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Let's Talk About Standing Out in the Application Process

Daren Worcester
Nov 3, 2023
51 minutes
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#admissionchat episode 12 welcomes Janet Lien, assistant head of school and the director of enrollment at The Browning School in New York City. Recorded from a presentation originally titled From Applicant to Enrollee: Inside Private School Admissions, Lien answers questions parents have on private school admissions, shedding light on the things families can do—including what not to do—to stand out in the application process.

Questions discussed include:

  • Are any steps in the application process that are more important than the others?
  • How can families stand out?
  • How do schools help students feel comfortable during the process?
  • What time of year should families contact schools?
  • Is there anything to know about applying to schools in Canada?
  • What are schools looking for in candidates in terms of social skills and behavior?
  • What can families do to evaluate whether a school is a good fit?
  • Is it possible to overshare in the interview?
  • How important are extracurricular activities in a student’s application portfolio?
  • How can parents prepare their child for the interview?
  • How many schools should students in competitive markets apply to?

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 standing out in the application process.

Greetings. I'm Daren Worcester. In this #admissionchat episode, you’ll hear the recording from a previous Admission.org webinar originally titled, From Applicant to Enrollee: Inside Private School Admissions. Our outstanding guest for this presentation was Janet Lien, the assistant head of school and the director of enrollment at The Browning School in New York City.

In the presentation, Janet addresses questions on how students can stand out in the application process, offers admissions tips on what to do—and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do—and provides insight into how schools view application criteria, such as the SSAT and teacher recommendations. 

It’s a conversation you don’t want to miss, so we are offering it here on the podcast to make it more accessible. So, let’s jump right in….

Janet Lien: Well, hey, everybody. Again, I'm Janet Lien, and I'm the assistant head of school and director of enrollment at The Browning School. We are a K-12 all-boys school in New York City of about 400. 

Many of you are considering private school for the first time, some of you may actually be already in a private school. I just wanna touch on what some reasons might be for a family who wants to explore private school. So, for example, I think a lot of people are attracted to private schools because of the student-teacher ratio. If you walk around our school, you'll see that the classes don't exceed 16 to 18 students in the classroom. There's a lot of attention given to individual students. And then the more specialized your classes get, the smaller those groups become. 

And so that's a very attractive piece for families when it comes to applying for independent schools. And I use independent and private interchangeably. Private schools often wanna offer a broad program to their students. And that's because we want to help our students become well-balanced individuals. We want to give them a lot of exposure. We wanna give them sports offerings, club offerings, competitions, competitive teams like debate and science bowl and those sorts of things, robotics. We wanna give them all of that on top of the academic experience so that they also gain leadership roles in those extracurricular activities. 

And so sometimes that's very attractive to families because they know that their kids are getting a lot of other things outside of the academic experience. Schools are very mission-focused. Independent schools are very mission-focused. So, for example, Browning is a boys' school, and so we talk a lot about the best strategies when it comes to teaching and learning with boys. We talk a lot about relational teaching and learning. We talk a lot about helping boys develop healthy notions of masculinity so that they can occupy the world in a purposeful and intentional way. 

So independent schools tend to be very mission-oriented, and they tend to deliver a program aligned with their school's mission. I think there's no doubt about it that we have high academic standards. Independent schools, while they're not public, unlike public schools, have accreditation processes as well, though. So we, for example, in New York, we undergo very rigorous accreditation every 10 years. And after your tenure accreditation, there's a five-year check-in to make sure that the school is still doing everything that we were asked to do and to maintain our standards. 

And then last but not least, families are often attracted to private schools because of alignment of the family's values, whether that is, you know, for us, our school values are honesty, curiosity, dignity, and purpose, and that's very resonant for some families. And so when you find a school that aligns with your family's values, that can be very attractive, as well. 

I'll try to blow through these quick tips because I think we'll also get into it a little bit. I think folks have a lot of questions about how to apply to schools: What happens when you apply? Why are there so many steps? What's going on there? 

And I think there are five things you can do to kind of streamline your search process or orient yourselves in a way that's gonna help you get the most out of that process. I'd encourage you to do some research. There are a lot of free resources available online. If you wanna do a little bit of research about a school in your area, you can look up school reviews that are available online. Consortiums, local school consortiums, private school consortiums also have a list of all the schools available and the types of schools available. I know that you can do a searchable—Daren, at Admission.org, is there a searchable directory? I forgot to take a look before we started.

Daren Worcester: Yes, we have a school search. The design is a bit outdated. We need to work on that. It's on our to-do list. But functionally, you will find lots of schools in there and have direct links to applying to them as well from there.

Janet Lien: Yeah, and so there are lots of resources available out there for you as you start to do your research and you compile your school list. Once you have a school list, I really recommend folks try to stay organized with lists of schools on a spreadsheet. And the reason for this is not just because I tend to be a little bit OCD about things like that if you spend a whole year visiting a number of schools, things are gonna start to blend together on the other side. So when you're kind of narrowing the list of schools that you think you want to send your child to, you're gonna forget which school was it that talked about the robotics team doing this, or which school was it where this other thing happened, you know, that you do want to make sure that you have all of those things available to you on the other end. 

