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Boarding School Fit: It's Complicated Matching Student & School

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Editor's Note: A recent exchange between onBoarding Schools contributor Leo G. Marshall, Director of Admission, The Webb Schools and a reader requires its own space.

Daphne, reading Leo's post (In Defense of Childhood), wrote expressing concern that perhaps she had not structured her child's time or pushed and programed her child harder. Achievement, it seemed was all the boarding school admission officer wanted to know or hear about.

As Daphne wrote:

My daughter was faced with question after question about her academic honors and prizes, extra-curricular awards, athletic achievements, positions of leadership. Nowhere was she asked "What do you do just for fun?" And I was left feeling that maybe our not pushing her hard enough has put her at a disadvantage at this critical juncture in her young life.
Leo replies, the key to the process is understanding the variables, and more specifically, your student, the school and how the two might fit well together.

Subject: Re: [Boarding School Blog - onBoarding Schools] New Comment Added to 'In Defense

Dear Daphne,

I dare say that often the schools and colleges themselves are part of the
problem. From one side of their mouth comes such questions as you
describe as, of course, we are looking for students who will contribute to
our schools in meaningful ways. Everyone, for example, has to fill their
orchestra or their soccer team. At the same time,  every school shies
away from a student who is doing little at home other than sit in front to
tv or a computer game. Most will say they want creative thinkers who
enjoy learning for learning's sake but may not tell you what that means.

What schools sometimes suffer from is a lack of imagination about what
what kind of students they wish to have on campus. This is especially so
when schools are dealing with large numbers of applicants and they are
attempting to make some sense of the pool. It's then easy to fall back on
old notions of what constitutes achievement. Therefore, our job is to
articulate our thoughts about learning and what kind of students find
success in our classrooms. And this has nothing to do with rattling off
average SSAT scores, GPA's, or the recent winning record of the lacrosse

The whole process becomes confusing to parents who then decide that the
best way to ensure their child's chances for admission is to load them up
with activities and build a proverbial resume for their child. I am not
suggesting that parents shouldn't introduce their child to a musical
instrument or encourage them to play a sport. Many students lack the
confidence to give such things a try and we parents should be in the
position to offer encouragement and support. But when this is all done
simply to give that edge to a student - the result of which cannot be
predicted - without taking into consideration the child's real interest or
potential, the result is more tutors, more test preparation, more special
coaches, and exhausted kids.

This is also complicated when parents think there are only handful of
schools out there worth looking at and that is very often based on
perception of prestige, not whether they're the right school for their
child. I cannot tell you how many parents ask me about our track record
for getting students into schools like Harvard. Yet, when I ask them if
they know anything about the college or whether it might be a the right
place for their child, they look at me like I'm crazy. The same thing
happens when parents look at boarding schools. Thus, I suspect a number
of schools are overloaded with applicants who really know little about the
school except the name. Those schools in their attempt to manage the
numbers fall back on questions about leadership (I'm just not sure any
middle school child can tell me they have developed real leadership
skills) or whether they have recently discovered a new vaccine.

What is the answer? Well, there is no perfect school except the one that
inspires your child. There is no magic path to success via the name of a
school. Nobody is going to ask what your child's shot-to- goal ratio was
in middle school and no one cares what his SSAT scores was when he is out
there in the world. I do believe they will want to know if he imagines a
world as better place and that he enjoys being with others of all
persuasions and experiences. They will want to know if he has been asked
to question, i.e. to be an informed skeptic. They will want to know if
he loves reading and enjoys the thrill of competition but has kept losing
and winning in perspective. Schools like ours can help your child get
there but the work in front of you is to find which school can do that for
your child... and forget what your friends tell you.

Best wishes,

Leo G. Marshall
Director of Admission & Financial Aid
The Webb Schools
Claremont, CA
The Washington Post ran a piece highlighting the rise of online interviews in the admission process.

