As I have mentioned several times in other articles about choosing and evaluating private schools, you really must set foot on the campus in order to fully experience the school. Visiting the private schools on your short list is really not optional.
Isn't it enough to visit schools virtually these days? Those professionally produced videos on the schools' web sites are great. The students' YouTube videos reveal a bit of what life is like at their school. Right? Not exactly. These presentations are all professionally produced and edited marketing pieces designed to encourage you to learn more about their schools. After you do your in-depth reading of all the schools' materials, it's time for you to decide which schools to visit. You ideally will have 3 to 5 schools on your short list. Laura Barr explains how visiting private schools works.
For example, let's say you had 8 schools which really appear to be a good match for your requirements and your child's needs. Then you should eliminate 2, preferably 3 schools from that larger list. This is especially important when you have selected schools located at a distance from where you live. Visiting 8 schools far away from home will be both time-consuming and expensive. Make that short list of 3 to 5 schools to actually visit.
The visits will take one of these forms:
Here is how an open house works. It is really very similar to a real estate open house. The school advertises that it will be open on a specified date and time. Anybody who wants to come and look around is welcome to attend. The admissions staff will be on hand to answer questions. It's a wonderful way to walk around and see the facilities. The downside is that you won't necessarily get to see any classes. Those kind of logistics can
become a bit complicated during an open house. Having 50 parents crowding into a classroom can be a bit of a distraction.
On the other hand you will most likely have the opportunity to attend an informational session typically hosted by the admissions staff. There will be several speakers - hopefully including a senior staff member such as the head of school - explaining the philosophy of the school, its academic and athletic programs as well as its extracurricular activities. After the presentation you will be taken on an escorted tour of the campus. Depending on how the school handles such things, your guide could be a student or students or a member of the admissions staff.
How often do schools hold open houses? It depends on the school. Some hold open houses - often called informational sessions - once a month. Other hold them 2 or 3 times a year. To find out when open houses are being held, go to the Find Private Schools page on this site. Select a state. Then you will see a link on the right for the open houses currently scheduled in that state.
Before you buy a car, you take a couple of different models out for a test drive. That's all a shadow visit is. It's a test drive for your child so that he can see how he likes the day schools which you are considering. Not every day school offers shadow visits. But if one of the schools in which you are interested does, then by all means take advantage of that opportunity to try out the school. Your son will pair up with one of the students and follow him around for part of a day or perhaps a whole day, depending on how the school has set up its shadowing. The idea of shadowing is to let him see how the classes are taught and to experience the atmosphere and community of the school.
An overnight allows your child to experience the school by spending overnight at the school. This, of course, is only for boarding schools. It makes great sense for your child to take advantage of an overnight if it is available. As always, if you see no mention of overnights, don't hesitate to ask. The following video gives you an idea of what is involved.
What's involved? Your child will spend the night in a dorm with host students. They will take her around to meals and the activities planned for that evening. Student hosts are generally well-prepared and trained to be wonderful hosts. So even if your child feels a bit apprehensive about being with strangers, they won't be strangers for more than a few minutes. When you come to pick her up in the morning, she will have a raft of new 'best' friends. Not every child needs the overnight experience. But if you are dealing with adolescent skepticism, then an open house is an excellent cure for that.
School tours are handled in a variety of ways depending on the time of the year. If you visit after school has let out for a break or over the summer, you most likely will be taken around campus by a member of the admissions staff. It could be a solo visit or you may be with several other parents and their children. You will have plenty of time to ask questions. After the tour the admissions interview can take place. Here is a typical private school tour.
How much time should you allow for a tour and the admissions interview? Approximately 2 hours should be enough. The admissions staff usually runs on a pretty tight schedule particularly at peak times of the year such as the fall. They won't rush you through but be aware of their time constraints. You will probably think of more questions once you get back home anyway. Don't hesitate to call the admissions staff and have those questions answered.
Tip: A hand written thank you note is always appreciated by the admissions staff. If your child spent overnight, then she should write a thank you note to her hosts as well. These simple acts speak volumes about your thoughtfulness.
The bottom line is that you must visit any school which you are seriously considering. Don't leave this step out. School visits offer you the chance to confirm what you already probably know about the schools on your short list. It is also possible that you and your child might discover some aspects of the school which are not a good fit for you and your requirements. Use my Checklist for Comparing Schools
and its companion Checklist for Comparing Schools - Curriculum and Instruction
to keep track of the details. I recommend that you complete these checklists after you have taken the tour. Then you and your child can compare notes.