A hand drawn graphic of a leaf and a caterpillar.

Let’s Talk About Finding the Right School

Daren Worcester
Nov 16, 2023
39 minutes
A hand-drawn doodle of an asterisk.

#admissionchat episode 13 welcomes NAIS President Debra Wilson to discuss criteria for families to consider in the private school application process to help them select the right school for their child. 

Questions discussed include:

  • What is the difference between a private and independent school?
  • Why is now a good time for families to consider private school education?
  • With applications on the rise, what advice do you have for families applying to schools receiving more qualified candidates than their availability?
  • What are private schools doing to ensure a safe learning environment?
  • What are schools doing to forward diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives?
  • What should families ask about in the application process?
  • What can families making the transition from public to private school do to make it a smooth process for their child?

Listen to the episode above, ask your smart speaker to play #admissionchat, or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform: Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, Spotify.


Daren Worcester: Welcome to #admissionchat. Let's talk about finding the right school.

Greetings. I'm Daren Worcester and in this episode I'm honored to be joined by Debra Wilson, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, commonly known as NAIS. As you would imagine, Debra has deep roots in independent schools and a lot of valuable insight for families in the application process. Debra, welcome to the #admissionchat podcast. Thank you very much for being here with us.

Debra Wilson: I am so excited to be here with you today, Daren. Thank you for having me.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. It's our pleasure. Let's start by just having you tell a little bit about yourself and your career and as well for families who may not be familiar with NAIS, its role in the independent school industry.

Debra Wilson: I'm Debra Wilson. I actually started my independent school career at an independent school. I went to the Williams School on Connecticut College campus. I was there 7th grade through 12th grade, and actually all three of my siblings went to the same school, although my brother and my younger sister also attended boarding schools. And went to college, went to law school, did all of the stuff. I started off lawyering at the Department of Justice doing tax litigation, and then I did a self intervention. I decided really I wanted to work on things that I felt like really mattered in the bigger world, and I'm from a big education family. So when I started looking around, NAIS was hiring. They were looking for an associate director of regulatory affairs and tax work is regulatory work, and so that's where I started at NAIS.

Pretty shortly I became staff attorney and the legal counsel and then the general counsel, and I was at NAIS for almost 19 years before I left to become the president of the Southern Association of Independent Schools. SAIS is an accrediting body. NAIS is a membership association, so it was actually very fun to be at an accrediting association for a while. And it was a likely extension of the work I'd been doing at NAIS. When I was at NAIS as general counsel, I was covering legal issues for schools and legal issues obviously for the association, but then I'd also branched out a lot into independent school governance, student health and wellness, and teaching and learning, and general risk management for schools.

So I went to SAIS, which I loved for four years, and then the presidency for NAIS opened up, and so here I am. I started in August of 2023, and it's an amazing organization. It's, like I said, a membership organization of independent schools. We have just about 2,000 schools. Most of them are located in the United States, although we have a couple hundred international schools outside of the U.S. And as a membership organization, as I said, we don't accredit, but we really dive deep into best practices in schools. We have principles of good practice. We work with schools around pressing issues of the day. We do a ton around research and data and helping schools understand where they are on the map from a data perspective, and then we support school leaders and boards pretty much every day. So yeah, it's a great place to be.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you for giving us that overview. Very exciting stuff, and I'm sure never a dull moment for you. I should probably point out that you and I are probably on the opposite sides of a terminology fence here where I'm often using the word private schools with families because that's typically how they resonate and understand that schools are either public or private. But for school professionals such as yourself, independent school is typically the term that gets used and for good reasons. And the two terms are often used interchangeably, but they're not exactly the same. Do you mind explaining for folks that thin line between those two?

Debra Wilson: Sure. Recognizing that I don't know that I've found many independent school people who totally and completely agree on exactly the definition of an independent school, which might underscore why they're independent schools. Private schools are they're that bigger piece of the pie. They tend to educate anywhere between 8% and 10% of the student population in the United States at any given point in time, and they cover basically any private institution that's not a government entity. They don't tend to have heavy government funding. They have independent boards. In most cases they're nonprofits, but some people actually vary a little bit on whether a for-profit can be an independent school, particularly in the United States. When you get out of the United States, you run into more schools that are for-profit just because a lot of countries don't have a nonprofit designation.