But it's also helpful for managing appointments and making sure that you have the dates for open houses and any of the other events that a school might invite you to. I would just encourage everybody to remember that the admission process, although it feels like you're always in the hot seat, is ultimately a two-way street. What schools are trying to do through the admission process, and that's partly why there are so many checklist items, is really to get to know your family and your child.

And so, you know, while you are evaluating a school whether that could be the right match for your family, we're also trying to do the same because what we want is we wanna be able to deliver on what you want us to do. When you send your child to our school, we wanna make sure that we can actually do the thing that you want us to do for your child. So this is why it's a two-way street, and that's why the application process tends to be very detailed. 

We'll talk a little bit later, I think one of the questions kind of talks about what you can expect on the other end. When you get a decision, you're gonna get either an acceptance, a waitlist, or a decline, and so you wanna think about what you can do at that point of the process. But, managing your expectations about what the outcomes can be can be very helpful. 

And I would just encourage you to enjoy the process as best you can. I know that it can feel stressful. You're worried about your child being under so much scrutiny or your family under so much scrutiny, but it's also a time of great self-discovery for your child, and you're discovering something about them, as well. 

And also, just allow yourself the room to be surprised. A school that maybe you weren't so sure about in the beginning could become one of your favorite schools by the end. So, I think being open-minded is a great way to approach the process. And I'll just take a quick note. I know that Daren said that there's gonna be a session on financial aid later on. I want you to know that schools do everything they can to help families gain access to independent schools. And we do come with a heavy price tag in many parts of the country and the world, but we are here to try to help families afford independent school experiences. 

And at the same time, it is an investment, and so we recognize that, and that's why we wanna deliver to you the best program that we can. That's our promise to families from our side. So that was just my real quick introduction if you will. I hope that was okay, Daren, and I'm happy to jump into any questions that folks may have.

Daren Worcester: That was great. Thank you, Janet. And just a reminder to everybody, if you have other questions, feel free to put 'em into the Q&A field. It will probably be a first-come-first-serve because we do have a lot of questions already entered, as you saw when you registered. 

So, Janet, I think a lot of questions that we see could be grouped around the application process in general. I think we have a lot of folks new to the process, which is normal, by all means. So, you know, when they look at everything, and they're looking at all the different criteria that schools are asking for and evaluating for, I think a lot of people are wondering is there a step in the process that's more important than the others, or is there an evaluation criteria that gets weighted more. They're trying to navigate the waters around how to understand the process and the effort probably to put into all these different components.

Janet Lien: I don't know that there's any one part that's weighted more than another. I mean, because I think if we want families to engage and to submit all of those materials, we are going to be looking at all of those materials as closely as we can. And so I hesitate to say that one thing is more important than the next. But I can tell you a little bit about what each component of the application process and what information we get from that. 

So, for example, test scores. I often get a lot of test score questions—you know, does your school have a cutoff? Does your school automatically not consider a candidate if they don't have X or certain scores? And, actually, that also varies school by school. 

So, for example, we actually dive deeper into the scores. We don't just look at the raw score, we look at, you know, how did they perform in this section of the test? What's causing a low score in this particular segment when their report cards are telling us something very different about the student? So, we try to investigate what might be the cause for a lower score on a test. 

I personally love reading the essays because I think, you know, I wanna know when a student has the choice, when a student is given the freedom to write about a topic that's interesting to them—what topic do they choose, what do they write about—because that's also insight for us. 

For me, that's one component. Another component that I think we do spend a lot of time with is actually teacher recommendations. So we do look at those very closely. What we're trying to do with all the different parts of the application is to piece together our understanding of the student, how they learn, what kind of student they are, and what kinds of things might the student be interested in engaging with that they came to our school? Is there a right match here? Can we support what the family hopes and wants for their child? 

So it's almost like detective work, and all of those pieces of the application matter. And that's why I'm hesitant to say one over the other. I don't know if that's a cop-out or not there, but I think those are just some ways that we look at different components.

Daren Worcester: No, I wouldn't call it a cop-out. It’s understandable. So, from the parents' perspective, with the groups of questions that we got, the next big one was, ‘Well, how can we stand out? What can we do?’ I think parents look at the landscape. There are some super competitive schools out there, and there are some in the middle. We recently did a study with schools, and one of the survey results found that 60% of schools receive more qualified candidates than they can accept. The good news there is, you know, there's 40% of schools that are great schools that are open to accepting more candidates. But if they're trying to apply to these more competitive schools, what can they do to stand out?

Janet Lien: Yeah. So I think, first of all, the most important thing you can do in the application process is to help us really understand who your child is authentically. And I think, you know, some schools actually don't do a parent interview. We do a parent interview, again, because we wanna understand what a family's hopes are for their child. And so that's why we do that. And it's a chance for us to talk a little bit about what's important about our school too so that we can find the match in between.

 A piece of advice, and I'm gonna tie this into another question that we've got a little later, which is, you know, ‘What are pet peeves of admission offices?’ I'll tie that in here right now because the best piece of advice I can give you is something that I heard another colleague say. So this is nothing that I came up with myself, but he always recommends parents, you know, to not be more memorable than their child in the application process. 

