How Schools Evaluate Applicants
There are basically six areas that admission committees consider when evaluating applications. Different schools weigh these areas differently.
The school record is comprised of the student’s seventh grade transcript and the first trimester eighth grade transcript, complete with attendance record.
This part of the application package is important to all schools. Usually the student’s math and English teachers, and the Head of School or Guidance Counselor (Director of Secondary School Placement) are asked to comment on the student’s character, motivation, self discipline, aptitude, performance, behavior, relationships with peers and adults, potential for growth, etc. There is frequently a foreign language or optional recommendation, too. The Tower faculty spend a great deal of time writing recommendations that portray the student in the best possible light.
This personal contact with the school is a major piece of the admissions process. The interviewer is looking and listening for a student who is a “match.” A good admissions person wants to know what the child will bring to the school. Is he/she a good citizen, a leader, an artist, an athlete, a motivated student? The admissions staff is also interested in the interaction between the child and his/her parents. If parents find themselves in a joint interview with the child and the admissions officer, they should be careful not to dominate the conversation or answer questions for the child. While the school does want to answer your questions, they have a limited amount of time to interact with the prospective student. Be sure to allow your child the opportunity to demonstrate how he/she would fit into the community.
Most schools will require each applicant (and sometimes parents), to write one of several essays. These are an important indicator of the student’s ability as well as his/her effort and motivation relative to the application process. These essays should be written and rewritten. Care and attention to detail with the more mechanical portions of the application will also make a favorable impression.
The most commonly considered test score is the SSAT, a standardized test your child took, for practice, in November of their 7th Grade year. The School will register your child for this test and test results will be sent home to you and to Tower. The scores from the SSAT, of a student’s 8th grade year, will be forwarded to secondary schools from Tower with your child’s transcripts and recommendations. Generally, the importance of these scores increases as the degree of competition for admission to a given school increases. It is also true that virtually every school looks at SSATs as only one of several important factors. Tower may recommend sending WISC scores and/or ERB scores if one or all tests provide useful or supporting information in light of average or weak SSAT scores.
Typically, a student’s school record, teacher recommendations, and the interview are the three most important areas of consideration in the application process. Test scores should not be taken lightly, but they are a primary determinant only at the most competitive schools.
Ability to Contribute
Increasingly, the most selective schools must choose among a large group of very well qualified candidates. In making these choices, the schools assess whether, and how, a student may contribute to their program. The way in which students might contribute varies. One applicant may stand out because he/she is a superb musician. Another may stand out because he/she is an outstanding athlete. A third may bring cultural, ethnic or geographic diversity to the community. At the most selective schools, it is this assessment of an ability to contribute that has made the process seem unpredictable at times.
Thoughts on Evaluating Schools
“The more you know, the more luck you will have.”
The Perfect School
Just as there is no perfect house, there is no perfect school. There will, however, be some that come close to meeting your family’s wants and needs. Clearly defining those wants and needs will make the search process more manageable and ultimately more enjoyable.
Decide as many of these factors as possible early in your search:
- Day or boarding?
- Single gender or coed?
- Large (800+) medium (400+) or small (less than 400)?
- Acceptable distance from home?
- Secular or religious in orientation?
- Structured or less structured?
- Family values that need to be supported?
The search for the right school for your child is a “matching” process. After you have answered as many of the questions above as possible, begin creating a profile of your child.
- Level of academics needed?
- Special interests or talents that must be nurtured?
- Type of atmosphere/environment where child is likely to thrive? (Ie: structured study hours, dress code, homework/workload)
- Must have sports (Skiing? Swimming? Level of competition desired?)
- Extracurricular and/or club offerings
All of these decisions will create a unique profile for your family’s search. There will be “best” schools based on your well-considered criteria. Schools should not be rated without evaluating them relative to the particular applicant’s talents, wants and needs. One student may need a highly competitive school; another may feel intimidated by the pressure. One athlete may want a big school; another may want to be assured that he/she will make the varsity team as a freshman. All of these decisions are “right.” Knowing, as completely as possible, what your criteria are, and evaluating schools based on those criteria, will produce a list of schools that “works” for you and your child.
The School Visit and Interview
Touring a school can be the most critical factor in making a decision. A great reputation, glossy brochure, and professional video notwithstanding, until you visit, you don’t know if the school matches your collective requirements.
Maximize Your Visit to Secondary Schools
Try to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Observe students, teachers and the interaction of people.
Allow enough time. Most interviews last ½ hour, tours last less than an hour. Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours on campus…do a lot of looking. Be attentive to seemingly superficial things. For example, the condition of the campus; the appearance of the dorm rooms; the dress of the faculty and students; how many people smile, say “hi,” or seem willing to engage in conversation all can tell you a great deal about a school.
- Inform yourself before you go. Read the school’s viewbook and any other materials available. Prepare a number of questions.
- Arrange for a tour guide with your child’s particular interests, if possible.
- Ask for the school’s handbook, student newspaper, sports calendar, etc.
- Anticipate questions you may be asked during the course of the interview. Most interviews are conversational in tone. Be honest. Candidly discuss your child’s needs, strengths and weaknesses and measure them against the strengths and weaknesses of the school.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You need to ask questions to make an informed judgment about a school. Some questions you might want to ask:
- How does the school encourage parental involvement?
- Are there formal dinners with faculty?
- How structured a school is?
- Who is looking after my daughter/son?
- Are there supervised study halls and evening study times?
- How free are students to come and go from campus?
- What is the school’s policy on drugs and alcohol?
- If my son/daughter is struggling academically, how do you ensure he/she will not fall through the cracks?
- How many different level teams do you have in a sport?
- How often do you communicate with parents on the progress of a student?
- How often is an advisor required to meet with his/her advisees?
- Could you briefly describe the philosophy of the school?
- What distinction is there between _________ school and comparable schools?
- What’s special about this school?
- What off-campus activities are available to students?
- What is the school’s commitment to the moral and ethical lives of its students?
- In what ways are students asked to give service to the community?
- How does the school help a young person make the transition between elementary/middle school and secondary school?
- Isn’t it true that the academic program offered by prep schools is all pretty much equal?
- How often is my child allowed to come home?
- Several schools ask that your child write an essay after his/her interview. He/She may be asked to write about a past experience, activity or relationship that is important to him/her. He/She may be asked to give his/her impressions of the tour and interview.
- You and your child should make notes about your visit before you leave the campus. (Really, in the car…before you leave.) If you don’t you will forget what you liked and didn’t like. This is especially important after you have seen more than one school. Writing your impressions separately, before discussing them, and then comparing notes, is a good process.
- Save all your notes in a folder.
- As soon as you get home, your child should write a thank you note to the person who interviewed him/her. (Be sure to ask for the interviewer’s card.) Mention the tour guide by name and include reference to something that was especially impressive.