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Is it hard to get into private school?

May 24, 2022

As a consultant, former admission director, and high school placement counselor, I’ve been asked this question many times. As is the case with many seemingly straightforward private school admissions questions, “It depends.” The following will help us pinpoint a more satisfying answer specific to your family’s situation. 

Why are you considering private school?

  • Are you unhappy with your public school options? Before answering yes, make sure to research your public schools thoroughly. If they aren’t satisfying options, it makes sense to start with a longer list of private schools. A common mistake families make is to only apply to one or two schools to save time, and if their child isn’t admitted, they choose a public school by default. When this happens, they often apply again in the following year, creating more school switches and destabilization for the child than necessary. It’s better for everyone to be thorough the first time and only do it once.
  • Does your child have a specific need, aptitude, or temperament? If so, make sure the private schools you’re considering have the program or capacity to address the identified need. There will be fewer options in any market for children who require high levels of intervention or a very personalized accommodation. However, a wider range of schools can serve kids with milder needs. If necessary, work with a learning specialist in your area to understand where your child would plot in this respect—experts who evaluate many children may have recommendations for schools that would serve your child best.

What is your private school market?

  • Are you in an urban area or a suburban area with a saturated private school market? Typically, in saturated markets, you will find a handful of very competitive schools and a wide range of schools that are slightly less so—they’re often smaller, newer, or have specialty programs. There are usually more options for specific types of learning profiles in these locations, from schools specializing in learning differences to programs for highly gifted children and everything in between.
  • Are you in a suburban or rural area with very few private schools? These markets have fewer options available and are less likely to have a wide range of specialized programs. While this can sometimes indicate fewer spots available overall, it can also mean less competition for those spots. If your immediate area has limited options, consider traveling to a neighboring community where there are more schools. Many private schools have transportation options that might make the commute more realistic than you think.

Answering the above questions will help you identify a list of suitable schools. Then you can ask yourself a slightly different question: How hard is it for our child to get into our identified private schools? There are ways to gain visibility into your child’s chances of getting accepted at your preferred schools.

Research each school’s enrollment numbers and entry points. 

For each school on your list, determine the total and per-grade enrollment, which you can usually find on the school websites or a school search site. Admission.org’s school search tool includes enrollment and specialty program info. Then find out the entry-points grades. For most K–8 schools, it’s often kindergarten and a middle school entry point like fifth or sixth grade. The most common entry grade in high school is ninth, but boarding schools often have ninth- and tenth-grade openings.  Every school and market can vary, so this is important research. 

If your child is not entering at a traditional entry point, ask if the school accepts applications for your preferred grade. Depending on their admission policy, some schools will assume attrition and take applications for the “off grades.”

Determine the type of student that each school serves.  

Some schools are vague about this, catering to a wide range of students; others are very specific. If you are left without a clear understanding from the school website, try attending an event where students are present. Talking to admission officers or other parents with children at the school can also be helpful. If you don’t know anyone, many admission offices will provide parent ambassadors for this purpose.

Once you are clear about who each school serves, make a realistic evaluation as to whether your child is a match. If your child doesn’t fit the program, the environment will not allow them to thrive, and because schools want to put students in the best position to succeed, it's unlikely they'll accept your child even if they have open spots.

If none of the schools on your list are natural matches, there might be schools you haven’t considered that could be transformational for your child. As mentioned above, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is not applying to enough schools or overlooking lesser-known, “right match” schools. This is the time to let go of secondary factors such as the schools your child's friends are applying to and truly focus on the best schools for your child.

Understand the application requirements.

Application requirements vary by school, as do the systems they use to process applications. Make sure to stay organized and track the requirements for each school on your list. It’s important to adhere to application due dates, as some schools won’t consider late applications until after the on-time applicants.

You should also pay close attention to each school’s admission test requirements. Many schools that adopted test-optional or test-free policies during the pandemic are seeing an influx of applications. Talk to the admissions teams at these schools to learn if these policies have affected their acceptance rates, and if so, it’s another reason to broaden your pool of schools.  

“Is it hard to get into private school?”

After examining why you are seeking private school education, have carefully reviewed your market, and have focused on finding the best school for your child to thrive, it’s easier to answer that question. In fact, you may end up with more options than you initially thought possible.

Jamie Moffett is the founder of Walking Feet Advisors, an advising practice for families applying to independent schools. She previously served as the director of admission K–8 at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California, where she worked for eighteen years.

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