You want your child to shine, and we want your child to shine, too, in the application process. But if we're sitting there reading files at the end, and all we can remember about is the parent, that is not what you want to happen on the other end. So I think, you know, so that's on the ‘don't’ side. 

The ‘do's’ part is to ask questions and show that you're interested for good reason in a school. Do a little bit of research, so you know what the school's mission is and what they're trying to do so that conversation becomes more productive. Help us learn about your child, and that includes the good and the not-great. Because ultimately, when we're in it together, when we're educating your child together, we wanna make sure that everybody has their eyes wide open and we can put in all the structures we need to ensure your child's success. I think that the more honest you can be with us, the better. 

Now, I will just say one more thing, which is that in the application process, we are most keen to understand a student's academic profile, and that's why those basic pieces are there. You may know someone who attended the school you're applying to, maybe somebody you worked with, their father's brother went to the school with them, or something like that. A letter of recommendation from that person that's very removed from your child and your family's experience—that's not gonna really help the admission team understand your child. 

But having said that, if somebody wants to put in good word for your child because they know your child really well, that's okay, that's fine. So that's why I don't mind it if a family says their TaeKwonDo instructor really knows my child, like, they really broke through with my child on X, Y, and Z, and so we asked him to write a letter. Great, because that gives me another dimension of understanding. But somebody who's very removed from your family and doesn't know your child will not help me. 

So, I may have gone around and tried to answer that question in multiple, different ways, Daren, but those are some things that come to mind.

Daren Worcester: You had some really good feedback there. For us parents who have shy children, we probably have the same anxiety of taking our kid into an evaluation process like this, into an interview. What can you say to these parents? This certainly is not your first rodeo. You are accustomed to working with children. What are some of the things that you do to help the students feel comfortable and talk about themselves in the process?

Janet Lien: Yeah. Well, so certainly, when we structure our process, we are thinking about those children, as well. And I think that what we don't want is we don't want a bias to form for students who are extroverted. And so we are trying to be mindful. So, for example, at Browning, we generally encourage families to tour before they do the interview so the child can get used to the school, they've seen the school, and they have some questions. They come in, and they're ready to kind of tell us, ‘I saw this in the library, and this is something I'm interested in,’ and then that way, they're kind of primed for that. 

So I think the way that schools set up the admissions visits, I think that's one way that we try to do that. But of course, that may not happen in every school. So, I think there are some things you can do as a family to help your child prepare for the interview. Help them do a little bit of research on the school. Come up with some questions that they can ask when they visit. They can also, you can also say be prepared to talk about a class you like and why. Be prepared to talk about a teacher you really enjoy learning from and why. Some interviewers do like asking about, hey, what kind of extracurriculars do you like to do? 

What I would encourage your child not to do is go in with a list, but really come up with why something is interesting to them because that's a more interesting insight. And I will tell you that the most memorable interviews I have had as an Admission Director happen with introverts. And often, it has nothing to do with what they are learning in school, what their interests are, or anything of that nature. 

With one boy, he saw a pen that I was holding, and we started talking about the merits of different types of pens and what makes a pen a good pen. And we spent a good amount of time talking about how to decide whether a pen is a good writing instrument. That gave me so much information about that child, more than I could have gotten if he told me about his favorite book. Does that make sense, Daren? But my whole point is that you can't always control it, but if you want to prepare your child a little bit, those are some things to be thinking about. And just do a little research because that will help them go in with some questions that will be useful.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. So, if we rewind a little bit to the first reach out to a school, is there an opportune time of year when families should be reaching out to schools for the first time?

Janet Lien: Yeah, I mean, more and more schools are now doing spring outreach events. So, the admission season for the following year really starts as early as April after we've finished wrapping up one series. That's actually a great time to visit schools if you're in that cycle of parents who are looking for a school for the following year. You can start doing spring tours, and just that can help you narrow your list. 

But I think most of us take applications beginning at the end of the summer. So I'd say keep your eyes peeled starting, you know, like, late July or early August. So we are taking applications actively right now, for example [recorded in October], and we will do so until right around the first week of December.

Daren Worcester: So I've always kind of looked at it as, as soon as possible.

Janet Lien: Yeah.

Daren Worcester: As soon as you know, let the school know that you're interested. Is there any harm in that?

Janet Lien: No, no harm at all. And, you know, it doesn't hurt to—and most schools will post it on their website ‘now accepting applications.’ It doesn't hurt to look there. But even if you've missed the window, let's say you didn't realize, ‘Oh, I didn't realize that I had to put in a whole application.’ It does take a few—it's not immediate—it's not like you put in an application and you will immediately get a decision the following week. 

It doesn't quite work like that because it does take time to gather those materials. Call the school. So, let's say it's February, and you didn't realize that you needed to start looking for your child's school next year in September. Call the school and say, ‘Hey, are you still accepting applications,’ and see what they say because if there's space in the grade or if they anticipate some space, they may actually go ahead and take the application and process it as it comes along. So it'll just be a little bit out of cycle, but it's fine.

