School Counseling and Placement
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General Application Facts

What’s the key to independent school admission?

If you remember only one thing, remember this: There is no formula.

As logical people, we want to believe there is something in the admission process that will predict whether applicants will be admitted. That is especially true of quantitative data, like test scores, because those data are so easily compared. Surely higher is better, yes?

Well, yes, surely it is. I have yet to find the applicant who wishes for scores that are just a little … lower. 

But better test scores alone do not guarantee admission anywhere. In any given year, at any given school, in any given grade, there are a hundred factors we do not know about the applicant pool and the composition of the current class.

Perhaps the class is heavy on boys compared to girls. Perhaps it is light on diversity. Perhaps there is a lot of financial aid already committed to the grade. Perhaps there are already a number of learning challenges, and the teachers are wary of adding more in that particular grade. Perhaps there is an unusually high number of applicants whose siblings already attend. (Almost every school offers siblings some preference in admission.) Perhaps there are two average applicants whose siblings are also applying — one is a fifth-grade concert violinist and the other is an eighth-grade pitcher whose fastball already clocks at 75. In every case, the school will admit students for reasons that the rest of the pool cannot possibly know when starting the process.

All of those, by the way, are actual reasons in my experience that students with lower scores have been offered spaces, while those with higher scores have not been. Ignore the basic tenet at your peril: There is no formula.

Do we have to attend an information session or tour before we apply?

It depends on the school. More schools are requiring it each year. Be sure you know.

Do we have to submit an application before our child visits?

It depends on the school. Again, more schools are requiring it each year. Be aware that “submit an application” usually does not mean “submit a complete application.” Most schools ask that applicants complete, before scheduling a visit, the first part of an application — what some call the “data sheet” — which requests basic information, as well as the application fee.

Are the application deadlines firm?

If you miss the application deadline, schools usually won’t consider your child’s candidacy until they’ve decided on all of the applications that were submitted on time. That means there may or may not be spaces left; at the most competitive schools the answer is almost certainly no. This is not one of those factors to leave to chance: Aim for a few days before the deadlines.

What if we miss the deadline but still want to apply?

Some schools will have openings after admission deadlines pass. The easiest way to find out is to call or write the admission office to ask, “Are you still accepting applications for grade X for the fall?” Every school will answer that question directly.

Can a student apply after school starts in the fall?

It depends on the school. Some schools fill quickly; others have space available after school begins. Many schools will accept applications through the first semester, others accept them year-round. Again, the best way to know is to call the admission offices where you’re interested.

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Recommendations and other Components of the Application

What are the components of applications?

  • A transcript of grades (or, for younger students, the most recent teacher reports)
  • Standardized testing (WPPSI, WISC, SSAT, ISEE, SCAT, OLCAT, ERB, et al. — as applicable)
  • Other testing reports (if applicable)
  • Tour or open house attendance
  • Student school visit (depends on school and grade level)
  • Student interview (depends on school and grade level)
  • Parent interview
  • Teacher recommendations
  • School recommendation (usually by a principal or division head)
  • The first part of the application, sometimes called the “data sheet”
  • Parents’ written responses to application questions
  • Students’ written responses to application questions (if applicable)
  • Financial aid forms (if applicable)


Different schools may supply transcripts in different formats. Ask at your current school.

How many standardized tests does my child need to take?

One — usually. The school to which your child is applying will guide you.

What about neuro-psych testing and other kinds of evaluations?

See the section on ”Learning Disabilities and Other Challenges” for more information.

Most schools ask for two recommendations. Is it okay to submit more?

I have never known an admission office to object to a third recommendation, but it’s better if it doesn’t simply repeat what the first two have already said. If you want a fourth recommendation, you should be sure it’s written by somebody who knows your child well, and from a different perspective, such as a coach or music teacher. There’s no need for another teacher if you’ve already got three. If you want a fifth recommendation… sorry, you’re wrong. You don’t want a fifth recommendation.

Which teachers should write recommendations?

Most schools ask for an English and a Math teacher. Do not tempt fate by slipping in the Science teacher instead of the Math teacher. If the school doesn’t specify, you may ask any teachers you’d like. Unless your situation is very unusual, ask current teachers only. 

