Raider outside of Russell Hall

Each year as March 10th comes and goes, the balance of power in the world of Independent School Admission shifts. With the publishing of admission decisions, schools cede control of their enrollment to the families to whom they have offered admission, and families, who have spent months endeavoring to highlight their child’s talents, accomplishments, and character, are now tasked with picking their future school.

In a year when the process of evaluating school options has been more challenging than ever; whereby, families have to engage virtually with school communities and admission offices, the decision making process becomes even more difficult. How do you pick a school without having visited it or met any of the community members – students, faculty, administrators – in person?  

In thinking about this dilemma over the past few weeks, I have had the chance to dig a little deeper into this process, and have come to appreciate some of the shortcomings in typical school admission efforts. I think too much of the school admission and enrollment experience, both for families and schools, focuses on objective or measurable traits, that are not significant differentiating characteristics. Is the school that offers more AP classes, a better school for my child? Does the school that sends more kids to Ivy League schools increase the chances of my child going to one? Does the school with the team that wins the most athletic championships give my child the best opportunity to win one? Does the school with the nicest, newest, most expensive and expansive facilities mean my child will have more success there? Will my child learn more at a school that has more faculty members with PhDs?

The challenge with using these measurable characteristics in selecting a school is that they rarely distinguish one school experience from another. Very simply, most Independent Schools have small classes with accomplished faculty teaching, have both breadth and depth to their college placement, offer accessible support and mentoring systems, and deliver their programs in outstanding facilities. As a consultant I have often worked with might say, “those are table stakes.” In my own words, that is what tuition buys. Those measureables help you differentiate between public and private school, but don’t help much in differentiating between several private schools.

The challenge for families isn’t measuring these traits, but in identifying how the school utilizes them in the delivery of their educational experience. How do they take advantage of the small teacher-student ratio to build mentoring relationships between teachers and students? How does their competitive soccer program prepare students for success in later life? Why do they offer AP classes? Why do they require Community Service, Art or Athletics? In order to find “fit”, that ever elusive goal of the Independent School admission process, families need to understand why a school does what it does, and then think about whether that purpose is aligned with their own goals for their children. Why do you want to send your child to an Independent School? What do you hope to be the outcome, and which school aligns with that outcome? Do they live up to the commitments in their mission, and does that mission align with your goals for your children?

So how does one determine “fit” during a pandemic and choose the right school? Ask that school why they do what they do and offer what they offer, and ask how they ensure that everyone in that community is aligned with, and stays true to those commitments.

Independent schools differ in priorities, goals, and purpose. Find the one that aligns with yours.

Balancing the Books is a blog written by Associate Head of School Steve Bristol. In this blog, he'll share his insights into the independent school world and the admission process.

Mr. Bristol joined The Hun School community in 2010, after working as a consultant for Independent Schools for several years. Before that, he served as an English teacher, coach, dorm head, and administrator. A boarding school graduate himself, Mr. Bristol attended Westminster School in Simsbury, CT. He holds a B.A. from Hamilton College and a M.S.Ed in School Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.