One of the first things a parent says when she speaks to me about private schools is something along the lines of "I want my son to go to such and such a school." When I diplomatically ask why she is interested in that specific school, the answer is usually "because I heard it is a really good school." That is a starting point in determining which school your child should attend. However, there is much more to the process than merely expressing an interest in a school because you heard it was a good one.
So, why not you and I work our way through that initial consultation? Hopefully it will help you refine your private school search process. Ideally it will help you find a school which meets your requirements as well as what your child needs to flourish and be happy.
What are you really looking for?
Understanding what you are really looking for is a critical part of any private school search process. So, start at the beginning and apply a couple of filters. The first filter asks what type of school are you looking for? Day or boarding? With thousands of private schools here in the United States as well as hundreds more in Canada and the United Kingdom, using this filter reduces the number of schools for our consideration rather dramatically.
As this introduction to choosing a private school states, you have to look at a lot of schools before you find the one that's right for you.
Let's assume that you have decided on day schools. The next step is to apply several more filters to the day schools available in your area. (There is no point in looking at schools outside your area because the logistics become an issue. Getting your child to and from a school more than 10 miles away from home is problematical in most areas.) Does it matter if the school is a religious or non-religious school? If religion matters to you, then look for schools which handle religion to your requirements and expectations. If your religion really matters to you, find a school or schools to teach your child as you want her taught. We raised our children as Episcopalians. They generally attended Episcopal or non-denominational schools. That worked for us. Determine what works for you.
Another filter we can apply is the size of the school. Some parents prefer that their children attend a small school, small being defined as 150 students or less in either an elementary school or a high school setting. Other parents want their children to attend a large school. The term 'large' is relative, of course, in the private school world, because even schools offering PK through 13th grade usually have no more than 1,200 students overall. You can find data about grades offered and the size of a school's student population on Private School Review.
Yet another filter is the style of education. Are you looking for a traditional style of curriculum and teaching with testing and grades? Do you want your child to take AP courses and SATs? Is the IB curriculum important to you? Or are you thinking of a progressive education? If you are looking at elementary schools, then Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf are examples of progressive schools. Here is a list of progressive high schools for you to review. https://www.privateschoolreview.com/blog/progressive-schools
One last thing about these filters: you can move them up or down your list of filters with the exception of the first filter concerning the type of school. All the other filters can be applied in any order depending on your requirements. Determine which filter is more important to you and move it up the list as that requirement becomes a priority.
Why are those requirements important to you?
After filtering schools according to type, religion, size of school and style of education, now is a good time to review these filters with respect to what really matters to you. Depending on what day schools remain on your list, you may want to tweak the filtering a little. Perhaps a non-denominational school would work after all. Or on second thought that larger school could be ideal because it offers so many more programs than the smaller school you were thinking about.
Tell me about your child
This is the next part of the conversation we need to have. What are her strengths? What are her weakness? I will want to listen to your candid assessment of your child's strengths and weaknesses. You know her better than anybody. Then I will want to see her transcripts. Hopefully the transcripts and your assessment will match up, for the most part.
What activities does she enjoy? What is her favorite sport? What is her favorite subject? Are there any health issues which we need to consider? Answers to these questions will give me a clearer picture of who your child is. That picture helps you and me determine which school is going to be the best fit for her.
How can we find a school to meet your requirements?
Now we go back to the beginning. You already mentioned a school which you thought might be a good fit because you had heard that is a really good school. Now that you have applied the filters which we discussed above, is that school still on your list? If so, the next question to answer is whether we think your child stands a good chance of being accepted.
If the school is competitive or very competitive, your child better have solid academic transcripts as well as excellent test scores. Competitive schools will have many more applicants than they have places. How can you determine how competitive a school is? Ask the admissions staff. They will happily tell you that they have 45 places in next year's class and 100 applicants, if indeed their admissions are competitive.
The next steps?
Complete the admissions testing. This testing varies from school to school, so make sure you understand which test your child must take. Is there an admissions deadline? Or does the school have rolling admissions? Do you have another school or two on which to fall back? This is particularly important when you are applying to a competitive school. It makes no sense to put all your eggs in one basket.
Jeff Knox explains prep school admissions testing in the following video.
If you need financial aid, complete those forms as well. Don't forget to request transcripts. Then download the application forms or create an account online if the school handles their applications online. Complete all of your paperwork as soon as you can if the school has rolling admissions. Definitely have everything completed and submitted well before the admissions deadline in there is one.
Applying filters in your private school search process will help you target schools efficiently. Keep a spreadsheet or document of your requirements and the schools which seem to match your requirements. That way you can complete this filtering process over several weeks.