Daren Worcester: Excellent, thank you. One comment on a few questions we've got here—not necessarily a direct question for you, Janet—but we had a few people asking questions regarding applying to schools in Canada. I just want to kind of acknowledge your questions and let you know that almost everything that Janet is giving for advice here is applicable to schools in Canada. The one thing that you folks will want to be aware of is oftentimes the application deadlines are much sooner, and for some schools, even in November, so you may have some deadlines coming up quickly. So just be aware of that and make sure. I think for everyone with all schools you're applying to, and you said this in your intro, just make sure you understand what their deadline dates are. 

Alright. Well, here's a good question: When you are evaluating candidates, what are you looking for in terms of behavior or social skills?

Janet Lien: Yeah, that's a great one. And a lot of it depends on the age group that we're looking at. Ooh, and also, because we're a boys' school, we look at all of those things with a different lens, as well. So it's, I'm gonna have a very particular way of answering that question. When I look at behavioral comments and teacher recommendations, and any observations made when the student visited our school, we're thinking about who's going to make the most out of their experience at our school. 

And it's someone who's gonna be open to exploring, somebody who's going to be open to trying new things, right? People always ask me, ‘What kinds of students are the most successful at your school,’ and I would say that's one of the traits that really helps. Now, but we're also educators. So a child may come, and they may actually be keen, but they don't know how to get started. Then that's our job to help them kind of engage when they join the school to help them find ways to participate. 

So that's not really something that if a student does not exhibit those qualities during the application process, they are automatically not considered. Do you know what I mean, Daren? We're looking for someone who is teachable, somebody who will want to work with their teachers to learn, to deepen their own learning, their understanding, and their engagement. We want community members. 

I've met students before who were very much laser-focused, they wanted one thing. They were like, ‘I wanna go to med school.’ And that's great to have an ambition, I very much applaud that, but I would also want this child to try things like, hey, maybe you'll really like the rocketry club. Maybe you'll really enjoy singing in the chorus. And for a student that sees those things as distractions, then you're really not tapping into everything that's available to a student. So those are some things that we look for when we look at when we try to analyze how a student's gonna engage. Does that hit the mark, you think, Daren?

Daren Worcester: Yeah, that was great. Similarly, I think, and you said this in the beginning about the application process being a two-way street. You know, what are some of the things that the families can do to evaluate whether the school's the right fit for them?

Janet Lien: Yeah, I think it comes back to family alignment with the values or the alignment of the school's values with the family's values, right? When your child is spending most of their waking hours at school, what are they going to be exposed to? So, I think that you want to look and see how the school is talking about its mission and values. 

When you're on the tour, so many things are happening. You're listening to a tour guide's presentation. And yes, you know, we've trained the tour guides. They have a path that they'll walk. They have some things, programmatic things that we do want our tour guides to share with families. So there's a lot of detail that you get hit with. So you have to listen, but it's also as important to observe, right? 

So, what signs are up around the school? What message does that send? What clubs are being advertised right now? Ask questions about those. Do people seem friendly? Are people greeting you as you're walking around? Does this feel like a place where if you have questions about how your child is engaging or questions about their homework or that test they just got back, how do you feel received? I think weighing all of those things are the—that's the unspoken part of the visit, you know, so I think that that's one way to do that. 

And then, I'm trying to think of some of the best questions I've had from families, and one that I got recently was really about, ‘Tell me how this particular value is lived at your school.’ And it's a value that we talk about a lot. And it made for a really interesting conversation, but it was very intriguing to me that the parent wanted to know about that particular value. But it opened up a conversation that, so tell me why that's so important to you, so now then we have a dialogue going. So those are some ways that you can look and see how a family, how a family can weigh whether a school is aligned with theirs.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. A similar question from a slightly different angle. I found this question really interesting. I hadn't seen this one asked this way before, but is there a way that a family can tactfully ask the school if their child might be a good fit before they go through all the heavy lifting of the application?

Janet Lien: Hmm. Can you restate the way it's been phrased?

Daren Worcester: Yeah, so the question, the way it was written, was, ‘What's the best way to ask if we want to know whether our children are suitable for the school?’ So I presume the thought process here is before you go through all the application steps and you're getting to know the school, is there a way of asking the school tactfully and having a conversation to say, ‘Is my child a realistic candidate here?’ If not, let's have that conversation. We can go look elsewhere. Is there a way to do that?

Janet Lien: And I'm trying to think about what profile of a child would prompt a family to ask a question like that, which I think there are a number of ways you can look at it. Somebody who's, you know, very advanced in a particular subject. They might want to know if their child's passions and interests are going to be nurtured, or maybe a child does need some extra attention and accommodations, then that may be why you're asking that question. 

And so that's why I'm trying to think about how to answer that in a generic way. I think it doesn't hurt to just be honest and say, hey, listen, here's what I've come to know about my child—A, B, C, and D. Based on those things, can your school support my child in these things that make them special? And so I think that that's opening up a conversation there. 

Another way you can do this—if you don't want to, I think I can see how asking the Admission team that question directly may feel like it's very uncomfortable—ask to talk to a current family. Say, hey, do you have a family right now that came from the same school that my child is currently attending? And can we be connected with them so we can learn about their experience? 

I think if you talk to a current family to see if whatever you're particularly seeking in that school, that may be a way to get an unvarnished look at that. And then I think along the lines of, you know, be prepared to be surprised because no two parents have the same child. So even though you're listening to one parent talk about their experience, your child is still different, then maybe the school can do something about it. But we won't know what that is if you don't ask us. 

