The Private School Admissions Game
It seems kids just can’t get a break these days. Playing on the streets isn’t as safe as it used to be, moms are stricter than ever about indulging in junk food, and social security will probably go bust long before they are able to cash in. To top it all off, if they want to go to private school in most big cities, they and their parents are subjected to a grueling admissions process—starting with preschool. For parents, it can be daunting and downright befuddling. Which schools to pick, when to start applying, what to say in the interviews, what to write in the applications papers, whom to call on for help…it’s a whole new area of know-how. According to Christina Simon, co-author of Beyond the Brochure: An Insider’s Guide to Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles, there’s a lot to learn. “You need to know both the stated rules and the hidden rules,” she told a roomful of prospective parents (including a pregnant mom and husband getting a jump on things) at a recent seminar in Brentwood. Simon’s book, along with her blog, can calm parents’ nerves, giving the inside scoop on navigating the murky waters and figuring out the sometimes secretive and highly competitive world of private school admissions. The book was written specifically about L.A. schools, but can certainly apply to other cities as well. Here, we ask Christina some questions about what’s often referred to as “the game.” —Gaia Guidi Filippi
What are the “types” of private schools and how can a family figure out what will work best for them?
The categories are generally traditional/academic, developmental/progressive, and religious. Each is based on a specific educational system, though many schools are hybrids of several philosophies. For many parents, it’s helpful to begin by assessing their own education. What type of school did they attend? Would they want a similar school for their child? I attended big, traditional public schools in L.A. and knew I wanted something smaller and more nurturing for my kids. Also, look at your child’s learning style and personality.
Nowadays, private school admissions seem as competitive as the Ivy League! How did this all came about?
Top private schools can get hundreds of applications for each open spot, so the competition is indeed fierce. Well-publicized budget cuts in large, urban public school districts have made many parents wary. Plus, the top colleges have become more competitive so this trickles down to the lower levels. Also, the concept of “feeder schools” (elementary schools that send a high percentage of its graduates to a particular secondary school) also drives competition to get in.
How and why did you set out to try to “demystify” the private school admissions process?
Beyond The Brochure came about after I went through the private elementary school admissions process for my daughter in L.A. It was a time-consuming endeavor and I had a lot of anxiety about the potentially uncertain outcome. I felt there wasn’t enough information available to help me. Private schools are not mandated to give families information like public schools.The school websites were factual, but the hidden rules of the game weren’t anywhere to be found other than conversations with people in the know.
What are some ways of making your child’s application stand out?
Don’t write a generic application and attempt to use it for all the schools, but describe how he/she would be a great fit for a particular place. Try to avoid cliché words like “gifted” or “leader.” Instead, give examples of how your child shows his/her leadership qualities. Always describe your child in an honest and meaningful way.
The parent interview can be so daunting. What are your tips?
Parent interviews can range from detailed discussions with the admissions director to short, superficial interviews with an admissions assistant. Before the interview, think about what you want to convey. You need to be ready to talk about your family, not just your child. The reasons you are applying to that school—and what you love about it—should be easy for you to talk about. Never ask why the school costs so much or point out negatives. Always send thank you notes.
Recommendation letters can be touchy. How do you know who to ask for one, and how important are they?
The best people to ask are current parents at the school, a member of the board, alumni, or anyone else with a connection to the school. Sending letters from people not associated with the school isn’t helpful. At many schools, letters of recommendation are a factor in admissions decisions. However, if you don’t have letters, your child may still be accepted (this happened with my daughter at one very competitive school).
It must be challenging for parents to navigate the “grapevine” (as you call it in your book)—the rumors that start spreading during the admissions process. What’s the best way to cope?
I talked to a few trusted friends who were also applying and that was it! Keeping your circle small and resisting the urge to vent on Facebook is the best way to stay sane (and discreet).
There’s a lot of talk of “diversity” and accepting children from all walks of life at most of these schools, and yet, there is just as much talk of privileged lifestyles and country club play dates. If your child doesn’t have the same socio-economic standing as most of his classmates, will he ever really fit in?
The reality is that there isn’t a lot of ethnic or socio-economic diversity at most elite private schools. If you tour a school and don’t see any diversity in the students or faculty, don’t expect it to materialize later. However, you can choose to look for and prioritize authentic diversity (and find it!). Your child’s experience at a school will depend on the school and its effort to be inclusive.
Top three no-no’s of the private school applications process?
1. Criticizing the school in any way (its buildings, cost, location, lack of diversity, lack of outdoor space, etc.).
2. Coming across as high-maintenance or demanding i.e. parking in the head of school’s parking space during your tour or telling the school your spouse was too busy to attend the interview.
3. Trying to offer money or bribe your way in.
Will need for financial aid affect your child’s chances of being accepted?
The financial aid process requires a separate application. Whether a school considers a family’s need for financial aid depends on the school. Some are "need blind," and some use a “committee process,” in which a family’s financial need is taken into account along with its admissions application. Due to the economy, financial aid is harder to get than ever. Still, my co-authors and I like to say “aim high,” and if private school is your goal, include enough schools on your list so that if one school can’t offer you aid, another one might be able to.
If you’re serious about private schools, should you consider hiring an expert to help you navigate?
Education consultants can be very helpful if you are starting with very little knowledge about the private school landscape. If you can’t name more than one school and you have no idea where to start, a good consultant can help select which schools to apply to, guide you through the process, and review your applications before you submit.