We are big supporters of the Parents League of New York, with its long history of service to parents. If you are looking for information about schools, Parents League School Fairs are an excellent and FREE opportunity to meet and greet directly with school admissions officers. The best part: they have students on hand to discuss the perks of the programs directly with your children.
I had the opportunity to meet with more than a dozen schools and ask questions specific to the needs of advanced learners, so I highly recommend that parents ask specifics of the independent school reps when it comes to accommodating your child.
Following the fair was an excellent panel discussion: The Middle and Upper School Admissions Process with Jason Caldwell, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Horace Mann; Camilla Campbell, Director of Admission, High School Division, Grace Church School; Martha Hirschman, Chair of Admissions, The Dwight School and Andrea Kassar, director of Middle and Upper School Admissions, The Chapin School.
The key points mentioned:
• “Independent” schools are portrayed as ‘private’ schools in the media, but as one speaker pointed out, “independent” is a better description as they are are free to decide their curricula, teachers are able to wear different hats, and extracurricular activities abound and differ from school to school.
• When it comes to choosing a school, do your research! Check the website, refer to friends, talk to parents with kids at the school, inquire with guidance counselors, watch the videos on the school sites, get a sense of the culture there. There is something for everyone out there.
• Know the mission of the program.
• Many independent schools offer a broad mix socioeconomically and in other ways, so explore the schools and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
• Go on tours, but HAVE FUN! You will learn a lot about what your values are in terms of education and your children will learn about themselves and you in the process. Have a good time. You will come out of the process knowing each other better and you will find a good fit.
• Stay organized. Keep the material organized and share thoughts about the schools with your child and vice versa.
• Starting the process in September is great. Start looking at application deadlines; Make a list of top choices to explore and do research. What is important to you and your child?
• Stay focused. Make a list of 4-6 schools you want to consider seriously. If you are in need of financial aid, the list should be 5-8 schools.
• Go to open houses before the application is due when possible. Consider k-8, k-12, co-ed, single sex, boarding schools. You may surprise yourself. Explore the options, but KEEP IT SIMPLE. Don’t be overwhelmed.
• What do the schools look for? According to Jason Caldwell at Horace Mann, they want kids to be themselves at the interview. They look for kids who want to be involved but who also show an element of risk taking, and aren’t afraid to try something new.
• What should you look for as a family? Don’t be afraid to ask questions: What is the culture of the school like? What examples do you see during the open house or in the interview process? Ask about homework. How many extracurricular activities or sports commitments can your child take on. Ask about the food! How accessible are the teachers? Is class instruction mostly lecture or discussion? Look around the classrooms and the school environment.
• No one wants to over-test students, so Jason recommends taking the ISEE exam over the SSAT unless there is a specific reason to do otherwise.
• As for tutoring, he recommends becoming familiar with the test through a book by Kaplan or other, just so kids are familiar with the format. But testing is only one part of the application process, not the end all be all, he emphasized. It’s an important piece of the process, not the only piece.
• Letters of Recommendation: Make sure the 2 letters you include are from people who really know your kid, not some board member that would sound good. The admissions panel will read right through it, he said. You want to strong academic letters. And if your child has a specific talent area then have ONLY one extra letter from that mentor or teacher who knows the student’s ability well. Adding multiple extra letters of recommendation is NOT recommended, and often frowned upon. If the child is great at music, have their music teacher write a letter of recommendation.
• The Essay: The purpose of the essay is to examine the writing ability of the child and to get to know your child. Parents: let your kid PICK the topic. Let them OWN it, Jason said. Keep your edit to grammar.
• AGAIN, they want the student to be who they are.
• Admission Decisions: They are made up of a panel of people, from principals to guidance staff and teachers, etc. They discuss every student and try to put together a community of learners that fit their institution.
• Financial Aid: Millions of dollars are awarded by independent schools to families in need. Assume that the level you get in the beginning will last throughout your child’s years in school. Be sure to apply in the application phase, as your ability to apply in subsequent years if need arises is diminished unless unusual cirumstances. So for parents who think not asking for aid initially will increase their chances of getting in, only to request it later… not a good idea.
• Financial assistance is NEED BASED, NOT MERIT BASED.
• Students should hand write thank you letters to the person they interview with after the process. If they email, DO NOT write it the way they’d TEXT a friend!
• Placement letters: Once you confirm which school you are selecting, let the other schools know so they can open up positions for other students. As for waitlists, be sure to confirm with the school that you want to remain on their waitlist if relevant, or take your name off.
• Know the school’s policy on deadlines and deposits! Few offer your money back and some offer a tiered approach to payment, but make no assumptions, ask and confirm details with the school to avoid problems later.
• Do you look at Facebook pages? asked one parent. The answer is that it is not common practice, but if they are advised to check one out, it’s possible it could play a role if there is something troubling about it. So message to students: if in doubt, take it off your FB page.