The online interview isn't well-established and still faces some technology hurtles. Not all families have the technology readily available and admission office staffs need some convincing and prodding to learn new ways of communicating with applicants.

The web interview certainly offers the prospect of saving families travel dollars.

One of the largest hurdles to more online interviews seems to be admission office reluctance and unfamiliarity with the technology.

I'm guessing efficiency will win out in the end.

With respect to boarding schools, anyone participate in an online interview (either as an interviewer or interviewee)? I'd love to read your impressions- chime in below.
California Boarding SchoolsBoth our educational consultant and the head of our daughter's school encouraged us to visit a certain school in California. Initially it seemed crazy to us to consider a school so far away when we live surrounded by the country's great preparatory schools. However there were some cultural sites we wished to visit, and a school visit justified a junket. As we flew into the airport, wildfires were raging beneath the plane. It was a beautiful, terrifying sight, and one which I thought would put our daughter off California forever. However the warm weather and outdoor lifestyle drew her right in.

Our school visit was the fourth day. The drive to the campus winds through orange and olive groves and ends in a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. When we first arrived all of us there for interviews were introduced to each other , and we sat in the reception room and chatted with the admissions officers. They also had the best scones of all the schools we have visited and a lovely selection of teas and coffee. This always makes me feel as if my child will be well-fed.

It's one of those schools where the child has a separate tour from the parents. Our tour guide was well-chosen for Easterners anxious about sending their baby far from home as she too was from the East Coast. She spoke articulately about the school and her reasons for loving it. Afterwards we realized we had seen very few indoor spaces, rather the tour was about the ethos and culture of the school. The interview was similar in that we skipped right over many of the traditional questions on both sides and went right to approaches to education and how our family values fit with the school's values. When we were told that there are no mall trips, we knew the school could be a great fit for our child.
After the interview we had the opportunity to watch the student-run school assembly, where we were impressed by how supportive the students were of each other and how articulately the made their announcements. That it was held in an outdoor amphitheater further added to the charm of the school.

It was exciting for us to visit a school which is so true to its mission, so committed to having the students lead active outdoor lives while still maintaining the highest academics standards. We left calculating how many trips our frequent-flyer miles would get us if our daughter is fortunate enough to be accepted.

With the break from school and the slower routine, the end of year holidays provide a great time to make sure your ducks are in a row with respect to the private school application process. This is an overview of where you might expect to be if you're on an ideal application calendar. If you're in a different spot in the process- don't worry. It's a process; all the pieces can be compressed and sped-up if you need to.

By the end of the year, you should have worked through the following steps for Fall 2009 school admission:

  1. Committed to exploring a school change.

  2. Developed an understanding of your child as a student. How does he/she learn best?  In what type of environment does he/she thrive? Does he/she structure/support?  Does your student have a strong talent or ability that needs an especially strong program- art, music, athletics?

  3. Researched and explored schools- understanding the difference between different schools.

  4. Settled on a list of schools with environments and programs that will best nurture your student.

  5. Ordered application packages and started the application process at these schools. This includes completing the applications and working with your current teachers and school to have recommendations and assessments written.

  6. Scheduled interviews at these schools.

  7. Financial Aid. You should be gathering financial data and be completing the SSS financial disclosure from.
The process requires a good deal of gathering & information management; planning and is paramount. As I mentioned earlier, all of the parts can be compressed if you arrived late.

Financial Aid  
If you plan on applying for financial aid, start early. The financial aid process requires lots of disclosure and it can take some time to gather the information.