Daren Worcester: So, similar along those lines, is it possible to overshare in the interview?

Janet Lien: Yes. I think that would err to where it's, you know, how memorable a parent is, you know. But again, I think it depends on what that is. What one family considers oversharing is just being honest for another family. And I think it just depends on the circumstances. And now, if you are at a school where you do have a placement person, I think that's somebody that you could talk to to ask if that would be okay. 

You could also talk to your child's current teacher or your child. Say, hey, I would like to share this information with the admission team. Is that something that you think would be helpful for them to know? And remember, I mean, what you need to do is balance. I understand this is tough to kind of consider, you wanna balance the best chances of getting your child to the school that you want your child to attend with whether or not that child is the right match and that the school is the right match for your child. So that's the balance that you're gonna try to be seeking to answer.

Daren Worcester: All right, I'll take you off the hot seat a little bit. A little less controversial. What is basically an applicant's extracurricular portfolio, whether it be sports or artistic endeavors, community service, Scouts, all those things that kids are doing outside of the classroom. What role does that play in their application?

Janet Lien: And so this is where I wanna also be careful because yeah, if you have a very rich co-curricular life, you do a lot of things outside of school—that gives us a sense as to your interests. But not everybody can do that, right? There are many circumstances where, you know, the child may not be playing on a travel soccer team or may not be able to take extra robotics classes and things of that nature, and there could be a very good reason for it. 

So I don't want to say that it's a be-all, end-all. It gives us some information, but also, we don't hold it against kids who maybe don't have that ability to take it on. I know, for example, one of our students, he doesn't have a lot of things going on outside of school. He does a lot of clubs and things at school, but he leaves pretty much right after school because, and so he doesn't do sports because he has to pick up his younger sister, and I love that. You know, I love that he's caretaking for his younger sister. And, you know, he's now a junior, I wouldn't want him to be dinged for that on the college application side. Right? 

So those are just, I just wanna share that that's a consideration that Admissions teams do make. But an interest now, if your son is, your child is interested in things, share that. Hey, we loved hearing about the debate team on our tour. Hey, we loved hearing that he could potentially join the soccer team. That tells us that your student is interested in trying different things. And that's more important than the resume list if you will.

Daren Worcester: As a parent, I just wanna say thank you. And I'm sure many people on the line are thinking the same thing for recognizing that there's only so much we can do and that our kids can do. It does get a little crazy sometimes with all the activities, especially if you have multiple children.

Janet Lien: Correct.

Daren Worcester: So it's great to hear that the schools sympathize and understand that. Now we talked a bit about the child and what you do to help students who are introverted coming into the interview. What can parents do to help prepare their children for the interview? And I think we understand the important thing here is to not overdo it. So, where's that fine line?

Janet Lien: This is, again, very particular to our school. We have a dress code at our school. And so one way that if you notice that there is a dress code at a particular school you're applying to, maybe ask them if applicants need to come dressed to the dress code. Now for Browning, it's no, we want your child to come dressed as-is, whether it's what they were wearing to go to school or what they might be wearing on any regular day. We don't expect a student who is not enrolled at our school to be in the dress code, but your child may feel more comfortable looking like he fits in with what everybody else is wearing. 

So, that could be one example of how you help your child feel comfortable. If your child's not feeling well, call and reschedule. Again, we want, you know, that's another way that you can really help your child set up for success. As I said earlier, do a little research to help them come up with three questions, two or three questions that they can ask the tour guide or their interviewer. I think those are things that when they feel like they're coming in a little bit prepared, they'll have a much more enjoyable visit.

Daren Worcester: Great, thank you. We got a lot of questions, too, from people just trying to understand, and certainly, you're in New York City, so a lot of school options but a lot of competition, as well. Is there a magic number on how many schools they should be applying to? How should they approach a competitive marketplace?

Janet Lien: Yeah. Alright, I don't know that this is a magic number, but I would say that for most families, they're looking at between six to eight schools. You also need to weigh that against what your family can reasonably manage. Because if there are multiple visits there, you know, that's a lot of time that you might have to be giving to those visits and appointments. If you are applying for financial aid, I generally encourage families to add a couple more schools into the mix just because a lot of it will come down to each school's budget. And you wanna have the best chance possible when it comes to getting the right package that can work for your family. So I would say six to eight schools if you don't apply for financial aid, and I'd say for a financial aid family, eight to 10 to 11.

Daren Worcester: Is it fair for families to ask a school what their acceptance rate is to kind of understand the competitiveness of the school? Or is that something, as an Admission Director, that you frown upon?

Janet Lien: I mean, the family can ask me whatever, and I'll do my best to answer. I think then— what I always do when I'm speaking with families—is I'm trying to discern the question behind the question. So if your question about the acceptance rate is what are the odds, what are the chances of my child getting in, then ask that, right? Say, you know, hey, how many new students do you typically have for eighth grade, and how many spots do you generally anticipate? 

And I always say that gives me a chance to say to a family, the answer is Y. But I'm so glad you're here because if you don't apply, then we would never know if this was gonna be something that could work for both of us. You know? And so if we don't meet you, then we don't know. So it gives me a chance to reassure them that we want to meet you and we want to meet your child, and we want to find the right matches between school and family. So the acceptance rate question, I mean, if your question is, are the odds good that my child gets in, then ask that question.

