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5 Ways Parents Can Navigate the Boarding School Boom

Don McMillan
Nov 11, 2021
3 minute read

The outset of the COVID-19 pandemic looked bleak for boarding schools. Students from around the world scurried home early for spring break and many wondered when—or if—they’d return. In our educational consultancy at McMillan Education, the daily inquiries about boarding schools seemingly vanished overnight.

But then the strength of boarding schools came to light. While public school systems deliberated over how to handle the health crisis, the independence of private boarding schools enabled them to adapt quickly, reworking academic spaces for social distancing, investing in technology to support hybrid learning for international students grounded from travel restrictions, and enforcing mask requirements. Meanwhile, clubs, chapels, and athletic teams met online, forging the tight communities that are a hallmark of boarding schools.

Boarding schools also addressed health and wellness concerns by conducting regular COVID testing, and they handled the spike in adolescent anxiety and depression by empowering their mental health counselors, many of whom also serve as dorm parents and coaches. We’ve seen many COVID-funked kids find themselves and excel in the nurturing environment of small boarding schools. Additionally, the vaccination rates at many of these schools have approached and even reached 100 percent. 

Where there was once uncertainty, our team is now seeing a record number of boarding school inquiries coming in from all over the world. The secret is out: Thanks in large part to their faculty, boarding schools are a place of academic and extracurricular growth as well as overall adolescent development.

How exactly can parents navigate this new admissions landscape?


<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Take advantage of improved virtual programming.</span>

Admissions officers are now more accessible thanks to Zoom interviews, virtual visits, webinars, and school fairs. Schools have vastly improved their online presentations, enabling families to get a better vibe for each school. Take these opportunities to window-shop more schools. Most campuses are also now open to admission visitors, so you can follow up virtual visits with in-person tours.


<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Research schools in the Owl Boarding School Guide.</span>

When COVID-19 hit, many boarding schools asked us to host virtual fairs since they could no longer travel to pennant-strewn gymnasiums of junior high and feeder schools. We hosted eight fairs with 100 schools that drew over a thousand families. We then asked ourselves: If colleges have all these guides, why can’t we make one for boarding schools? The data from our fairs was used to create the free Owl Boarding School Guide.


<span class="text-color-green" role="decoration">Cast a wide net.</span>

Because interest in boarding schools is booming, we recommend applying to at least eight schools of varying selectivity to maximize your opportunities. Start with an open mind, go beyond each school’s history, tradition, and reputation, and look at the next few years and ask yourself—which schools will best aid your child’s development? Consider all options from small to large schools, single-sex and coed, and those from near to far.


<span class="text-color-orange" role="decoration">Simplify the application process with a standard application.</span>

Applying to eight schools or more gets a lot easier when you streamline biographical forms, activity lists, essays, teacher recommendations, and more through the Standard Application Online (SAO). And while some boarding schools have gone test optional during the pandemic, we’ve found that it’s still helpful to submit SSAT scores if your child is a good standardized test taker. Keep in mind that many boarding schools continue accepting applications into the winter and even the spring.


<span class="text-color-lightblue" role="decoration">Prioritize the best fit.</span>

Since we also do college planning at McMillan Education for kids we’ve placed in boarding schools, we know that students who thrive in high school not only demonstrate the most personal and academic growth, they also earn the best college choices. The name of the school is less important than the student’s performance, and a big fish in a small pond develops better and has more choices for the future. School reputation can play a role, but for a real fit, you want a school where your child will receive the proper balance of rigor and support, have leadership and growth opportunities, and find their people. 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned as educators during this pandemic, it’s that a happy and fulfilled child is often a healthy child.

Don McMillan and his wife Sarah run McMillan Education in Boston, where their team of lifelong educators has found best-fit independent schools for students from over 35 states and 60 countries in the past decade.

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