Also, schools may accept admission applications on a rolling admission basis. Be aware, however, that financial aid is not awarded nor is it usually available on a rolling basis. Financial aid applications have a fixed, early application date and you must submit your applications on time.
There are a couple of final school visits to share with you, but as time is running short in the admissions process, today I want to move to the real work of the process- the applications.  We met with our educational consultant at the beginning of last week to winnow the list of schools visited to a list of six to which our daughter will apply. The goal was to have two "reach" schools, two "probably" schools and two "safety schools. While this sounds logical, in reality it may be just a mind game as our son was accepted into one of his "reach" schools and wait-listed at both his "probably" schools. After much discussion, our daughter decided to apply to five schools, which based on the feedback from the schools and our own instinct seems reasonable. It's been an interesting process as there are schools on her final list which I never would have guessed would have made the cut at the beginning of the process and schools to which she doesn't want to apply that I was sure she would love.

Over Thanksgiving, we sorted out all the reference forms with a separate folder for each subject, signed all the releases and stamped all the envelopes before putting it all in a big envelope for the administrator at her school to distribute. Two of the schools like an additional personal reference. This is a more difficult decision as we wanted someone who knows our daughter well but also whom we also feel will take the time to write a thoughtful and balanced recommendation. Our daughter chose to ask her riding instructor.  Our son asked a Boy Scout leader and a Sunday School teacher. I am a believer in accompanying the references with an effusive thank you note as writing all of them for the many eighth graders who are applying to schools must be a labor of love.

Our daughter is now on her own to write the essays while we write our own essays for the parent statements. In our house that means, I write and my husband edits.  It's hard not to provide input into their essays and hard to distill my child into a page on her strengths and weaknesses. Maybe AdmissionsQuest can tell us how the essays are weighted versus the interview and recommendations. It might relieve some of the pressure.
In our three years of interviewing, we just went to our first open house/visiting day and wished we had attended more. Our day at this pretty, well-kept girls' school began with a warm welcome by the admissions staff and breakfast in the dining hall. From the beginning I knew I would like the school as the fruit was fresh, the pastries delicious and the coffee served with real cream or milk, not those "tear-the-top off the plastic bottom" creamers. Poised, well-spoken students were working the room talking with families about their experience at the school. After an introduction by the head of admissions and the head of school, the parents were escorted to a panel discussion by students and faculty and for a tour while our daughters went separately for their own tour and panel.

We were so impressed by all the young women who spoke to us, most of all because while each was articulate and confident, they all seemed comfortable with their different gifts and styles. We were equally inspired by the faculty, all of whom spoke thoughtfully about the benefits of single-sex education and all clearly had warm relationships with the girls. On our tour confirmed that this is a school that is true to its mission and educating young women who will make a positive contribution to society.

The formal part of the visit concluded with a sit-down lunch with members of the administration and faculty and a performance by a student group. The head of school made a point of speaking to every family, which certainly made us feel wanted. After lunch our daughter had her interview during which members of the faculty were again available to talk with parents. Our investment of a day at this school was certainly worth it as we have a better understanding of the culture and philosophy of this wonderful school that we would not have gained had we just come for an interview.
Editor's Note: "A Parent's Boarding School Admission Journal" appears every Thursday throughout the admission season. Check-in each week to read the Boarding School Mom's latest entry.

A raw, rainy afternoon found us at our son's school for our daughter's interview.  In some respects this was the most relaxing of the school visits as we are familiar with the campus, our daughter has visited several times to watch her brother compete and for Parent's weekend.  Obviously it is a school we all hold in high regard as our son has adjusted so well and is so happily challenged.  Our tour guide was terrific - personable with wide interests and a good sense of humor.  While the campus and student body are large, it feels like a small, friendly community.  Our son's history teacher crossed paths with us and chatted about his class participation and upcoming paper.  At this school each teacher has no more than four classes of twelve students each, so they do develop close and supportive relationships with the
To our family this school is outstanding for its strong academics, diverse mix of kids - socio-economically, racially, geographically and in terms of interest.  Other than bright, the kids at this school can't be categorized.  The faculty are gifted and supportive, and the administration is responsive to students and parents. Finally the facilities are well-maintained and support the academic and athletic mission.  This school is true to its mission.
It was a great relief when the admissions officer interviewing us turned out to be the same person who had interviewed our son the year before.  She is a warm, relational person and one of the best interviewers we've met.  We all felt it was a great visit, and the report back is that our daughter is a viable candidate.  Of course, the admissions officer was also clear that the school expects applications to be up this year; and they already only accept one in ten applicants.  Excited as our daughter is about attending this school, we all realize it is a "stretch" application.

