Visit the schools.
"Wait a minute!" you are thinking. What about important stuff like how selective the school is, where its graduates went to college, how many faculty have terminal degrees and so on? Put those considerations on hold. First things first. Visit the schools.
Would you buy a house based only on a few pictures and some publicly available information like taxes and comparables? No. You'd visit the house personally and look in every nook and cranny. You would visualize yourself living in the house with your things. You would make sure you liked the neighborhood. If being close to shops and other amenities is important to you, you would review that aspect of the equation as well. How long a commute to work will you have? The list of questions which you will want answered is your own very personal list of questions.
See where we are going with this? How the schools you visit fit your needs best determines which school is best for you. Right now you are probably beginning to realize that this is a lot of work and will take a lot of time. Our Checklist For Comparing Schools will help you keep track of your findings as you visit each school.
How do I know which schools to visit?
That's why it is so important to develop a list of schools which meet your requirements. Developing that list is probably the most important part of the process of choosing a prep school. Match what each school offers with your requirements. Then hire an educational consultant to help you match your child with the school. That's the secret to the process. And it is the real reason why ranks do not matter as much as the fit. Your professional educational consultant knows her schools. Obviously she doesn't know every private school out there. But she is familiar with hundreds of them and has visited many of them. She also has a vast network of admissions directors and their staff with whom she is in regular contact. She has her finger on the pulse of the private school world.
Matching Your Child with the School's Requirements
Look at this stage of the argument this way: you want your child to got to Exeter. Exeter has everything you and your child want. But will Exeter want your child? Why is that relevant? Because Exeter is such a fine school that hundreds more students apply than Exeter has places for. Now you are thinking "Exeter is a top ranked school." It is and has been for many decades. The reasons why Exeter got to the top of the rankings are many and varied. But the simple answer is that it does a really good job of educating young people, not just academically either. Exeter like many schools strives to develop the whole child. Does your child have what Exeter is looking for? You won't know until you apply and go through the admissions process.
This is another reason why an educational consultant is so useful. She will know that Exeter is probably a reach for your child and recommend two or three other schools from your short list. One of these schools will be a great fit and will likely be quite eager to offer your child a place. We call that a 'safe' school. Does this mean you are settling for second best? Not at all.
Remember: it's all about fit. Every school on your short list should be a great fit with your child's needs and your requirements. With almost 3,500 private prep and middle schools to select from, you have a vast array of options. That's why finding 3-5 schools to fit your requirements takes time and effort. It's also why you need expert guidance along the way. It's also why ranks are not the only thing which matters.