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Mastering the Private School Application Process

Gaining admission to a top private academy or selective public school can seem harder than getting into Harvard. Should you have to take a leave of absence from your job to get your kid into kindergarten? Of course not, but the process can seem that overwhelming.

When I was an education reporter at a daily newspaper, I fielded calls from parents looking for advice or an inside track. I grilled admissions counselors at all the top schools.

I found that for the vast majority of schools, there are no secret handshakes, no board members to sway, no charitable donation that can give your child an edge. There’s just a dance known as The Process. You get to know the schools. The schools get to know you and your child. The schools decide if they think your child is a good fit. You decide if you want to entrust your child to the school.

The process differs from place to place, but there are some steps you can take to minimize anxiety for everyone.

Getting Started

  • Start early, networking with parents of older kids to find out which schools have the best reputation in your area. Look for older kids who have a similar personality and interests as your child. Ask their parents about schools.
  • Don’t overlook public schools. Some communities have excellent public schools, including magnet schools and other selective programs. Some neighborhood public schools are as good as private academies. Seriously.
  • Don’t get caught up in the admissions hype. Private schools are hush-hush about how many applicants they get and how many students they reject. Some schools have a reputation as impossible to gain admission to, but in reality they all have seats to fill and your child may be just whom they’re looking for. Other schools seem to accept most kids. That doesn’t make them inferior schools.
  • Check tuition. Try not to faint. Contact the business office to find out if financial aid is available and if you might qualify. Don’t assume the most expensive school is the best for your child.
  • If private school tuition leaves you woozy, look into selective public schools. Some districts have magnet schools for high-achieving students or for kids interested in the performing arts. Check the admission criteria and process. In some districts, parents camp out in front of the school to secure a slot. In others, a lottery system determines admission. Some work like private schools, conducting student interviews and considering test scores. Performing arts schools may hold auditions.
  • If private schools are too pricey, and magnet schools too competitive, ask your local district about charter schools. These are publicly funded schools that operate independently. They are often innovative, successful schools with low profiles in the community. They may not have top-notch facilities, but they may offer just what your child needs. Because they are public schools, they are free and have open enrollment.
  • Find out what testing private schools require and sign your child up. Don’t pressure your child or excessively prep for the test. You want a realistic picture of which schools will be the best fit.

Make the Rounds

  • When you have a list of potential schools, find out when each holds an open house. Mark your calendar.
  • Attend open houses with a notebook in hand. Take notes. Ask questions. Think about how your child would fit in at each school, not whether it’s the top school or considered second-tier.
  • Don’t judge a private school by its reputation for sending kids to the Ivy League. Consider the atmosphere. Would your child thrive or crumble in a pressure cooker? Consider opportunities. Would your child be able to play basketball or get cast in the school play, or would she have to compete for every activity?
  • Once you have toured all the schools you would consider for your child, narrow the field. This is the most consistent advice I got from professionals: consider your child. Consider his talents, his strengths, his motivation. Don’t push your child to a school you love unless you think he would love it too.
  • As with college, apply to several schools, including at least one that you are confident will admit your child. If you’ll need financial aid, find out the process for applying.
  • Many schools have an interview process. Again, do not overly prep your child. You want school officials to see your child as she really is. If you have to submit a portfolio of your child’s work or be interviewed yourself, don’t create a fantasy child. Be honest while still putting your child in the most favorable light.

The Home Stretch

  • When you’re waiting for acceptance letters, don’t make a big deal out of it in front of your child. Assure him that he’ll do fine no matter what. Play it cool when you walk to the mailbox.
  • If your child is accepted to more than one school, consider making follow up visits to make the best decision. If your child is old enough, let her have a say. If you’ll need financial aid, apply if you haven’t already. Don’t make any promises to your child until you know you can afford her top-choice school.
  • Once a decision is reached, secure your child’s spot with a deposit.
  • Finally, it’s time to celebrate!
The Process is not a dance parents look forward to learning. But parents who have gone through it and survived say it taught them about their child, themselves, their dreams, and their expectations. Think of the school admissions process as a learning experience for you, and as practice for when your child is ready to apply to college.

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