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under the pen name "Boarding School Mom" and all family, child consultant, and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ's Boarding School Mom at [email protected]. 
Editor's Note: We're excited to feature a post by the Boarding School Mom's daughter. She offers her on the ground take on the boarding school admission process.

Going through the admissions process is stressful, not only for the parent, but also for the child. Many parents add extra pressure and stress, but also you hear stories about boarding school. So let me start with this: You are all great people, sometimes you freeze up and don't get to show the admission officer how great you are or sometimes you're just not the right fit for a school, but that doesn't change the fact that every person applying to boarding school is a special and wonderful person.

Having an older brother who's gone through the admission process twice, I knew what to expect, but each interview is different and you have to be prepared to react to each interview. There are millions of things you can do to help you be prepared. I'm going to share some of the things I've learned from personal experience with you now.

In my opinion the most important thing you can do (if you're a girl!) is lay out your outfit the night before. The morning of my first interview both Mom and I were in tears because neither could agree on an appropriate outfit. I can't guarantee no crying, but it's better to have the crying the night before. Lay out everything from your clothes to accessories. This will really help you in the morning: one it means you can get up later, and two it means there's less stress in getting out the door.

A lot of these schools are in really pretty towns so being early isn't a bad thing. As a kid, I get really anxious before an interview and start worrying about silly things like being late, so try to leave early to guarantee you'll be there on time and to help lessen the stress on your child. Another thing I've found helpful is if the school is more then two hours away and you have a 9:00 or earlier appointment, try to stay the night somewhere closer by if you can. We've done this several times, and it really helps. I don't feel as anxious if I know were nearby. Another great thing to do is print off directions the night before!!!!

Look over the view book and application materials the night before. I once talked to a retired admissions officer who said that to the admissions officer it shows you don't really care about their school if you ask a question that's answered in the view book. So look over the view book the night before and generate a list of questions for your tour guide and your interviewer. You want to be the one asking the questions not your parents.

Another thing you can do if you're stressed out about the interview is generate or find an online list of questions you think the admissions officer might ask you. Think about how you would answer them if you were asked. Even if they don't ask you those questions, having thought about your characteristics, things you like to do, and your school can help you in the interview or have a mock interview. Have a friend or teacher (noon-parent) conduct a run through interview. Experience helps so don't schedule your favorite school first. Save it for last and start with a school that is either a back-up or that you're not that excited about or a school you're comfortable at.

Get a good night's sleep! You want to be fresh and relaxed for your interview. I've woken up on an interview morning and felt like I could sleep for eight more hours. You do not want to feel like this. Go to bed early and try to get at least nine hours of sleep if not more the night before your interview.

These are just some things I have found helpful in preparing for an interview. HAVE FUN!

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under the pen name "Boarding School Mom" and all family, child consultant, and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ's Boarding School Mom at [email protected]. 

Editor's Note: "A Parent's Boarding School Admission Journal" appears every Thursday throughout the admission season. Check-in each week to read the Boarding School Mom's latest entry.

Our second school visit with our daughter was to a single-sex school relatively close to home that has the sports about which our daughter is passionate. My optimism quickly faded as we had to wait twenty minutes for our tour guide and there remained only one hot cup and one cookie to tide the three of us over on a damp day. When she arrived our tour guide was a lovely, friendly girl who, when asked about weekend activities at a school with a high percentage of day students, replied she goes home every weekend. This was a red flag to me who does not want to be picking our child up in rush hour every Friday. She also commented on how well put together the girls at the school are when all I saw was girls in sweat pants and artistically ripped jeans, a comment my daughter, who is slightly fashion sensitive, found shocking. We were shown all the academic support centers but didn't see many engaged girls in classrooms. Once in the actual interview, I hoped the interviewer would talk to us about how the school used their single-sex status to develop strong leaders and thinkers, but unfortunately she didn't. The most interesting part of the day was meeting a family from the mid-west who returning the following week with their son to look at junior boarding schools, so we had a great chat about those options. We all left feeling deflated and disappointed that a school which seemed to have such possibilities felt so stagnant.