But the key things are mainly around funding. They're independently funded. In some cases means that they are tuition-free institutions. They might have, like Milton Hershey in Pennsylvania is mostly a privately funded organization that's funded by the Hershey Foundation. So you have schools like that, but they don't tend to take a lot of government funding. And they're also independent usually of religious institutions. So you might have a religious school, you might have an Episcopalian school, but it's not owned by the local Episcopal church. Parochial schools, most people will think about Catholic parochial schools.

Where I grew up, we had St. Patrick's and then St. Patrick's School was attached to it. Those tend to be considered private schools because the money is coming oftentimes in large part from the church. The religious organization actually oversees the administration of the school as well. They might have an advisory board, but they're not governed the same way that an independent school might be. For a lot of people from that perspective, they don't get that deep into the weeds between private schools and independent schools, but that tends to be the differentiation and independent schools typically educate between 1% and 2% of the population in the United States at any given point in time.

Daren Worcester: Thank you for the breakdown. I'm definitely a not that deep into the weeds kind of person because when I'm asked, I explain it as all independent schools are private schools, but not all private schools are independent schools and that's...

Debra Wilson: Yeah, it's like squares and rectangles. That's absolutely right.

Daren Worcester: That's about as far as I go with that, so thank you. As we all know, the education landscape has changed tremendously since coming out of the pandemic. Your organization, you've researched and reported on this. You've noticed a decline in public school attendance as more families are looking at different educational opportunities. For families in this realm that haven't traditionally attended independent or private schools, why should they consider it now?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, it's a great question. There's a few different factors in play that parents might want to consider. We're actually seeing more school choice initiatives between states than we've ever seen before, so in some states that's actually driving down the cost of tuition, so there's a cost element to it. It doesn't lobby around school choice initiatives, but we have seen that trend happening. Public schools going through the pandemic and coming out of the pandemic in some cases have been struggling with resources and budgets. And so what we hear from some families are some of the resources that were incredibly valuable to them from their public schools were either stripped away or cut way back, and so they're looking at private schools just for a different education experience.

So I think it varies depending on where you are in the country, but we've never seen as many parents just engaged in school choice decisions as they are right now. I mean, as you've probably seen, we're seeing an uptick in homeschooling. It's still only 1% of the educating population, but through the pandemic we saw a huge growth there, bigger than they've ever seen before. And I just think families are really looking around saying, "What's best for my child? What's really going to support my child as they get ready for the next phase of their lives?" Students only have one shot at education, so whatever it is that they experience, whatever foundation they get during this time in their education, they don't get a do-over. And so I think parents are really taking that incredibly seriously and looking closely at their choices.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. If we continue in that mold of the trends, we did a flash survey this fall and one of the things that came out of it that we found is applications are on the rise. That is lending towards admissions being more competitive at some schools. In our survey we found that 60% of schools nationwide are receiving more applications from qualified candidates than they have openings, which likely also means that acceptance rates are declining and waiting lists are growing at those schools. What advice do you have for families hoping to enroll at one of these schools?

Debra Wilson: For me, actually the advice remains pretty much the same. What you're looking for is the right fit for your child and for your family. So an important thing to understand about independent schools is they're very mission-driven and they're really quite serious about that. So when you consider a school, whether they have a high acceptance rate or low acceptance rate, really look at what they're telling you about their mission, vision, and values. Unlike public schools, which tend to have a much broader mission and much broader needs that they're meeting at any given point in time, independent schools, if they say they're about rigor, intellectual curiosity, and belonging, they mean it. You'll find that in their mission statement. You'll find it throughout all of their materials. You'll find it in their student handbooks, and you'll find it if they have to make a disciplinary decision. If they're talking about integrity, they will be following through on their disciplinary decisions.

So when you think about your child and your family and what your child needs and the values fit for your family, it's incredibly important to look closely. Sometimes I think people will chase schools that have low admittance rates just because they do, and it really is all about what's going to be in the best interest of your child for where they are and what they need right now as they're coming of age. So what are their interests? Do they do well in a more wide open progressive setting? Do they need a traditional classroom structure? What sports are they interested in, what extracurriculars? All of that comes into play much more so than the percentage of acceptances, so really keep that front and center as you're going through the process.