Daren Worcester: We got an interesting question that's sort of in this vein that came in on the live Q&A. A parent asking if it is true that schools will sometimes ask where else they’re applying? And is that something that can essentially be used against you in the review process?

Janet Lien: Daren, I can't speak for the whole country because I feel like I've seen various responses to this on our admission directors’ Listserv. I think some schools do inquire about what schools you're applying to. For New York City schools, we don't consider that a best practice because we don't want to put a family in a position where they feel like we're trying to understand—oh, they want this school, then. We're not trying to make those kinds of judgments on a family. So, for us in New York City, it's actually not a best practice. If an admission director asks you that question and you feel like that's something that you aren't reasonably comfortable answering, I think you can answer in generic terms. You can say, you know, we're looking at all of his options. We're looking at all available options. We're looking at co-ed, we're looking at single-sex. You know, you can say that. 

Or you can say we're looking at a range of schools from somewhat more traditional to somewhat more progressive schools because we're exploring the landscape. You could also say we are looking at both public and private schools. We just wanna see what might be the best fit for our child at the end. Does that help?

Daren Worcester: I think so, and if I could just add to that a little bit. I've heard different responses to that, as well. And we just heard Janet say that in a competitive marketplace like New York City, it's not out of the norm to apply to six, eight, and I believe you even threw an 11 in there. So, you know, schools understand that you're applying to other schools. Janet just said you might be applying to seven other competitors of hers. I think I wouldn't be too worried about that aspect of it. 

One good explanation I have heard from others is that it's another way for them to help evaluate where the family is at and what they're looking for and whether or not the school is a good fit. To use an extreme example, if the school that asks you is a school that specializes in equestrian, but then you're also applying to a school that specializes in the theater arts, that's where the school might say, well wait a minute, what's your real focus here? Are we really a good match? You know, we're an equestrian school. Why are you also applying to this arts school? So that's how I've also heard it explained. Janet, am I making sense with that, or is that off base?

Janet Lien: Yeah, I think that that's reasonable. And I think, and in fact, I do think that when people have asked that question, there's good reason. Like, if they're a very particular type of school, as you just mentioned. But I will also throw in there that there's something that some New York City parents do, which is a first-choice letter, and we explicitly discourage that at Browning. Some schools do not explicitly discourage it. 

But what it is is we don't want you to paint yourselves into a corner. So if you've sent a first-choice letter saying that your school is our first choice, if we get in, we will take the spot. I can tell you that many families have changed their minds over the years that I have worked in this. So don't lock yourself in. But you could send a letter of interest. You could say, hey, you know, we visited all these schools, and here are all the ways we think your school would be wonderful for my child. That's a letter of interest. That's not the same as a first-choice letter. So I think that that could be something that, if you're really keen on a school, that's one way to express your interest in them. Adjacent to the question that made me think of it.

Daren Worcester: No, that's a very good point. So you mentioned the reference letters earlier and that a personal reference isn't necessarily gonna help you. We did get a few people asking how important the reference letter is, but maybe we can expand on that here a little bit and sort of add to that. Understanding it's important, who are the right people to ask to give a reference? Should I be asking teachers? Should I be asking coaches? What are you looking for?

Janet Lien: At a minimum, most schools will require two teacher recommendations, and usually, they're pretty specific. So, at Browning, we want the English teacher and the math teacher to write recommendations. Now, your child may be very close to his science teacher, in which case, yeah, then get the science teacher to write a third letter of recommendation. And we have a standardized form for that. So that could be easily used to get an additional reference letter. 

I would say that the way to weigh it is just, does this person add another dimension of understanding for the Admission team about my child that the team's not gonna get from his report cards and his teacher recommendations?

And sometimes that comes through when your child may not be having the best year with his math teacher or English teacher. Maybe it's not a great personality match. Maybe you feel like they've not yet hit a groove, the right groove. And I don't know if this teacher sees my child and understands who they are. Then it's okay to go to a different teacher, like last year's teacher, and submit a recommendation there. 

So, anything that will help us gain an understanding of your child that isn't already being captured in the teacher recs would be the way I would go. But I wouldn't do it if the person is too far distantly connected. And I do wanna say, I think folks feel like you have to be connected to get in, and that's not true at all. I think we're really trying to be very mindful, create access, and we believe in our missions, and we want to make that mission and the program that we deliver to be accessible to as many families as we can.

Daren Worcester: Great, thank you. I'm cognizant of the clock. We're down to 14 minutes here, and so many questions that I want to ask you still. Let's talk about standardized testing a little bit. You covered this in your introduction. And we get a lot of questions from people asking how important is it? If my child does really good on one section but not as good on another section, are they doomed because of that? And you kind of broke down a little bit in the intro of how you really like to dig in and identify what a student's strengths are and what their areas of improvement are. It's not, correct me if I'm paraphrasing this wrong, but if I understood you correctly, it's not necessarily a yes or no decision, it's a how can we help them decision. Is that how you're essentially looking at SSATs?