The next day we visited a highly selective small New England school, which we all loved and about which our highly-focused daughter was very excited. The campus was lovely, the tour guide lively and passionate about the school, the academics clearly outstanding. It felt right to all of us. Then the terrible moment when the parents go in to be interviewed, and the interviewer asks "What can I tell you about the school?" For some reason, probably not rationale, this signals to me that they aren't interested in our child and just want to move us on. While I am usually prepared for this tactic with a good strategic question, I was distracted because the name of the interviewer wasn't the name on the door and lost my train of thought. Fortunately my husband was in better form early that morning and carried the conversation. As we have found that admission representatives often interview in offices not there own, beware and pay attention to their name. Our consultant, who seems to have a personal connection to someone at every school, did indeed report back that they felt our daughter probably lacked enough extra-curricular activities to be accepted. Our daughter is determined however and plans to apply to this school. We fear it's a waste of $50.

Columbus Day weekend took us to a beautiful part of New England for a school visit. Not realizing it was a holiday weekend, I failed to make a hotel reservation in a timely manner, which left us stranded at a motel with a party in the parking lot in a dying mill town. This is the school my brother had left after two years because he was so unhappy, so I visited only at our daughter's insistence. My spirits were raised by the hot coffee and pastries they had in the waiting room. Somehow, a hospitable reception area always makes me feel a school will tend to my child's needs. To my delight, the school seems to be moving in a positive direction, the party atmosphere seems to have faded with the last century, and we were all really impressed by the friendly students, comfortable facilities and generally happy feeling we got from the school. The tour guide was engaging, had wide interests and seemed to connect with our daughter. The admission officer seemed to like us too and want to spend time talking with us which is always salve to the ego. However what was most impressive is that the coach of our daughter's favorite sport took forty-five minutes to talk with us about his philosophy and show us the athletic facilities. Our daughter was sold. My husband and I are left wondering if there is a decent hotel nearby and how often we'll see our child given how far from home this school is.

If these schools are starting to blur for you, they are for us too. Next we visited a smaller, picturesque school, which has perhaps the best admissions' effort I've encountered. We had loved this school when we visited with our son and were sure our daughter would too. Not only is there plenty of hot coffee in the reception area, but both times I've toured the school, the headmaster has come out to shake hands, there are students available to chat with candidates while they wait for their interview and there are parent volunteers available to answer questions. The academics are rigorous, the students seem engaged, and the school feels like a close-knit community. It is a very smooth operation. It is also a school where the parent and child are given separate tours. (My family has divergent opinions about separate tours. Our daughter and I like it as we can both ask as many questions as we want. My husband believes it's a family experience to be shared. I do agree with him that it's good to be able to speak with a student while touring.) I loved my tour, but our daughter reported that her tour guide didn't seem to enthusiastic about any of the school activities; and she had the impression it was structured beyond her needs. We were interviewed by an admissions intern who was delightful, but I felt that if they were serious about our daughter's candidacy, they would have given us a different admissions officer. Surprisingly the consultant reported back that they did indeed like our daughter, so as of now it's still on the list of possibilities.

We are now halfway through our eleven visits and so far have only ruled out one school. Our daughter's goal is to apply to six schools, so this is positive. We also spent Parents' Weekend at our son's school during this time which has made us more sophisticated consumers but also causes us to compare and contrast the other schools to his school which is an unfair bias on our part.

