Getting into top private schools is not unlike getting into top colleges. The fact is that highly valued individuals demonstrate a consistent set of values whether they are applying for college or private school. That is because, to a certain extent, top schools are seeking a consistent and predictable set of characteristics from their applicants, whether for college or for private school. Overall, they are seeking to establish an advantageous mix of talent while also creating a well-blended culture of high-achieving students who are high in energy and creativity and low in risk.
When you tour private schools, one of the most obvious things you notice is the involvement of students in extracurricular activities. You see signs of this all over, from the sports fields, to the locker rooms, to the art studios, to the maker labs, and into the performance halls. Almost without exception, top private schools boast extraordinary extracurricular activities—extraordinary both in scope and quality. Since the incoming class of any private school is far smaller than the incoming class at virtually any college, it is far more important for private schools to seek students who are talented in any of these areas in order not only to build the class, but to build sports teams, orchestras, artwork to display, and theater groups. Of course, there is no better measure of a private school than its record of matriculation. Therefore, private schools are very focused on admitting students whom they feel have a chance to get into top colleges. So, in most cases, it is not the quality of the private school that determines how many of its students get into top colleges. Rather, it is each school's ability to recruit top students that determines a school’s record of matriculation. A school that can recruit more high-level students is far more likely to have an impressive record of acceptances to elite colleges. This leads us to the first tip for getting into elite private schools.
Tip One: Have Great Grades and Test Scores. Yes, you have heard this before and it is anything but revolutionary. But the fact remains that unless you have superb grades and test scores, everything else is going to be more difficult. With lower test scores and/or grades, far more weight will be placed on other factors. And unless you can deliver something extraordinary outside of the realm of academics, your chance of acceptance by an elite private school diminishes exponentially for each point below perfect on the GPA or test scale. For example, a state champion sprinter, star middle school or club football player, a world-class musician, or an award-winning artist may be able to gain access without stellar test scores and grades, simply because the other factors balance the less-than-perfect academic record.
Tip Two: Demonstrate Maturity Beyond Your Years. At elite private schools, applicants are not considered to be young people, but rather early-stage adults. Admissions committees will expect students to be able to look beyond the walls of their classrooms and into the world in which they live. They seek students who have a broader view of life than simply what is between the two pieces of bread they have brought for lunch. They will look for these attributes in the essays, in the interview, and in the recommendations from teachers, school officials, and coaches. A 12-year-old who acts like a 12-year-old is a turnoff, whereas a 12-year-old who acts like a responsible young adult is far more likely to get positive reviews around the admissions table.
Tip Three: Make Them Like You. You must remember that elite private schools have far more highly qualified applicants than they do seats. Therefore, they always have their pick of the best students, and who can blame them for picking the ones they like the most? They want likable students because the students they accept will become part of a larger student body. Furthermore, they understand that likable students tend to be positive influences in the classroom, which is better for their faculty. Obviously, it is in the school's best interest to pick likable people rather than people who demonstrate less desirable qualities such as greed, anger, arrogance, or narcissism.
Tip Four: Prove Your Passion. As is the case with college, you must prove your passion, rather than merely writing or talking about it. It is quite easy to talk about how passionate you are or to write about it on the application; it is quite another to demonstrate it through your actions and activities, as well as through the words of others. Passion is a wonderful thing, and highly coveted by elite private schools. But it is far too easy to claim passion and much harder to prove it. For example, if you say you are passionate about math but fail to join your school's math club or enter math competitions, your words do not match your actions. If you state that you are passionate about writing, but submit poorly constructed essays, your actions disprove your words. If you claim to care about global warming simply because it is trendy and do nothing to enhance your knowledge on the issues, then your statements will be little more than hollow representations of known facts. When it comes to passion, “show don't tell” is an important aspect of your admission candidacy.
Tip Five: Have a Significant Skill or Accomplishment. As it is with college admissions, having a special talent or extraordinary accomplishment can be a ticket to admission, as long as other factors do not drag your application down into oblivion. Remember that private schools are trying to build strong classes, and strong classes are made up of students who have special gifts, recognized talents and significant accomplishments. Skills can include: math, music, dance, acting, writing, sports, art, or expertise in any one or more fields. Accomplishments can include: awards; championships; state, national, or international recognition; leadership; major presentations; speaking engagements; media attention; or almost anything else that is extraordinary.
Tip Six: Prove Your Skill With the Spoken and Written Word. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of the interview and essays in private school admissions. In fact, these factors are far more important for private schools than they are for colleges. Having the ability to express thoughts, feelings, opinions, and facts in an organized and cohesive manner is a skill that is highly coveted all the way from grade school through college. Communication skills are important in every facet of private school life, especially in schools that feature Harkness tables or other forms of discussion-based classroom learning. Before applying, make sure your interview and writing skills are finely tuned and polished.
Certainly, gaining acceptance into an elite private school can be just as competitive as getting into elite colleges. Since the students selected will be part of a tightknit community, school admissions committees scrutinize every aspect of the application as well as the interview and recommendations. Start with these six tips as a way of improving your odds of admission.