Janet Lien: Yeah, for our school, definitely. And I hazard to guess many of the schools that I'm familiar with would say the same thing, as well. One thing with respect to the SSAT that I would say, or any standardized test that a school requires, is, I wouldn't say you have to get them tutored, but I would say that they should do practice so that they're aware of what the test looks like, what the rhythm, the timing, what each section is—trying to investigate what kinds of questions they may get, how it's scored. 

Because there is a little bit of that that I think you should get your child acclimated to before taking the test. So when I talk to families, I always encourage them to go online and find a practice test and let them give that a try. I don't think you wanna send them in over and over to do it. I think, if you wanna, if you take it, so most families take it once. Daren, do you have statistics on that? How many times do families take it? I'd say no, I would not encourage a family to do it more than two times if they wanted to.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, the data on that is a little skewed because it's actually under 10 percent, given all the students worldwide that are taking it. But we find students who take the SSAT a second time actually do better the second time around because, as you're saying, there's no better way to practice for the SSAT than actually taking the assessment. And a lot of that is just the nerves for taking an assessment. Like, for many students, it's their first time taking this type of assessment. So, just knowing what to expect, they're gonna feel better, they're gonna be more confident, and they're gonna do better that second time around.

Janet Lien: Yeah, that's interesting. So, about under 10% take it a second time, but people who take it a second time tend to score a little better. That's great data for families, I'd say. And I think that one way that we also, another way that we do use standardized test scores from the admission process is to line it up with how a student is faring at our school after their first year. So, that's longitudinal data collection. We wanna see how they're lining up. Is our program lining up to what we expected the student can do at our school and vice-versa? 

So, there is some longitudinal data that we do use. And I'll give you a very specific example coming back to what I talked about in the intro. A student might have a low score in the verbal section, and if it's all down to synonyms, if the synonyms are where the student bombed the score, maybe they just haven't learned that word yet. That's kind of the conversation we tend to have on our end, and that's why we like to look at all of the different parts. 

But that's a very particular pedagogical approach to looking at test scores. And I don't know that every school does it, but certainly our school, we tend to try to investigate it. So, I don't wanna say that it's the most important thing in the application, it is not. I don't wanna say it's not important because it is. But, just like every other part of the application process, if we're gonna make you submit it, then we want to look at it and give it the due attention it deserves.

Daren Worcester: You know, we had somebody ask—and I have my answer I'd love to see for this—but I know what the answer is gonna be. A lot of people wonder—there's the SSAT, and we have a competitor out there. A lot of schools say they accept both. Do they really accept both? Is there any preference?

Janet Lien: They do accept both, and there's no preference.

Daren Worcester: I got the answer, but just wanted to share that information with everybody. All right, quickly moving on from that one.

Janet Lien: Yeah, sure.

Daren Worcester: One other question related to testing. A lot of schools have gone test-optional, and I think that's created more confusion for families in some cases. One person asks a really good question: My kid gets really good grades. If we don't submit test scores, is the school gonna raise that as a red flag and think, well, why didn't they submit test scores? Grades can be inflated, you know. What is a family to do in a situation like that?

Janet Lien: I think this is where the teacher recommendations can really help. Because if we try to understand, you know, because how the teacher describes the student's engagement in the classes can actually give a dimension to the grades that maybe the grade itself doesn't quite capture. But I can understand how, if a school says it's test-optional, and you don't submit it, whether that sends up a flag, I would say just take the school at their word. 

We are not test optional. So I can't comment on why a school might choose that. And I think we went test-optional during the pandemic just because we realized that not everybody could get their kid to a test or it just wasn't as straightforward for families, so we went test-optional. And it caused that anxiety, and that's why we didn't want to do that. We were like, we're gonna pick one and stick to it. And, in fact, some schools have gone no tests, right? But we're not. We do think that there's still value in the data. It still has value for us, and that's why we have gone back to requiring the test. But if a school says test-optional, take them for their word.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. Alright, moving on from standardized tests. One financial aid question a few folks asked, and so I'd really like to get your opinion on this. Earlier, when you were saying the average number of schools that families apply to, your number went up when you mentioned financial aid. Does applying for financial aid impact a school's enrollment slash acceptance decision?

Janet Lien: I'd say on the front end, no. Okay, I'll speak again from my school's perspective, we have a financial aid budget every year. And so, in that budget, we are committed to supporting the families who are already at our school. So we will review those applications annually, and then we also earmark some for particular grades for financial aid. So it does, at the very end of the process, some schools may issue a decision, which is a financial aid waitlist decision. So that's where they will let you know. 

Basically, what that communicates is your child is admissible, we just don't have the dollars right now to make an offer. That is not the practice for Browning, and I don't believe it for New York City schools, but that is out there. And so that may be where you have that information. Okay, so my child's admissible, they're just waiting for money. We don't do it, and I know that a few of our partner schools don't do it because we don't want a family to feel bad that, hey, my child could have gone there if we could have afforded the tuition and we can't. So we don't want a family to feel bad. So it's sometimes that's just a waitlist decision. 

