Understanding the Private School Admission Application Process
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 by school, and a growing number of schools are conducting rolling admissions.
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 Search to find 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.
Completing an inquiry form on a school’s website 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.
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. 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.
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. Make it easy with the Standard Application Online (SAO), the premier common private school application 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 Search.
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.
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.
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 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.
Application deadlines vary by school, but mid-January is the most common timeline in the United States while many Canadian schools have October 31 or early November deadlines. 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.
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.
Once again, the disclaimer that every school is different applies here. Most U.S. private schools send admission decision letters in March, but some notices arrive as early as late February and as late as April. In contrast, Canadian schools often give decisions in November. Please note that dates can vary within a school based on grade levels or rolling admissions. Likewise, the time 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.
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