Daren Worcester: I think that's so valuable to keep in mind. Thank you. Families, we see it too, can get so stuck on the school that they fall in love with, whether it's a school with a great reputation or it's nearby or a neighbor's kid went there. But it is ultimately about finding the school where your child's going to have the best experience. One of the other things we're seeing as we poll parents: The driver for families choosing private or independent schools for so long has been curriculum, small class sizes, school culture. That has been the reason to make that choice for many families, and it's still very high on the list, but we see creeping up in there safety and security is one of the reasons that they're making that switch from public to private school. What are schools doing to help ensure a safe learning environment?

Debra Wilson: Yes, schools are doing a lot, and really it does depend if you're looking at rural schools or urban schools or suburban schools. And often if you ask them about it, they will tell you up front all of the different things that they're doing. There's the physical safety components, so do they have a security guard? Do they need a security guard? Do they have gates and key cards that buzz families in and out and that kind of thing? All of that is reasonably obvious from the outside, but most schools are very happy to share with you the different things that they do. And in some of that, going again to culture and values, some families, they're not that comfortable with that much security on a campus, and that's something to keep in mind too. Schools make a lot of cultural decisions when they're putting those safety precautions in place, but obviously it's something with school shootings and with an independent school shooting in last year, this has been something that has been on the forefront of independent schools.

So there's the physical safety component, the plant itself, teacher training particularly to make sure that teachers are trained on appropriate boundaries with students and reporting structures. Obviously we want students. We have a pretty fundamental rule. You give students back to their parents in as good or better condition than we receive them. And so making sure that they're in that safe environment and that the teachers and just all of the internal policies really support that safety. Those are key. But then there's the psychological safety components as well. Students, we've seen a huge uptick in mental health challenges with kids even getting down into middle schools. And more and more schools are, they're hiring school counselors. They're working with staff to identify when students are struggling with mental health, health issues, and how can we support them in the school environment and beyond. So those are two things that schools are really, they're working hard on. And I think it's reasonable for parents to ask and say, "What resources do you have here? What plans do you have in place? And what can we expect as parents?"

Daren Worcester: Excellent. I'm really glad you mentioned the social-emotional safety there that I was going to ask. One other aspect, what about cybersecurity? What are schools doing in that area?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, I'm so glad you asked about that. I think schools are doing more around cybersecurity, particularly all the things we worry about at home, not clicking on the suspicious link and all those kinds of things. But schools, particularly as kids are getting later elementary into middle school and high school, really talking with students about being secure online and learning how to protect themselves, understanding their digital footprint, and just I think really getting in the weeds with kids about being smart on the internet, on TikTok, all the games that they do, pictures they send each other, all of that kind of thing. Schools, you'll see a lot more curriculum around that, certainly, Daren, than you and I experienced. But even more than you would've seen maybe 10 years ago.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Are there any specific questions that parents should go in to ask about what a school's initiatives are around cybersecurity?

Debra Wilson: I think it's totally reasonable to ask them their general policies about student information and the safety and security of student and parent information, but also how the school is thinking about it. I think it's a fundamental skill for students coming up to understand the digital footprint, understand how to be safe online and to ask the school questions about that. Some parents will also ask questions around not having their students on social media. That's definitely been a trend that we've seen over the last few years. Parents don't want their kids' pictures on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok or whatever the thing might be. And so what steps does the school take to follow a parent's wishes there? I definitely hear more about that now than, again, than I did probably eight years ago. But I think this is your child you're talking about, and so I think all of these questions are fair game.

Daren Worcester: Yes. In my experience, the schools take the Do Not Photograph list very seriously, and there's a lot of...

Debra Wilson: Yes, very seriously.

Daren Worcester: ... a lot of review that goes through when they put photos on the website, things like that to make sure so-and-so is not in there. We're seeing a lot of schools doing great things, forwarding of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. What are some of the things schools are doing to ensure all students are supported on campus?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, I love this question. There's a lot of work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and where I've been seeing that work evolve is really around the concepts of belonging and mattering. And I think these are two places that our schools can really step up to the plate. It's really around how do our students and how do our adults for that matter feel in our environments? Do they feel like the school is a place that's truly for them? Do they have friends? Do their teachers see them for who they are and understand the people they're becoming, their identity and the journey that they're all on? I actually love how it's being integrated more across the board. So a lot of schools will have diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners, but they're doing more work with adults on how do we use more inclusive language? How do we ensure that students see themselves in the books that they're reading and the conversations that are being had and the adults that they're surrounded by? And I think it's leading to higher levels of belonging.