We know somebody important. Should we ask her to write a recommendation?

It depends. Your senator’s recommendation seldom counts for anything if the senator does not know your child. In some circumstances it could even backfire, if the admission office thinks you’re trying to manipulate or intimidate them.

Should parents waive their right to see their children’s teacher recommendations?

It’s a parental decision, but I advise parents strongly to waive those rights. All the way down to kindergarten, academic recommendations are assumed to be confidential. If you don’t waive your right to see them, the receiving school is likely to see it as a red flag, and to ask why your family expects different treatment. Many schools mark such recommendations “Not confidential.” Do your best to have faith in your child’s school, even if you find that challenging. It may help to remember that it is in your current school’s interest for students to be admitted; it speaks well for the program and the relationships.

Does everything in the process count?

Yes, everything counts. Though everybody loves your child and treats her as a special person, it is a cruel fact of the admission process that higher scores are better than lower scores, that A-minus is better than B-plus, and that the ability to pay without requesting aid is better. Remember, though, that the process is holistic, and a few lower grades or a single area of relative weakness on standardized testing is seldom a deal-breaker.

Is there anything in the process that counts more than other things?

Everything can count in your children’s favor, and everything can count against them. That said, I believe the interview is a vital part of the application process, for the simple reason that it’s harder to deny likable, memorable people than to deny those who are not memorable, or who are memorable for the wrong reasons. If your child is an introvert, it’s worth a little work on interviewing skills, which (surprise!) yr. humble site owner provides.

How important are the short answers and “essays”?

Much more important than you probably think.

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Standardized Testing

There are lots of kinds of admission tests. Which ones should my child take?

For younger students, schools generally require the WISC or the WPPSI (“Whippsy”). There are many capable admission testers in the greater DC area, and I am happy to recommend at no charge a few whose work is consistently excellent. Most schools also keep their own lists of recommended testers.

For older students, almost every school requires either the SSAT or the ISEE. Unless a school specifies a particular test, they are accorded equal weight. Comparative info can be found elsewhere on this site.

Catholic schools that are governed by the Archdiocese of Washington require the HSPT, or High School Placement Test. It is administered in early December, and it may be submitted to two ADW schools. Some Catholic schools accept other tests, such as the SSAT or ISEE; still other schools require different tests altogether. Be sure you have checked carefully when you begin the process.

How important are test scores?

There is no single, definitive answer. Some schools weigh test scores very heavily in the application process; others less so. Even within a single school’s admission committee, it is likely that members regard test scores slightly differently.

That said, test scores are still pretty good predictors of admission offers, but only within broad swaths. Every school denies some applicants who have higher scores than some applicants who are admitted, and every school accepts some applicants who have lower test scores than some applicants who are denied. So we can obviously infer that test scores alone are not rock-solid guides to an applicant’s chances.

There is no question that higher is better. However, in my experience parents consistently over-emphasize the importance of test scores compared to the other sections of the application. At most schools, if your child’s scores are roughly between the 40th and 80th percentiles among students a school admits, the scores will barely count at all.

Finally, anybody who tells you that scores above the 90th percentile across the board are prerequisites for admission to any particular school is either uninformed or deliberately spreading falsehoods. There is no such school in the Washington area, and almost none nationwide.

Is special preparation for testing necessary?

Maybe. It depends on students’ scores at the beginning, the family’s view of testing, and the family’s resources. I am happy to discuss this question with any parent, and to make recommendations for those whom I consider the most effective test prep operations.

My child has already taken standardized tests. Can I use those for the admission process?

Maybe. They must be the right form of a test that the school already accepts, and they will have to be dated no more than a year before the application deadline. If you are happy with a set of test results, and they meet these criteria, it is sill imperative to check with the admission offices at any schools you’re considering.

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Learning disabilities and other challenges

My child has a diag­nosed learning disability. Can he or she get into any schools?

The easy answer is, “Yes, of course!” — but let’s not get too cute. In fact, there is much to unpack in this very broad question, because there are many different types of learning disabilities and many different types of schools. Though many students may share similar profiles, each family’s situation is unique. Sorry to punt, but this question really begs for a more nuanced discussion. Call or write if you’d like to initiate one.

Do schools consider AD/HD a learning disability?

