Applying to Private Schools: A Guide for K-12 Families

When it comes to private school admissions, Taryn Siegelberg understands the importance of doing your homework.

As a parent of two children who have attended both public and private K-12 schools — as well as the director of nursery and elementary school admissions for the educational consultancy Admit NY — Siegelberg says if you apply to schools that are a strong fit for the prospective student, the process becomes much easier.

“If you really are applying to the right schools for your family and for your child, it comes together and the results are positive,” Siegelberg says.

Private schools come in different shapes and sizes, and every school approaches the admissions process differently, says Whitney Shashou, Admit NY’s founder and CEO who oversees the company’s middle and high school divisions.

Families considering private school should start their research early and familiarize themselves with how the admissions process works. Here’s an overview of the steps generally involved.

1. Get a sense of what you want.

2. Arrange for standardized testing, if required.

3. Attend open houses and campus tours.

4. Complete the interview.

5. Submit your application and standardized test scores.

Get a Sense of What You Want

At least a year before you plan to enroll your child — or even longer for older students — you should identify your child’s needs and what type of private school you’re looking for.

Rachel Blankstein, co-founder of Spark Admissions, says schools vary widely in academic rigor, areas of focus and many other qualities.

You may want to consider the cost of tuition and whether the school provides financial aid. You should also think about what matters most to you and your child — whether it’s college placement, diversity, religious affiliation or a particular educational philosophy. Proximity to home also comes into play, especially for younger children.

“Is it that they want the most academically rigorous environment?” Blankstein says. “Is it that they want a more supportive environment? Do they need an environment where there’s the opportunity for your student to get some one-on-one extra support? What differentiates the school from other schools?”

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

Arrange for Standardized Testing, if Required

There are two main admissions exams for private school entrance. The Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT), for grades 3-11, consists of math problems, vocabulary and analogy questions, reading passages and a writing portion.

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) has multiple testing levels for students in grades 2-12. Test sections vary by grade level and can include reading, mathematics, verbal, quantitative reasoning and a writing sample.

While Shashou says the SSAT is more commonly used for boarding schools, and the ISEE for day schools, both typically accept either exam. And some Catholic high schools use the High School Placement Test, which includes verbal, quantitative, reading, language arts and math sections.

Registration deadlines and policies differ for each test, so be sure to identify which is right for your child early in the process. This will allow you to start preparing as soon as possible.

Also note that since the COVID-19 pandemic, some private schools have adopted test-optional policies. If you’re applying to a test-optional private school, Blankstein recommends submitting your standardized test score only if it’s at least in line with the 50th percentile of the score range that the school admits.

Attend Open Houses and Campus Tours

Many private schools hold open houses or campus tours for families, typically throughout the fall. These can help you learn about the school environment and what it has to offer.

“You really do get a sense of what (the school is) highlighting and what they’re trying to convey,” Blankstein says.

Largely as a result of the pandemic, open houses may also be available in remote or virtual format for families as an alternative or before they come to campus.

[READ: Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?]

Complete the Interview

The vast majority of private schools require interviews for learners of all ages — though the process naturally will look different depending on grade level. The interviews are important in allowing schools to understand how your child interacts with others in a tight-knit environment.

“At these schools, they see you all the time; they meet with you often,” says Tim Bradley of Solomon Admissions Consulting, who previously worked in admissions at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. “They really want to know what kind of person you are, so the interview is a critical piece of the application process.”

What the interview looks like can vary widely depending on the school and incoming student’s age. Sometimes, multiple applicants may sit down together with current students and maybe an admissions officer or another adult and have a conversation; other schools may hold one-on-one interviews.

Younger students, according to Blankstein, may even partake in play-based interviewing, where they are evaluated on how they interact in a group setting.

When there are young children involved, admissions officers may involve the parents or caregivers as well as the student in the interview process. As you approach the higher grades, “it really starts to funnel into a one-on-one,” Bradley says.

[Read: What Is a Montessori School?]

Submit Your Application and Standardized Test Scores

Most private school applications open around August or September the year before your student would enroll and are due in early winter. In addition to basic demographic information, the educational history of the student and standardized test scores, the application may consist of supplemental components such as:

— Responses to student essay prompts.

— Parent essays.

— Graded writing samples.

— Letters of recommendation, typically from English and math teachers.

— An extracurricular profile of the student on what they do outside of class.

Siegelberg says many schools use the application platform Ravenna — which means you can store all your core information in one place — but some schools use other platforms or have their own admissions portal.

Meanwhile, you can submit standardized test scores directly from the SSAT or ISEE websites.

This is also the time to apply for financial aid, if you’d like to. Nearly all private schools provide some scholarship aid to qualified families, Blankstein says, but keep in mind that awards will vary based on a school’s budget and their criteria for aid.

Get Your Final Decisions and Choose the Right Fit

For boarding schools, decisions are usually released March 10, Bradley says. For day schools, decisions are usually released March 3-20, though this varies.

When waiting to hear back from schools, Siegelberg advises parents or caregivers to remember that while not everyone gets into their first-choice school, your child will find the right fit. As a parent, she knows it’s hard not to take rejection personally, but not focusing all your attention on one school will make the process much more bearable.

“This is definitely a process that can feel very competitive when it doesn’t have to be,” Siegelberg says. She advises parents to remember to “really focus on your child,” not the school.

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