Applying to Private School

Presenting your child in the best light without going overboard

CHDS Drama Students Take a Bow at Folger Shakespeare Festival. Photo credit: Antoinette Hardy-Jones

All Admissions Directors have the stories. The parents who buy test prep books or hire tutors -- for their three-year olds. It is against the rules, of course, and if the tester suspects something she will write it in the report, but that doesn’t stop people.

Then there are the “innocent” questions during the tour. “My son is SO advanced in reading and I was wondering what you do to accommodate that?”

Yes, again, we are talking about three-year olds.

There’s the eight-page parent letter when the application asks for no more than two. Naturally there are the thinly-veiled offers of “contributions.”

Let's not forget the letters of recommendation from a Board member who knows you from church, but has never actually met your child. Or the parents who try to make an appointment with the Head of School, bypassing the Admissions Office, so they can plead theirr case for why their child should be accepted.

Keeping It Simple

The private school application process needs to be conducted carefully to present your child in the best possible light. It also needs to be approached sensibly with research and visits before the application. As with the public school lotteries, there’s also a fair amount of luck involved. Several spots can already be “spoken for” by siblings and kids of teachers.

Admissions teams try to put together a well-rounded class and your child might just not fit into any of those spots. A large portion of the admissions decision rests on the student visit. In other words, the ability of your child to play nicely with a bunch of strangers on any random Saturday morning. Even so, a well-approached application process can usually result in a successful school match.

How to Select a School

Most private schools start at Nursery (two to three-year olds), Pre-Kindergarten-4 (PK4) or Kindergarten (K). If they don’t serve those ages then they generally start in third, fourth, sixth, seventh, or ninth grades. Most have expansion years at grades such as PK4, K, fourth, sixth, seventh, and ninth.  Applying in the entry or expansion years gives you the best chance of getting into a school.

In compiling your private school list, look at location first. Even if you are able to get your child to a distant school, you need to think about the impact of a commute on your child’s life and yours. If the school’s student population is heavily from northwest DC for example, you will spend a lot of time ferrying your child there for parties and other friend and sport events until they are able to navigate the metro system on their own.

After location, look at tuition, educational approach, facilities, and any special areas of interest for your family (religion, diversity, outplacement). All these factors are as important as the school's reputation.

If your child emerges from a school visit beaming with happiness, it is your best indicator that a school is the right fit.

Navigating The Process

Start the application process at least one year in advance. Unlike public/charter school applications, the private school application process has a lot to do with you, the parents, especially in the younger grades. Be interested and engaged, but do not present an extra burden to the admissions team.

Attend planned events rather than asking for a private tour. Be on time and turn your cell phone off. Leave young kids at home.

On public tours ask a question or two of general relevance. You may ask more personalized questions at the parent interview.

The parent statement should be no longer than what is asked for and preferably a little shorter. Feel free to be creative and present the best possible version of your child. Don’t drone on unnecessarily. Be honest and realistic about the relative strengths and weaknesses of your kid.

When bringing your child for the school visit, follow the instructions carefully. Be on time, dress your child appropriately, stay for the parent meeting or leave and come back as indicated.

Prepare your child for the visit. With younger kids, explain that you will need to listen to the adults, wait your turn and share. Tell older kids they should follow along attentively with what the class is doing. The school visit is the major opportunity for a school to see how your child will perform in their classrooms.

Many private schools require standardized testing for applicants. Younger kids take an individual test with a licensed professional, usually the WPPSI (Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence) or the WISC (Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children). Older kids take a group test such as the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test). The WPPSI and WISC attempt to provide a snapshot of a child’s innate cognitive abilities. The SSAT assesses a student’s learned knowledge. Schedule these tests as early as possible in the application process.

Remember, impressions of you are important. If you are pleasant and easy to work with during the application process, the admissions staff will feel that you most likely be pleasant and easy to work with when your child is a student at the school.

Paying for Private School

Financial aid creates a more economically diverse student body and helps students access an education they could not otherwise afford. Most aid is awarded solely on the basis of the financial need of the applicant. Financial aid is for working and lower middle class families in addition to those living in poverty.

Your income, home equity, savings, non-parent contributions, your child’s assets and any other sources of revenue are considered against what you might be awarded in financial aid. Parents’ student loan debt or current tuition, credit card debt and other discretionary expenses are not considered as a burden against your ability to pay tuition.

Both parents are expected to work and contribute financially, regardless of marital status. You are absolutely expected to sacrifice financially to contribute as much as possible before you are awarded financial aid.

The financial aid application process is typically done online through a non-school-based company. You input your pertinent information and a report is issued to you and the schools. The report will give an estimated amount that your family can be expected to pay, which the school uses as a starting point in calculating its offer.

You may need to negotiate with the school to increase the initial financial aid award. Be polite but advocate for yourself -- schools want to work with you to make private school affordable. During these discussions you should explain any extenuating circumstances that decrease your ability to pay.

The Timeline

You can expect to visit schools between September and February. Applications and supporting documents are due from December to February. Student and parent visits/interviews are typically conducted between November and February. Testing should be completed as early as possible and by January at the latest.

Most schools notify families about admissions decision in late February to mid-March and expect families to commit to the school in March. The standard “binding date” is June 1, but can vary by school. This is the date after which you are obligated to pay the full tuition regardless of whether your child ends up attending the school. If you intend to withdraw your enrollment, you must do so in writing before the binding date.

Your Final Decision

After the admissions offers are extended, there will be at least one additional opportunity to visit the school usually in a social setting. This is an important opportunity to determine if that school is really the right fit.

If you are fortunate enough to have been accepted to more than one school, you will need to make your decision based on the same sorts of parameters you used in your original selection process. If the school you truly feel is the right one for your child is not as prestigious as another to which you have been accepted, do not be afraid to choose the “lesser” school.

The best school in the world won’t be the right place for a kid who would better fit at another. Once you have made your decision, embrace it without second-guessing yourself. If you have followed these steps you should have confidence in the process and in your decision. Good luck at your new school!

Upper School students in St. Anselm’s Mechanical Engineering class test take advantage of the 40-acre campus to test out the trebuchet they built as a class final project. Photo: Yakntoro Udoumoh
Students get hands-on experience with growing plants on the bucolic campus of Burgundy Farm Country Day School. Photo: courtesy Burgundy Farm

E.V. Downey is a professional educational consultant at her business, Downey School Consulting. Each year she works with hundreds of families navigating the public/charter school lottery process, applying to private schools, and advocating for special-needs kids. A graduate of DCPS, she has taught children of all ages for almost two decades and came to educational consulting after several years in private school admissions. Her experience in special education advocacy started with years of struggling to get a decent public and later private education for her autistic son. Her son's private school decision was made when he came out of the visit day proclaiming that "it was like the school was made for ME."

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