Mattering, there's a new book out by Jennifer Wallace, and it's called When Achievement Culture Turns Toxic. It's Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Turns Toxic. And she talks about that mattering piece as the students feel important in their environment. Whether it's for the younger kids, it's often classroom jobs or chores, taking care of the classroom pet, watering the plants, that kind of things. But then as the kids get older, what part are they playing in the wider community? And they feel an ownership and a real part of that. And that's a huge chunk of mattering, and it really feeds into belonging as well. We know about kids who have that high level of belonging and they feel that level of acceptance and inclusion. They tend to be more engaged, their grades are better, they actually learn more, they learn better, and they're generally happier students. And then when they go on to the next level of education, they tend to be more engaged when they move on to their high schools or their colleges.

Daren Worcester: Is this an area where a prospective family's best bet is to talk to current families, current students, to get a sense for what the culture at the school is like?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. And having students talk to students and just hear what they have to say. As most admissions professionals will tell you, they think a lot about the students who take kids on tours because students talk to each other. But I think you can also readily observe it in student behaviors, how they're engaging with adults, how they're engaging with each other, and the feel of the environment as well. So never be afraid to ask questions and to reach out to your network, but also be really observant. Take the time to see the signs in a school about what student accomplishments are potentially held up or written about in the school newspaper.

What is the school prioritizing and how does that work with your student? And does it feel even across the board? Some schools might have a trophy case for their sports teams or whatever, and does that same school have a wall around academic achievement or theater and what's happening in the arts? So how is that school representing the students across the board? And then how did the students feel within that atmosphere that they truly belong and that they really own a piece of that culture and of that school?

Daren Worcester: I presume you would also encourage families if they're interested in the arts to go attend an arts event or to really try to immerse themselves?

Debra Wilson: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Attend an arts event and talk to the teachers. As the mom of a ballet dancer, I'll tell you, having your student talk with the teachers who are in that area, that makes a huge difference. All of the adults in these schools will be influencing your child. They'll spend a ton of... Particularly in those extracurriculars with coaches, they'd spend a lot of time with your kids. And when you listen to the coaches talk to their students, they're bringing in pieces of the school's mission and values to the way that they're coaching or the way that they're teaching. And it's just a consistent message that the students are hearing day in and day out, and it really resonates with the students, and it goes a long way that creating school culture.

Daren Worcester: I may have stepped on my next question already for you, but I'll ask it anyway and see if I left anything on the table there for you. But what are some of the things families should look for, ask schools about to find the right school for their student?

Debra Wilson: I wouldn't be afraid to look at the places where your student might struggle. I don't know, maybe I'm just self-reflecting here. It's easy to go in and look at a place where your student might succeed and say, "Oh, that math curriculum would be so great for this child. Or that theater program would be fabulous for that child." But think about if your child is really an introvert, how are they going to fit in in the environment that you're looking at. And ask the questions. How do different teachers work with students who might be more introverted? Are they setting up group projects? Are they ensuring that kids are including all of the kids? If you have a student that struggles in one particular subject, what does support look like? Do teachers provide tutoring? Are there others tutors on campus? If you have a student who has learning differences of some kind, what resources might the school have?

You prepare for the worst of times in the best of times. So it's like you're looking through here. Just really think about, how does the school support students who might be struggling? I mean, the reality is most of us struggle at different points in our lives, often many times in the same year. And so really think about, what would this environment look like for your child if they were hitting some stumbling blocks?

Daren Worcester: Is part of that too, asking yourself, why are you looking? Is there a reason? Is your child struggling at their current school? What are you looking for? And understanding what would be different at the new school?

Debra Wilson: I think a little bit the research we've done at NAIS around parents, parents tend to choose independent schools for one of four different reasons, and one of those reasons is actually students who are struggling in some way. So they might be experiencing bullying at their current school. They might have learning differences where they're not getting the resource support that they need, something else might be going on. And so that one particular group tends to be around how are students struggling? Two of the groups that a lot of parents fall into, a lot of families fall into, one is around values alignment. So parents really looking for a school with values that very closely align to their family values. And then the other one, it's similar to values alignment, but it's really around help open up the possibilities to my child, really expose them to the wider world. There's a values alignment piece to that too, but it's not quite as strong. And then the last group is really about helping my child fulfill their potential.

