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Hi, Ellen. I was middle school head at Green Acres School in Rockville until 2014, and I helped families with high school applications for a total of 12 years, through spring 2015. Trevor, the great guy who runs this site, asked if I’d weigh in. So here you go… 12 years’ experience in 500 words or less.
Independent schools vary widely in admission. There are schools that offer spots to about one applicant in eight, though most offer spots to over half their applicants. That doesn’t have much to do with the “quality” of the school, however (whatever that means to you), but it does suggest that this merits a longer, more nuanced, discussion than the breezy, usually misinformed one-liners from anonymous posters I’ve noticed on some sites.
The biggest determinant of “competitiveness” in admission is geography — the DC schools have far more applicants than those in Virginia or Maryland, due mostly to perceptions about the public school options in each jurisdiction. If you have your heart set on the most competitive schools in the District, grades and SSAT/ISEE scores will play a large role in the process.
There are no hard-and-fast rules; in my experience every school considers a wide range of factors. Roughly, those factors fall into the “tangible” (things your child can affect, even if only indirectly or imprecisely) and “intangible” (things your child probably can’t do much about). Here are some of them:
Grades in seventh and eighth grade (higher is better, though kids with weak grades get in to schools)
Standardized test scores (higher is better, though kids with weak scores get in to schools)
Teacher recommendations (yes, you should waive your right to see them)
Sports (any success helps, though success in sports offered at any given school, like soccer or basketball, is much more valuable than high achievement in outside activities, such as dance or cheer)
Other activities (ditto above, though service is especially well regarded)
Diversity (almost every school seeks diversity of EVERY type — race, nationality, parents’ sexual orientation, you name it)
Parents’ specialties (Do you bring any expertise and skills that will help the community? Especially sought are financial and marketing expertise, though even running lunches or volunteering in classrooms is a sign that you’re involved in a positive way. If you’ve chaired a successful auction before, there’s a little-known admission rule that says you’re AUTOMATICALLY IN! Haha.)
Ability to pay (sorry, it’s better to be rich than poor, though you should definitely ask about aid if it’s a concern — you might be surprised)
Learning needs (no matter what they tell you, EVERY school has kids with ADHD or dyslexia — but not many have faculties sufficiently trained or skilled to handle three or four serious learning challenges in different areas in a single student)
The school’s desire for “specialties” (bassoonists vs. softball players) in any given year
Connections to the community
Family “fit.” Admission officers do not expect that parents will march in lockstep with a school. Rather, they want to know that you subscribe in general to their philosophy, and that when you have conflicts or disagreements you will handle them like adults, by discussing things honestly with teachers and administrators, refraining from blaming or attacking teachers and other students, and recognizing that there is no “perfect fit” for your child.
Mostly, I encourage you to recognize that no matter what anybody tells you, THERE IS NO FORMULA. I’ve seen kids with test score percentiles in the teens who were accepted at some of the most competitive schools; I’ve seen kids who look stellar on paper who were turned down because their parents behaved belligerently in an interview. Just be yourselves — you don’t want your child to attend a school that doesn’t fit her. And, while it’s not terribly common, I’ve seen schools take kids and reject kids and later admit that they probably missed one or two calls. This is a process run by human beings and their judgments, and as such is inherently imperfect. My experience is that parents who accept that truism find the process more rewarding and the outcomes more acceptable.
I hope that’s a bit helpful. Try to have fun in the process, and don’t worry about the outcome so much. No matter where your daughter ends up, what she learns about your family’s values, and your attitudes toward hard work and good humor, will matter much more in the long run than which school she attends. Good luck!