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Understanding the Private School Admission
Application Process

Consider this the starting line on your journey to finding the best private school for your family. We’ll be honest, the admission application process is a marathon, not a sprint, but we’re here to help guide you every step of the way. Begin by reviewing the timeline below, and don't forget to sign up for our free Admission Concierge service to receive timely tips and reminders throughout the application process.

Kids on a track starting line to represent the private school admissions process.
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Admission Timeline

The timeline below represents the typical admissions cycle for North American private day and boarding schools with fixed application deadlines, which begins a full year before the enrolling school year. Please be aware that deadlines and requirements vary per school, and with COVID-19 altering the landscape of private school enrollment, more and more schools are conducting rolling admissions.

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Start anytime, get serious by August–October.

While you can research private schools at any time, you’ll want to narrow your list by early fall. Use our Private School Finder to search for top schools based on your geographic, grade level, gender, and program criteria. Then learn more about the schools that interest you by visiting their websites, following their social accounts, and talking with other parents.

Even with thorough research, it's possible that the best school for your family still isn't on your radar. By joining our free service to connect with top-fitting schools, you'll hear from schools that believe their offerings are a good match based on your pre-defined preferences. It's a great way to learn more about your options without having to put in extra legwork.

Learn more: Connect With Schools, Private School Finder, Private School Fairs

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Completing an inquiry form on a school’s website or through the SAO is a quick and easy way to signal that your family is interested in applying and would like to learn more. Inquiry forms are often optional, but we recommend that you complete this step as soon as you’re comfortable engaging in admission conversations. Why? Because the sooner you contact the school, the more time you have to establish a relationship with its admission team, giving you an advantage over families that come into the process later. 

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Interviews, Open Houses, & Tours

In normal circumstances, school visits are a wonderful opportunity to take part in an open house, conduct admission interviews, attend classes, and speak with school administrators, teachers, coaches, students, and even current parents. Due to COVID-19, many private schools have transitioned to online interviews and open house events. While the experience is different, attending an open house is still an important part of getting to know a school. Attendance also sends a strong signal regarding your family’s interest in the school, and that means something when it comes time for the school’s admissions committee to make tough decisions. 

Learn more: Interview Preparation, Virtual Interview Tips, In-Person Interview Tips, Practice Interview Questions

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Application Form

Private school admission applications are multistep processes that begin with an online form to collect the requisite information from your family along with the student’s essay. Completing this form typically grants you access to the school’s online admission portal where you’ll learn more about the application requirements and deadlines.

If your family is applying to multiple schools, completing unique applications for each is a lot of time-consuming work. We make this easier for you with our Standard Application Online (SAO), the premier common private school application form for students entering pre-kindergarten through post-graduate. Complete the SAO once and you can submit it to over 400 participating schools directly from our Private School Finder.

Learn more: SAO, Apply Now

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Transcripts & Teacher Recommendations

Before contacting your current school’s registrar or administrative office to request transcripts, check to see if the schools that you’re applying to have official forms for this purpose. Most importantly: Requirements vary from school to school and across grade levels, so make sure you’re tracking them correctly. And keep an eye out for schools that accept the SAO, as the common forms make it easier to fulfill this step in the process.

Elementary school requirements are based on the grade level that you’re applying into, and typically ask for a parent statement and a general recommendation from the school’s principal, guidance counselor, or teacher.

Most middle and upper school admission requirements ask for teacher recommendations from your student’s current English and math teachers, as well as personal and special interest recommendations. Due to COVID-19 limitations, schools understand that students aren’t working as closely with current teachers, so some schools are now allowing or additionally requesting English and math recommendations from last year’s teachers. 

Bear in mind that teachers and school officials have busy schedules and are likely receiving recommendation requests and transcript requests from multiple students. It’s best to make your requests early to allow adequate time for thorough and thoughtful assessments, but not so early that teachers haven’t had time to get to know your child. Based on common marking periods, early to mid November is the best time to submit requests.

Learn More: Who Should You Ask for a Recommendation?

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Testing and Assessments

Students applying to grades three and higher, especially middle and high school, are commonly asked to take a standardized test such as our SSAT. The SSAT stands for Secondary School Admission Test, which covers verbal, math, and reading skills. The gold standard for standardized admission testing since 1957, the SSAT is available as a computer-based test for students to take at home or a Prometric test center, as well as a paper-based version

Lower elementary grade students typically complete an academic assessment with a school official instead of a standardized test. International students may also have to take TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System), or the Duolingo English test. 

It’s best to practice and take the SSAT early in the application process, so there’s time for a second testing. Many students take it once in the spring and then again in the fall. On average, middle school students retaking the SSAT see a 9–10 point improvement per section and upper school students gain 12–14 points per section.

Of course, standardized test scores alone aren’t a full measure of your child’s potential. This understanding is why we also offer the The Character Skills Snapshot, a holistic measure of your child’s preferences, attitudes, and beliefs, to help admission offices get to know who your child is in addition to what they know.

Learn More: Test-Taking Tips, The SSAT, The Character Skills Snapshot

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Application Deadline

Application deadlines vary by school, but mid-January is the most common timeline. Remember, it’s your responsibility to submit all documentation, transcripts, and recommendations on time. We recommend posting the deadline date for every school you’re applying to in your calendar and on your fridge to keep them top of mind.

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Financial Aid Applications

Private school tuition assistance comes in two forms—financial aid and merit aid. Financial aid is awarded based on the financial need of each family and the school’s available funding. Merit aid isn’t based on financial need and is awarded as academic or community scholarships.

Most schools begin accepting financial aid applications for the following school year on October 1. Financial aid committees review each applying family’s income, expenses, and debt to assess need, requiring the submission of financial statements and documentation such as W2s or foreign tax returns for international applicants.

Financial aid application deadlines vary by school, and some grant awards on a rolling basis, but the most common application due dates are between December 15 and January 31. Admission and financial aid application due dates are often different, and most schools also have separate financial aid deadlines for new and returning students, so make sure you’re working toward the correct date.

Financial aid decisions are independent of admission decisions, but they are released on similar timelines to ensure applying families have the information they need to make enrollment decisions.

Learn more: Applying for Financial Aid

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Enrollment Decisions

Once again, the disclaimer that every school is different applies here. Most private schools send admission decision letters in March, but some notices arrive as early as late February, and dates sometimes vary within a school based on grade levels or rolling admissions. Likewise, the time that your family has to make a final decision and submit the enrollment contract ranges from two weeks to a month.

Revisit days are a key resource in your final decision-making. Maximize this opportunity to experience the school and ask questions. Of course, revisit days may look different now due to COVID–19. Most private schools are adapting, offering online open houses and opportunities for applicants to attend school virtually for a day. 

Learn more: What to Do When Waitlisted

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Enroll in Admission Academy

Gain essential insight into the private school application process with Admission Academy, an ongoing program of live webinars with private school admission leaders and on-demand resources to help your family find, apply, and enroll at its best-fit school.

Learn More