So those tend to be the breakdowns. In my mind in all four of those cases, students are going to struggle at some point in time or another just because they're kids and you're looking at K–12 education. So at some point kids are going to hit some wobbles. But that first group, absolutely, if the reason that parents are looking for a change is that the student is struggling in some way, that is a big piece. And digging in with the school and really having those conversations, it's good for the school to know with your child coming in that you and your child might both need a little bit of extra handholding because you've had an experience that's not positive within education.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you. One aspect of looking for a school as everything's become so digitized is the review websites. As you know, they've become extremely popular, we often see families commenting or asking about them when we're doing our presentations with them. Have they gotten almost too popular? What is your take on these sites and should families be leery of putting too much stock in rankings and that sort of thing?

Debra Wilson: Yeah. I mean, with any rankings, you want to know why. How did they come to that ranking? I don't know. I mean, I think most rankings are helpful just to know what's happening at a school, what grades they offer. They might even have the enrollment information. I've talked to at least one of the sites, and they admitted that the data they have going in is faulty, and the data they have going out is faulty. And so they hope schools will provide them with the information so that their platform gets better. I was a physics person for a long time in that world. We call it garbage in, garbage out when you're doing formulas.

So I'm just a little leery of those, and it's what those ranking sites are ranking might not be what you're looking for. So if you're looking at, I don't know, public schools, public high schools, public magnet schools, U.S. news ranking is largely based on APs, how many APs kids take and how many tests that they take. And that's pretty much how they're ranking those schools. So you have to know what's the background of where those rankings come from.

And then if you're looking at reviews, some of the sites have parent reviews, and I would just argue if you look at Amazon reviews, you always have a couple people who are mad at whatever the thing is that you're buying, and they're happy to share that information, sometimes less so on the positive side. So I think rankings can be helpful, but I would take them with a grain of salt and understand what it is that they're ranking. And if you have questions after you read it, when you go visit the school, I would ask about it.

Daren Worcester: Personally, I often find the bad reviews the most helpful because you understand how somebody ranks something, using it a different way or looking at a school a different way or maybe looking at a program that your child wouldn't necessarily be interested in. So that, to me, almost provides more insight. And from the marketing side of the fence, I would just caution families with those review websites that oftentimes the ballot box gets stuffed. And so it's really hard to—

Debra Wilson: You're saying it, not me.

Daren Worcester: ... So yes, that was out of my mouth. So that is something always just to be cognizant of. They're all great schools, but just understanding how it's going to be a good fit for your child. For families that we've discussed how a lot of families are looking at private schools for the first time, if they're making that transition from public to private, what are some of the things that they can help prepare their student for to make sure it is a good smooth transition for the child?

Debra Wilson: Yeah, it's a great question. I actually, I went from public school to private school, and I think about that a lot. I think making sure that they're feeling academically prepared or academically confident, and particularly in those first couple of months to look for any wobbles. So when they're moving from one set of curriculum, so in most schools, curriculum is scaffolded over time. So if a student is joining, say a K-12 school in, we'll call it the 6th grade, they might have exposure to different things than what the other students who've been there the whole time have been to. So be prepared for a transition there. What I'm seeing some private schools do is during the summer, just offering a little bit of a brush-up course, particularly around languages, places where we tend to see a little bit more wobbling. So that's the academic preparation side.

Really ask the school about, most schools will provide a mentor or a buddy student or something like that to ease that transition going in, particularly when a student is joining midstream someplace. And don't be afraid to ask the school for feedback. But from the student's perspective, I think the little things really matter. So what is the student's day going to look like? What is the cafeteria going to look like? The kids will tend to focus on these kinds of things because it's pretty concrete and it's pretty immediate. And so helping calm their concerns and really keeping the avenues of communication open with your child. Any of us who've ever had teenagers, you cannot grill them. The thing that they're going to shut down on the most, if you ask too many direct questions, they'll bolt. But when you're in the car, just keeping an eye on how things are going, not hovering, but just getting that feedback loop going. And don't be afraid to reach out to teachers and say, "How are things doing?"

