the process successfully, you’ll maximize your child’s chances of admission to the school of his or her dreams.

If you’re interested in learning more about private schools in New England, New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, check out the following websites:

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