Maybe yes, maybe no, but that’s mostly semantics. The better question is how different schools regard attention challenges, and the answer is, not surprisingly: It depends on the kind of school and the severity of the attention challenge. The application process is holistic, so almost every school will accommodate mild attention challenges if an applicant presents other desirable qualities. Again, because this is such a personal and individual question, it would be best discussed one-to-one.

My child had a neuro-psych test. Do we have to disclose it?

This is really two questions: 1) Must we disclose it, and 2) Should we disclose it? Let me state up-front that I am not a lawyer, and my advice and understanding is based on a layperson’s (experienced) interpretation of applicable law. If you would like actual legal advice, I can recommend one or two capable education attorneys. From my own perspective, then:

The first question is whether you are obligated to disclose testing, regardless of its findings. You are not. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”), with which most people are familiar, provides that medical records are private and only available on a right-to-know basis unless a patient consents to disclosure. Your child’s neuro-psychological evaluation is governed by HIPAA rules, and therefore you cannot be compelled to disclose it. In addition, the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act of 1974 (“FERPA”) provides that parents of children under 18 own their children’s educational records, and may distribute them, or not, as they see fit. A neuro-psychological evaluation is also an educational record, so you may be protected twice.

The second question is whether you should provide testing results with an application. If the testing is older than three years, the answer is: Probably not. Most organizations won’t even use it if it’s that old. There are situations when the testing can be helpful, but most of those probably apply only after your child has matriculated. However, if the testing is more recent, the answer is: Probably yes, for two reasons: a) It is hard to believe a school will serve a student better if it knows less about that student; and b) While these issues can provoke anxiety, it’s hard for parents to expect a good-faith effort by schools if the parents do not show good faith themselves by trusting the school with sensitive information. Withholding important data is not usually the best start to a relationship. Remember as well: While this report is likely the first one you’ve encountered, and it feels very personal, admission officers and administrators at any school have seen scores of reports like this. They’re pros, right?

If you disclose information and your child is not admitted, I encourage you not to view that as a statement that your child is “not good enough.” Rather, it’s more likely that a school recognizes that serving your child effectively is not within their skill sets and capabilities. Even if rejection stings initially, my experience says that it’s preferable to spending many years at a school that does not serve your child well. That’s a losing proposition from the first day.

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Visits and Interviews

What’s the purpose of a school visit?

When a student in very early grades (PK–1) visits a school, teachers are generally looking for basic skills: large and small motor development, social awareness and interactions, politeness, basic kindness, and so forth. Lagging development in one area is generally not a deal-breaker; admission is a holistic process.

If your child is applying to one of these grades, do not be tempted to “coach” him or her. Remember, children are only being assessed on the merits of their peer group; a child who acts like a grown-up is just as likely to raise eyebrows about what instructions he received five minutes before the visit as he is to impress.

For older elementary grades, schools often assess the same kinds of skills and development at age-appropriate levels. There may be some basic academic assessments as well. At these grades it is appropriate to remind children to do their best and to be kind to others, but over-preparation often reveals itself, so use a light touch.

For middle and upper school grades, schools are well aware of their need to appeal to applicants as well as the other way around. Look for a school to provide a “host” student who represents the school well — though of course there can be missed cues and other errors. If a student does not enjoy his or her visit to a school, that’s important information for parents to consider. It is appropriate to remind your child of acceptable behavior in a setting like this, but repeated reminders are likely to provoke anxiety, or a feeling that a child’s parents do not have faith in him or her. Go easy.

Not all schools offer visits to every applicant, and not all schools require a visit for admission. Please check with any individual schools you’re considering.

What should my child wear to a school visit?

Applicants should dress to fit in with the student body; a jacket and tie at a school with no dress code will make a student feel out of place upon walking in the door, as will athletic clothing at a school where the girls all wear plaid skirts. Aim for clothing a bit above the median. Even a very casual school is probably not a good place to try sweat pants and flip-flops when you’re trying to make a good impression.

What do schools ask during a student interview?

Schools do not use interviews to trick students or put them on the spot. Most schools ask about current classes, teachers, friendships, extra-curricular activities, and the old chestnuts about favorite books and challenges students have overcome. There are specific strategies and skills that can be practiced to prepare for interviews, but you’ll have to make an appointment for that.