I'm a big fan of anything you can do to create a similar foundation for your student when they move to a new environment. And we actually tell kids this too when they're graduating from high school and going to college, if they're interested in particular sports or particular extracurricular activities, how can you get them involved in that so that it's creating some of those same foundational pieces in their schedule and in their lives that they had before? And it gives them an opportunity to meet other students who are interested in the same kinds of things that they are, and so they can start making some of those social connections.

But Daren, I'd be interested to hear what advice you might have on this one too, because I think it varies a little bit. And when you think about some public schools, near me, most of our public schools are really very big. So our middle school, the public middle school near us has I think 1,400 kids. And so going from that environment to a local private high school, it's going to be much smaller. It's much more intimate. The classes are much more intimate. They have uniforms, not anything goes dress codes. And so there's definitely a little bit of culture shock, I think, and just preparing kids for that. And the level of engagement they're going to have with adults. Those are pretty big transitions. So I'd love to hear any suggestions that you might have on this front too.

Daren Worcester: I was laughing to myself a little when you said talking to your child, because as the parent of a teenager, I am well accustomed to one word answers.

Debra Wilson: I'll do the car. The car is the best thing. If you can get two teenage girls sitting in the back seat talking to each other, you're golden, man. You're going to get all kinds of information.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, getting the friend there to have them talking together, that's when you're really going to piece things out. I really think you hit the nail on the head in just that understanding that every child is different and what they might be nervous about or what they're looking forward to. You can't put that in a box and just assume they're all thinking the same thing. So really trying to peel the layers off the onion with your child, which isn't always easy for sure. And understanding what they were going to do because I was going to ask you, having made the transition, was there anything that you built up in your head that you were really nervous about and then you got into the school and thought, "Oh, that was nothing. Why was I so worried about that?"

Debra Wilson: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I think I was worried. I mean, I was an intense kid, so I think I was a little more worried about the academics than I probably really needed to be. But I'd been to our school a fair amount. I went... This is your typical two working parents. If I had a day off and my siblings didn't, I went with them to the Williams School. So I had a lot of visiting days before I even got there.

But I think what I was a little unprepared for was meeting my classmates from so many different places. So I grew up in a pretty small town in Connecticut, and then Williams had a much broader pull. So we had kids from Rhode Island, other parts of Connecticut, and just much further afield than I think I was used to, even at 12 years old. So I think it's fun because I got to know just a lot of different kids who came from totally different places, and that was fun and interesting to me. But I don't know that I worried about it. I don't know. It was fun being back in school with my siblings, so I liked that part. But yeah.

Daren Worcester: For me, the moral of the story here, and as a parent, it's always one of the challenging things where your child may be fixating or nervous about something that you know is trivial, that you know in two hours it's going to be by the wayside, but we don't want to invalidate those feelings and we want them to feel supportive. So I think it's more of a pep talk for parents that, "Just go with the flow. We'll get through this." And they'll see that everything's okay. So coming up to my last question, thank you very much for doing this with us today. If there's any rock that we haven't unturned so far, if you were going through the application process today as a parent, is there anything else that you would want to ask the school about?

Debra Wilson: I wouldn't be afraid to ask about what kind of students don't do well here. Tell me about students who might struggle in this environment and just see what they say, particularly if you can have some casual conversation with administrators. Be a little leery of the, "No, everybody does well here." There are just some environments that certain kinds of kids, they're not... If they have trouble focusing, then a Montessori environment might not always be the best thing for them. And listen to what some of those answers are. And if you require things like flexibility, so a lot of students now, I mentioned my daughter's a ballet dancer. You get kids on travel soccer teams or travel, just pick any team. If you're looking for more flexibility or those kinds of things, I would tee those up early. You don't want any surprises when you walk in the door. You don't want any surprises, and the school doesn't want any surprises.

So to really think about, "Okay, how would we function in this environment?" And tee up questions around those particular topics. You really want to get a feeling. Yes, it's for your child. And your question actually, your comments earlier reminded me. My 13-year-old, she'll worry about things and you can't just get her to buck up and go do it. You really do have to ask her, "Well, tell me the worst thing that can happen." Or, "When you're thinking about what you're worried about, what would that look like? How would that play out?" You want to think about that for yourself and for your family and how this is going to fit the rhythm of your family overall. So when you're visiting the school, don't be afraid to ask about those questions.