But you know, sometimes I will communicate that in other ways to a family that'll say, hey, we love your child. We love your child, we just need to see how everything shakes up and cryptically kind of communicate that, hey, your child's wonderful, you're a wonderful family, and we're gonna try to do everything we can to make it work. So, it's not fully need-blind at the other end because we do have to work within the school's budget for tuition assistance. But in the front end, it does not. Admission processes strive to be equitable so we do not hold it against a family who is also requiring financial assistance.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. As we get down toward the end, some international applicants are on the line. Other than a student visa, are there any other requirements or things that they need to be aware of ahead of time?

Janet Lien: Yeah, I think the best thing to do is to ask the schools that you're applying to. Some schools do ask for TOEFL scores. For example, if your child's current school is not being conducted in English, right? That's a question I get from international applicants. We don't happen to ask for TOEFL scores, but this is one of those test-optional questions. If they have it, I will take it because it helps us know that, hey, this child can navigate a school that functions in English. 

And so that may be a requirement at a school; you would just have to find out, but I think you would wanna let them know in advance that your student will need a student visa because that process of applying for all of that at the other end, it does take some work. So, a school that knows that and is prepared for that is better positioned to help your family apply for the student visa.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. We kind of covered this earlier in a roundabout way, but for students with diverse learning profiles, whether they're autistic or ADHD or, you know, other diverse learning profiles, are there accommodations for them? Do private schools typically accept students in those realms? What's your take?

Janet Lien: There are independent schools whose mission is to serve students who might have some additional needs. So, I would encourage families with a child with needs to look into those schools, as well. If you're looking for, you know, not a specialized school in that way, you're looking for a mainstream school, which is, I think, another way of calling it, then I think you can have an open conversation with the school. 

And, again, this is really specific to Browning, we don't, often families will try to send us their child's neuro-psych evaluations. We do not take that and accept it as a part of the student's application. So we won't take it at the front end. And a parent will often ask, well, then, how do you know if you're going to be able to serve my child? 

And I said, you know, wait, let the process play out, and if it works out great and we offer you a place, and we admit your child, then come forward with that information. Ask to meet with our learning specialist team. Ask to see what accommodations we can do. Let that be the way that you choose the school at the end. So, there is still a decision window. 

After you've been admitted to a school, there's a window where you can make a decision. That's a great time to be asking those questions in particular because we want to ensure an equitable process in the front end. So again, the other balance that you have to strike is to be honest about what your child's needs might be without oversharing the degree of the neuro-psych with us.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. I think we've got time for one last question. A few folks were wondering, is there any benefit to submitting an application before the deadline?

Janet Lien: Daren, can you explain what you think the question is trying to ask?

Daren Worcester: So, I think the thought is, if the application deadline is, say, January 15th, are we gonna get any special favor or special consideration if we submit by November 20th?

Janet Lien: It depends. So, with some schools, you can't sign up for a tour or interview appointment until you submit a preliminary application. This is true for Browning because we don't have enough appointments. So, you would want to put your preliminary application in, and that for us is just biographical information, not all the supplementary materials, just the biographical piece so that you can have choices for appointments and, you know, you're not stuck with a shorter amount, fewer windows to be able to visit the school. But other than that, I do not think so. I mean, I think, listen, if we have space in a grade and you call us, you know, very close to the deadline and say, is it too late to submit an application, we'd say, please go ahead, and we'd want to accommodate your application, as well.

Daren Worcester: So I think the answer there is there are some benefits to being early in the process, but the student's gonna get the same consideration whether they apply on January 14th or November 20.

Janet Lien: Yeah. Now, Daren, I have done admission for a really long time, and I've done panels like this often, but I just wanna make an observation that I realize that sometimes, I sound like I'm talking out both sides of my mouth, you know, and I'm like, it's yes, and it's also this other thing. 

And I just wanna reassure families that when I said it's a two-way street, I really meant it. When I said there are places where you can find magic and enjoyment in the process, I really meant it. Yeah, there are times when you need to strike the right balance, but I think that's just being human. I think we just go in and do our best, and it's a very human process, which is how I would characterize the application process.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, and for folks to kind of back you up on that, Janet, as much as schools are similar, they're all unique, as well. They may have different criteria. Even for that last question about applying early, from Janet's perspective, they have a traditional application deadline, and so, no, getting your application in sooner, they're not gonna give your child special consideration for that. 

But on the same token, there are schools that do rolling admissions where applying on a first-come-first-serve basis actually does factor in, especially if you're applying for financial aid. Because they consider applications as they get them. And once the financial aid well is used up, it's used up. So, you know, every school is different. 

And to go back to Janet's comment at the beginning about having a spreadsheet and making sure you understand what's going on with each school, it really is important to understand each school's policies and guidelines. You know, the first thing you should do is go to their application procedures page and make sure you get a good understanding of what they're looking for. 

But that concludes our time. I think we're a little bit over. Janet, thank you immensely for your time today.

Janet Lien: Oh, my pleasure.

Daren Worcester: And your expertise. This has been super enlightening. And for everybody on the line, thank you for joining us today. We appreciate you being here. I also dropped a link in the Q&A. We just launched a new Q&A section on the website. It's a work in progress, but I think a lot of the questions that you're asking, you'll find answers to them there as well. So, thank you all for your time today. Good luck in the application process, and have a great rest of your day.

Janet Lien: Thank you. Thanks, Daren. Thanks, everybody.

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.

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