Finding The Right Private School Fit

For many families considering independent school selection for the first time, the process can seem daunting, and the options overwhelming, causing trepidation over where to begin and how to make such a big decision. There is no magical formula for ensuring that you make the best choice (and no rule that states you cannot change this choice if it needs to be adjusted down the road), but there are some tips we can offer from the vantage point of someone who has been on both the placement and the admissions side of the experience.

First, consider (in partnership with your child if they are old enough) the ideal environment you are seeking. Push yourselves to think beyond academic rigor, reputation, or college placement statistics. Does your child need more or less structure? Do they do best in creative settings or need a school that prioritizes athletics over the arts? Do they enjoy group work or need more individual support? Take things like size, location, demographics, and religious affiliation into consideration as you discuss the kind of environment that will allow your child to thrive.

Next, do your due diligence—seek opportunities to interact with the schools you are considering. Of course you should tour the school as a part of the application process, but beyond that, find ways, both formal and informal, to experience the culture of a school you are considering—send your child on a shadow visit with a current student if it is offered, attend school events like athletic games or theater productions, and talk to current parents and teachers. In fact, as you attend these events, engage in friendly conversation with as many people associated with the school as you can. When I was an admissions officer, I always loved it when applicants and parents would ask me: “what is your favorite part about being in this school community?” I would answer them honestly, and then encourage them to ask that exact question to everyone with whom they interact during the admissions process. You will find that everyone has their own unique answer to give you, and with this range of opinions you will begin to piece together a sense of the values, climate, and overall “feel” of the school.

Equipped with that information, you can then compare that “feel” to your own child and his or her unique needs. After your child’s shadow visit, sit down and talk to them about specifics from the day—what did they observe about the classes they visited? How did they feel walking the halls? What happened at lunchtime—who did they sit with, what was discussed? Asking very specific questions will help draw out answers from your child that will be insightful for both of you. For applicants to the youngest grades, keep the questions simple and use your own observations—how did your child seem when returning from the playdate? Enthusiastic? Exhausted? Discouraged? Make notes after each one, because if you are applying to many schools, by the end the visits may start to blur together.

Having done all of this homework, you are left with the decision. Especially if you live in a competitive urban area filled with options, it can be easy to get frozen by “analysis paralysis”—comparing every small detail against each other, second guessing yourself, and seeking out opinions of friends, neighbors, and extended family members. I cannot stress this enough: what is the right fit for one child is not necessarily the right fit for yours. And further, what is the right fit right now might not be such when your child enters high school. Be flexible and open-minded. Look beyond statistics and hype, and be thoughtful about the culture and values you are seeking. Involve your child in the conversation about the choices before you. And ultimately, tune out the voices of others and trust your gut, even if the answer surprises you.

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