If you really need a carpool, ask if the school sets up carpool things or do families figure that out on their own? Rarely is it the big things that are going to push you over the edge. It's the little things like that and figuring it out and how is this going to work for your family, that I think are really important for as you're touring schools, as you're talking to other families, just think about, "Okay, how does this work for my child? And then how does this work for the overall systems and health of our family as a whole?"

Daren Worcester: Excellent. I think we see a lot of families as they're putting in questions for the presentations, they're always asking, "How much can I share? What's going too far?" And I could see parents just the idea of having that authentic conversation and asking about things where maybe your child needs special support and things like that, that they may be nervous about feeling like they're tipping their hand too far. What would you say to those families?

Debra Wilson: Particularly around learning support, most schools have learning resource specialists or a lot of them do that you can take aside and just ask them questions about it. Schools are not allowed to take that into account when it comes down to the admissions process, and you would rather know what those resources are than not know going into it if you know that your student needs that help. Everybody's looking for the right match between school, student, and I don't think you should ever forget that in the process.

So as you're submitting an application, they're making a choice about who is admitted, but you're making a choice about what's a good fit for your child and for your family. And so you want to know that as you're making this investment in your child's future. And so I understand being afraid to ask it. I mean, you don't have to ask it at the open house with 300 parents in there, although maybe you feel like a degree of anonymity if you ask in there. I don't know. Maybe you bring your, I mean, my mother-in-law would totally do this for me. I could bring my mother-in-law someplace and just plant her on the other side of the room and get her to ask, and they would never have any idea which child it was attributed to. But you want to get those questions answered. And like I said, the schools are looking for the right fit too. And so that's why we have support services at our school so that we can meet those needs.

Daren Worcester: I would be afraid of the questions my mother-in-law would ask if I put her in the other side of the room.

Debra Wilson: Oh, yeah. I mean, what's fun is with three kids now that the third one is the only one at home, I love bringing my mother-in-law into these things. All bets are off at this point. I don't mind her showing up and asking all kinds of questions.

Daren Worcester: You've certainly provided a lot of great advice, and I think hopefully probably calmed a lot of people's nerves with some of the suggestions and recommendations that you've had today. Debra, thank you very much for doing this with us. We greatly appreciate it. I'm sure the folks listening have found it very helpful.

Debra Wilson: Great. Thank you so much, Daren. I appreciate being invited.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. And for everyone listening, thank you very much for taking the time to listen to this podcast. Please stay tuned. We'll have more coming soon.

Announcer: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the #admissionchat podcast. #admissionchat is a production of the Enrollment Management Association. For more EMA resources to help families throughout the private school application process, visit Admission.org.

A hand drawn cloud graphic.

Subscribe to #admissionchat

Don't miss an episode—subscribe on your favorite podcast platform: Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, Spotify, Stitcher.

Save 14 hours or more applying with the Standard Application Online.
Get Started!

Let’s get going!

A hand drawn graphic of two rabbits running.

Save time applying to private schools with the Standard Application Online. Apply to any of over 400 participating schools with one set of documentation and a single student essay.

The Official SSAT Practice

The path to bright SSAT results starts with studying. Only EMA's official Online Practice and Guide Books feature four full-length tests with 600 questions created by the same people who develop the SSAT. Compared to the competition, it's no competition—you get more and pay less with our official study guides!

Get started today with the free online Mini-Practice Test to identify focus areas.

A hand drawn graphic of a plant.

Find a school that’s unbe-leaf-able!

Whatever type of private school you're looking for, we've got it. Day schools. Boarding schools. Schools that dance. Schools that play. Schools that pray. Use our Private School Search to discover the schools that will help your child hone their strengths and discover hidden talents. Where will they blossom?

Admission Concierge at Your Service

Grow your understanding of the private school application process with Admission Concierge, a free newsletter delivering timely reminders and advice throughout the application process. It's everything you need to know—precisely when you need to know it.

Stand Out With the Snapshot

The Character Skills Snapshot is an innovative measure of student preferences, attitudes, and beliefs, helping schools get to know who an applicant is rather than just what they know from grades and standardized tests—letting their uniqueness shine. Add the Snapshot to your student's application today to help them stand out.