Private School Admissions: Don’t Get Caught Up in the Hype!

Since San Diego’s independent schools released their applications for the 2017-18 academic year last month, I’ve been hearing the rumor mill spinning with talk of how to get into the “best” schools. Kids and parents alike are getting caught in the frenzy, but there really is a better route than feeling anxious about admissions until decisions are sent out in March 2017!

What I hear in the buzz around town are concerns about everything from the best entry point to maximize chances of getting into private middle and high schools to the secret number admissions looks for in ISEE (entrance exam) scores.  Parents want to know if their child will have a better chance of getting into a private middle school for 6th or 7th grade, but then they worry about what admissions officers will think if they decide to keep their child in his or her current school and reapply the following year.  Will they be blacklisted from subsequent admissions seasons?  Other families worry what admissions officers will think if their child isn’t accepted and then reapplies.  Will they have a chance of admission a second time around?  And what I hear again and again is the question: what if my child doesn’t have a top ISEE score?  Will they be able to get into private middle or high school at all?

While many of these questions bring up valid issues to consider, much of the anxiety is unnecessary – and in some cases, it is counterproductive, causing families to neglect the bigger picture of the admissions process.

What most parents miss when they get caught up in the hype about private school admissions, is the fact that every child is different and the very nature of choosing private school for your child allows a level of discretion in selection that parents of children going to public school simply don’t get. The admissions process should be about researching and getting to know all the options for school placement available for your child that work within your family’s constraints.  It’s not about finding the “best” middle or high school based on the talk around town but rather it’s about finding the school that is the right placement for your child – and for each child in a family, that can mean something different!  What is best for a child who is creative and more introverted might be different from what is best for a child who is outgoing and loves to participate in team sports.  Certainly there are some schools where an ISEE entrance exam score carries more weight than others, but those are the schools where the academic demands are extremely rigorous.  Not every child is ready for a college-like scholastic experience at 6th, 7th, or even 9th grade – and the ISEE scores help admissions officers determine which students are prepared for this challenge and which would face too great a struggle. Yet, San Diego’s private schools offer a variety of opportunities and settings to appeal to different types of students.

How to Find the RIGHT School for Your Child

Remember that private school admission is a mutual selection process.  The private schools want you to like them as much as you want them to like you and your child!  It’s important to stay focused on your goal: finding a place where your child will be happy socially, be supported to thrive academically, and develop the confidence to find his or her passions and interests for pursuit beyond high school.

So, how can you ensure a successful admissions process?  Start with an honest evaluation of your child’s interests, both academic and extracurricular; personality (i.e. more reserved and likely to be more comfortable in a smaller environment or outgoing and ready to spread his/her wings in a setting with a wider array of social opportunities); strengths and weaknesses (again, think broad – consider academic, social, and extracurricular).  Then think about your family dynamics and needs for community involvement, location, and financial support in a private school.  Remember that your child’s school community will become your family’s community, too.

Get to know your private school options.  Think beyond the norm!  You might find a wonderful fit for your child in a private middle school that provides a bit more nurturing and support before your child is ready to transition to a bigger school for high school.  Or you may find desired elective classes, athletics, or arts programs in a school that surprises you!  Consider whether or not you are open to a private school with a religious foundation, too, as there are many options for private school placements in small and supportive religious-based schools.  Talk to your child’s current school teacher about admissions fairs and events where you can get to know the options available.  You can also download our Private School Admissions Timeline at the end of this post for information on many independent and religious school admissions events, testing requirements, and application deadlines.

While I never encourage parents to try and get their child into a school that might be too stressful an environment, unable to cater to the child’s individual learning needs, or just not the right fit for the type of opportunities the child is looking for, I would never discourage families from putting their best foot forward in the application process.  There are certainly ways you can maximize your child’s admissions outcome with simple planning and preparation.  Here are some helpful tips to put your child’s application in the best light possible:


  • Plan ahead to ensure ample time for gathering transcripts, registering and taking admissions tests, requesting teacher recommendations, and completing applications. Waiting until the last minute for any of these items can cause undue stress and diminish the results you desire.
  • Check with the schools to which you are applying on whether or not you need to turn in a completed application before scheduling an interview and to confirm the latest date for admissions testing. If you are applying to both independent and religious-based schools, make sure they don’t have conflicting test dates if they require different tests for admissions.


  • Put good thought into your responses. Print copies of application questions to discuss and jot down ideas over several weeks, rather than just sitting down in one setting and trying to get through the whole thing.
  • Admissions applications are your opportunity to share what you think is most wonderful about your child! For your application, include anecdotes that illustrate your child’s gifts in all arenas and unique experiences that have shaped him or her into a unique individual.
  • Discuss questions for the student application with your child and help him or her brainstorm examples that best highlight strengths and achievements.
  • Avoid taking over your child’s application. Student applications should be honest reflections of their perspective, interests, and writing skills – not yours.

Admissions Testing:

  • Register in advance. Test dates do fill up, so you are better off registering for the test as soon as possible rather than waiting until just before the registration deadline.  Also, consider your family’s holiday travel plans and your child’s school commitments before selecting a test date that might have your child jet-lagged or stressed out while preparing for midterms or a major school event.
  • Consider applying for accommodations if your child has a diagnosed learning or medical disability. Students may be eligible for extended time, use of a computer to type essays, or use of a calculator depending on the supports they use in school.
  • We all know that practice pays off, and admissions testing is no exception to this rule! Taking practice tests and reviewing content for the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) or High School Placement Test (HSPT) can definitely improve your child’s test performance.  While there are many resources available to parents online, if you prefer to get help from experienced private school admissions coaches, you can register your child for a practice test at our center or get individualized test preparation support for your child at our center to truly maximize testing results.

Keeping a Realistic Outlook

There is no doubt that despite your best efforts to maintain equanimity, there are bound to be emotional challenges during the admissions process.  Whether it’s juggling admissions events and tasks with an already busy schedule, dealing with a sick child on testing day, or facing a situation where your child isn’t accepted to a school where a sibling or best friend is going, the reality is that this really can be a stressful time in your family’s life.

Remember that admissions officers are real people, and that their job is to be available as resources for you.  When in doubt, reach out to the admissions officers to get answers to your questions.  Stay in touch with them if your circumstances change or you feel stuck with a decision.  And of course, remember that there are many factors that go into play with the selection process.  No single factor is certain to make or break your child’s chances of getting into a school that is the right fit for him or her.

Lastly, it’s important to keep a level head as a parent exploring private middle and high school placement as much for yourself as for your child!  Maintain realistic expectations and don’t get caught up in what other parents are talking about at school.  Just keep in mind that the best outcome is a school setting that best fits your child and your family’s needs.  Best of luck to you!

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