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So, you’ve decided to go the private school route. Whether prompted by the pandemic, or something you’ve always envisioned, making this decision is the first of many steps you’ll take to find the right fit. Unlike public school, however, the road to attending an independent school takes some navigating.

“While schools are looking to find students who will likely succeed socially and academically at their institution, families must determine if a particular school is the best fit for their child’s unique gifts and whether the school will reinforce the values that are most meaningful to them,” says Caitlin Read, director of enrollment management at The Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood. “The goal of the process is to find a reciprocal fit.” 

Determining this coveted “fit” comes through a mutual process that includes everything from researching websites and attending open houses to the school’s effort to get to know your child through academic transcripts, recommendation letters, essays, portfolios, interviews and other potential assessments. Parents want to know how to help their children stand out and increase their chances of admittance to the right school for them. 

 Inquire and apply early
Get going, ASAP! “It’s much easier to spend quality time with families and help them get to know our school well before the crunch time of admission deadlines,” says Kelly Dun, director of enrollment management and financial aid at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit. “Applying early also allows time for any follow-up information or questions that might come up in the process.” While the early bird definitely has an advantage, many schools do adopt rolling admissions post-deadline. “Don’t assume a school is no longer accepting applications,” says Dun. “There is no harm in reaching out to the admissions office to see if there are still spots available.”

Get to know the school
Your child is unique—schools are, too. Admission officers are especially interested when a family knows specifics about their school, says Dun. “We encourage families to do some research before entering the admission process.” This can mean deep diving into websites, reading reviews, speaking to families or attending an admission event to learn about the school’s mission and goals to see if they align with yours.

Be ready to talk about it
“The families that stand out during the application process for me are the ones that come prepared for the interview,” says Ann Marie Blackman, assistant director of admission and financial aid at Gill St. Bernard’s School in Gladstone. “Becoming familiar with our mission and core values and knowing that they align with what is important to their family is a great starting point for conversations.” So have insightful questions and talking points in mind to keep the conversation engaging for all.

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Why do YOU think it’s a good fit?
“Be sure to take the time to tell your story and help the admission committee learn why you think your child will thrive at their school,” says Dun. Schools want to know how your child’s special qualities and talents will enhance the school community, and their plans for getting involved in the school. This can mean anything from playing lacrosse and joining the Shakespeare club to studying Latin and doing research in the school’s state-of-the art science lab. “We want to know their goals which can include courses they wish to take, honor roll placement, leadership opportunities, activities they wish to participate in, and even goals for college and life,” says Miguel Cabrita, assistant principal and director of admissions at Saint Joseph High School in Metuchen.

Don’t just wing it
Few kids are naturals at having high-stakes, off-the-cuff conversations with total strangers. Prepping beforehand can take some of the pressure off everyone. “We never want children to come across as coached or rehearsed, but it’s a good idea to go over the kinds of questions they might be asked, and to think of some specific examples so they can recall them more easily when they meet with an admissions officer,” says Read. Parents should encourage kids to practice discussing what excites them about learning, favorite books, projects that inspired them, any awards or accolades, etc. “This makes them feel more engaged in the process,” she says. Also, remind your child to try to answer each question thoughtfully (even if they need to take a pause) instead of replying with a reactive “I dunno.” 

Emphasize outside interests
Athletics, arts, community service, coding, robotics, entrepreneurship, competitive spelling, astronomy… whatever your child loves, make sure you share it. “One of our taglines here at Gill is that ‘Balance Matters,’” says Blackman. “It’s important that students get the opportunity to explore their passions in addition to their academics. Students that have that balance in their lives stand out.” 

Put your best face forward
From good grooming, a proper outfit and eye contact, the niceties are important for making a positive first impression. “Remembering where you are and who you are meeting with should help you decide what to wear,” says Cabrita. Rolling in wearing sneakers and sweats won’t impress officers at a traditional academy with a dress code. Likewise, a suit and tie may not wow admissions at a school that’s known for creative expression. No matter what, manners matter. A good handshake, saying “yes” not “yeah” or nodding, showing respect and courtesy, smiling throughout the interview, saying thank you at its conclusion…are all things that matter.

Have a top pick? Let your #1 know
Don’t be shy—let your first-choice school know that is the case and why. “Providing specific reasons why a school is at the top of your list will help the admission committee understand your expectations and to better determine if your child is a good match,” says Dun. In some cases, sheer enthusiasm can even make up for a lackluster transcript. “I love outstanding students but I also love hard-working A/B/C students who want to be a part of our school community and get involved,” says Donna Venezia Toryak, director of admissions at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung. “I think a student who really wants to be here will overcome any academic skill weakness, and make it a successful journey. If they share their interests with me and talk about what they’d like to get involved in once here, that impresses me.”

Don’t forget: Make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep and has a light nosh pre-interview and schedule the meeting early in the day (especially for younger kids) since they tend to be more upbeat and attentive. Oh, and relax. Children pick up on stress from adults so parents should be conscious of their own anxieties. “It can also be helpful to remember that admissions professionals want to see applicants in the best possible light,” says Read. And with a little help, your child will shine bright.    

Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.

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