What do schools ask during a parent interview?

It’s impossible to predict what any given admission officer will ask, but generally schools want to know that parents will behave reasonably, even if they disagree with a school’s approach. If you’re the parent who’s always calling to give the school a piece of your mind about the issue du jour, you might want to rethink that approach while you’re in an interview. Actually, you may want to rethink that idea overall.

Wait — there’s a parent interview?!

’Fraid so.

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Other Application Topics

My family isn't very “diverse.” Is that a problem?

Most schools go out of their way for diversity, so there is an advantage to belonging to groups that are nonwhite, Latino, Muslim, non-heterosexual — i.e., those groups whose members may lend a different perspective to the school community. However, remember that admission is holistic, so representing a typically underrepresented group is not an admission ticket. It’s just one factor among many.

I know a board member/influential parent/teacher at a school we’re interested in. Can that help my child’s chances for admission?

Maybe. It depends on the school, the person’s level of influence, and how well any given person knows your child. I’m happy to consider the most effective approach in any specific situation with you.

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Half-truths and falsehoods regarding non-public schools abound. In reality, non-public schools serve a wide range of students from a broad and creative palette of educational perspectives and instructional strategies. The result is a very wide range of options. Here are some of the most common myths, with a reality check included for each.

Myth 1. Only super-rich kids go to private schools.

Reality: Tuition at independent schools can be expensive, but some schools are more affordable, and in almost every school significant numbers of families qualify for financial aid for a variety of reasons. The general rule in admission offices: If you’re not sure, go ahead and apply for aid. There are no guarantees, but many middle-class families qualify for lower total tuition payments than they anticipated.

Myth 2. Independent schools aren’t as diverse as public schools.

Reality: Virtually every independent school goes out of its way to attract a diverse population, with many high schools’ students comprising more than 40% students of color. But it’s not only racial and ethnic diversity; at many schools “diversity” includes a significant effort to enroll children of different skills, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, different religious traditions, LGBTQ students and children of LGBT parents. Many schools hold frequent discussions about the meaning, effects, and challenges of diversity in their communities — making diversity not just a question of numbers, but a significant component of a complete education. It’s not hard to find public schools with diverse populations, but finding the rich discussions around those issues among school-aged children is relatively rare in public school environments.

Myth 3. Academically “average” kids don't go to non-public schools.

Reality: Not to burst bubbles, but, by definition, most kids are average — or, as we prefer, “normal.” (“Average” is such a dreadful word, isn’t it?) What distinguishes non-public school kids is not that they all have stratospheric test scores — but that their families want something different from school.

Myth 4. Independent schools are (or aren’t) for kids with learning challenges.

Reality: Every school has kids with learning challenges, ranging from mild dyslexia to AD/HD to much more serious challenges. That said, each school is generally at its best within a range of student abilities, and schools usually tell parents candidly what that range is. Yes, a handful of schools admit only students for whom school comes easily — but few schools seek homogeneity. (See Diversity, above.) In addition, there is a small number of schools that are designed for kids who struggle with traditional approaches. When the match between a school and a student with learning challenges is strong, those schools often change lives.

Myth 5. Kids who go to private schools are neglected, troubled, and unhappy.

Reality: Most kids who go to non-public schools are well adjusted, friendly, and pretty (here’s that word again) normal. They also have the benefit of being surrounded by caring adults who take a personal interest in each student. I worked for five years in a boarding school more than 20 years ago and still cherish connections I made, many of which I have kept as former students have become terrific adults.

Myth 6. Independent schools don’t reflect the real world.

Reality: Well, this one might be true — and for good reason! Most people who choose independent schools have glimpsed the “real world” and found it wanting. Families who consider independent schools usually want manageable class sizes, a deep commitment to each individual student, meaningful connections to adults, and strong community values. Independent schools foster all of those qualities and more.

Myth 7 (the practical myth). If we miss the application deadline, it’s not worth applying.

Reality: In a small number of the most competitive schools, spots are pretty well filled after the admission deadline. (Even in those schools, there are exceptions, however.) But the majority of independent schools have spots open well into spring and even summer. Once admission numbers are known more firmly, most schools actively seek additional applicants.