Because you and I are not professional educational consultants with an intimate knowledge of private schools, we often waste time and make mistakes as we search for a private school for our children. For this article, we will be discussing private K-12 schools that do not focus on special requirements, such as therapeutic schools and schools for students with acute special needs. Read When Should You Consider A Therapeutic School? and When Should You Consider A Special Needs School? for suggestions about choosing those schools.
Here are some of the pitfalls you and I tend to encounter as we look at private schools.
- Only looking at ranks
- Thinking you can't afford it
- Waiting until the last minute to submit applications
- Thinking that schools are elitist
- Not visiting schools
- Not preparing adequately for the standardized admissions tests
- Not hiring an educational consultant
Only looking at ranks.
I know what you're thinking. You want your daughter to attend a highly-rated school, the best school, a top-ranked school. Trust me. I get it. I wanted the same things for my daughters. But here's the hard truth: rankings have very little to do with finding the best private school for your child. Find schools that fit your requirements and her needs as best as possible. You are looking for schools that fit her best. She will be happy there. You certainly don't want an unhappy child, do you?
Thinking you can't afford it.
Yes, most private schools are expensive. Indeed, in some cases, very expensive. But you have a wide variety of options when it comes to paying for a private school education. Did you know that there are private schools that charge little or nothing? You can find free private schools in Hawaii and Pennsylvania, for example. Several schools are tuition-free when your family income is below a certain threshold. The Cristo Rey schools are highly-regarded for their work-study programs. But best of all, most private schools offer generous financial aid. The only catch is that you have to ask for financial aid.
This video offers you a look at Girard College in Philadelphia that is tuition-free thanks to the munificence of its founder, Stephen Girard.
Waiting until the last minute to submit applications
Observe the admissions deadlines very carefully if you don't have to find a school at the last minute because of a company transfer or other mitigating circumstances. Many schools have rolling admissions. That means that they will keep admissions open until they have filled all places. Most fixed admissions deadlines occur in January. You will have to work backward from that fixed date to schedule your SSAT or ISEE admissions tests, your school visits, obtaining transcripts and teacher recommendations. I recommend that you allow 12-18 months for your search.
Thinking that schools are elitist.
Most private schools these days are anything but elitist. They have shed the iconoclastic, privileged aura that was a hallmark of many private schools in the middle and latter part of the 20th-century. Student bodies have become increasingly diverse. Most schools proactively seek to attract students from every socioeconomic stratum. And they put their money where their mouth is by offering generous financial aid to students who meet the academic standards but could not otherwise afford to attend.
Not visiting schools.
The pandemic has made visiting schools in person a problematic exercise at best. Whenever possible, visit schools on your shortlist. See what the campus and all the facilities are like. Come prepared with a list of questions to ask the admissions staff. The answers to your questions will help you evaluate the school. They will also help you and your child focus on essential things during your post-visit discussions. Remember that you are constantly looking for the best possible fit for your child and your mutual needs and requirements. There will be tradeoffs, of course. Not every school on your shortlist is going to have precisely what you are looking for. If you can only visit schools virtually, prepare for your virtual visit by reviewing the school's YouTube videos and photo galleries. Most schools have robust galleries of just about everything that's going on. The videos and photos will help you get a sense of what the school is like. Be aware that some presentations will be professionally produced as marketing materials with very few flaws, if any. That's acceptable but ask those questions you have prepared anyway.
Not preparing adequately for the standardized admissions tests.
Most private schools require a standardized admissions test as part of their admissions procedures. So, why is taking a standardized admissions test such as the SSAT or ISEE necessary? First, schools want to know whether or not applicants can do the academic work. Second, because applicants come from varying academic backgrounds, schools use a standardized test to level the playing field. So, it doesn't matter whether an applicant has attended a public middle school in a rural county or a private middle school in a major urban area; all applicants will take the same test for that year. If your child doesn't take standardized tests well or has never taken one, be sure to have her begin practicing working practice test questions at least six months before the test date. Six weeks before the test, arrange for her take a timed practice test under simulated test conditions. That way, she will be relaxed and confident when she takes the actual test.
Not hiring an educational consultant.
You paid an attorney to handle the purchase of your house, didn't you? You consulted a financial advisor to plan your retirement portfolio, didn't you? Yes, experts cost us money up front, but they save us money in the long run. So it is with hiring an educational consultant. Typically a consultant will listen carefully to your needs and requirements, meet your daughter, then will produce a list of three to five schools for you to consider. The secret is that your consultant's list will include a couple of safe schools as well as one of two that are a reach. The bottom line is that your daughter will be accepted at one or more schools.
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