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under the pen name "Boarding School Mom" and all family, child consultant, and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ's Boarding School Mom at [email protected]. 

Editor's Note: "A Parent's Boarding School Admission Journal" appears every Thursday throughout the admission season. Check-in each week to read the Boarding School Mom's latest entry.

Having undergone the prep school admissions process twice with our son, we thought we knew what we were doing, but our highly focused eighth grade daughter has disabused us of that notion and taken charge of the school search. Before school was out last June, she had me schedule her appointment with the educational placement consultant. She arranged for a meeting with the head of her current school to seek her input as to appropriate schools, and she started doing research on-line.

After researching about 20 different schools which included driving through some over the summer in order to get the feel of the school without students, she has narrowed her list to 11 at which she wants to interview. While her father and I would like to have her within two hours of home, she insists on considering three schools in southern New England and one in California, a school highly recommended as a good fit for her by both our consultant and the head of her current school. Our daughter is considering all-girls schools, co-ed schools and schools both with and without strong horseback riding programs. She has been thoughtful about her choices, so we are trying to be open-minded; and in fact are looking forward to our trip west.  

Now as any of you with multiple children know, they are different. Our son let us drive the process, read the catalogs in the car on the way to the tour and may have heard half the advice offered by the consultant. As a boy, the whole question of what to wear was moot. The same navy blazer, tie and penny loafers worked for every interview for two years. She has had two practice interviews during which she was encouraged to provide thoughtful, expansive answers to the interviewers questions and discouraged from fidgeting, actually studied for the SSATs, and has spent the last month worrying about what to wear to which interview.

Some observations from the field on the school visit:

  1. Be on time. We once observed a mother and daughter break out in a heated argument in the reception area blaming each other for being an hour late.

  2. Turn off your cell phone.

  3. Have your child dress at least to the school's dress code.

  4. Parents too should dress to the dress code but also should not upstage their child. I have been distracted by fathers in blue jeans and tee shirts and mothers in sequins that might have been more fitting at a holiday party.

  5. Wear comfortable shoes. Tours always involve a lot of walking over uneven ground and are often in the rain, cold or snow. I have regretted choosing vanity over comfortable and warm.

  6. Have a snack and a drink before you arrive. Most schools offer only the token cookie, and we are invariably starving by the time we leave.

  7. Write thank you notes promptly and your child should do the same. While I have no idea if this has any effect on the outcome, it seems the right thing to do.
The First Interview

Our daughter's first interview was two weeks ago. Because we were worried that she would be overcome with stage fright and not speak, our consultant arranged for her to interview with a very experienced admission officer at a school where she should be a strong candidate. 

The school had arranged for a girl who had attended our current school to give the tour.  However when that girl failed for some reason to show up, they recruited a lively, engaging senior to show us the school. Our daughter was smitten with the girl's passion for the school, articulate description of its strengths and, I must admit, her sense of style. They chatted away, and I might not have been there. The last time I had seen the school there had been many feet of snow on the ground, and this sunny, warm day the school seemed much more attractive. I worked my way through much of the reading material in the reception area while she was interviewed. Imagine my astonishment when my turn came, and I learned my daughter had chatted away for 40 minutes.

When we left, the admission officer gave her a rubber mascot of the school and a pen with the school's name. Our daughter was delighted. That night she e-mailed her tour guide a thank you and received an immediate reply offering to answer any further questions and wishing her luck. She sent a prompt thank you to the admission officer and received a lovely note in return with a magnet shaped like the school's pennant. The feedback from the school through the consultant was that the interview had gone well. Our daughter was so warmly received at this school that she definitely wants to apply and indeed feels she should go there if accepted because they have been so nice to her.

I am so grateful that she had a positive first interviewing experience to build her confidence as we go forward. We'll see what the next ten interviews bring.

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under the pen name "Boarding School Mom" and all family, child consultant, and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ's Boarding School Mom at [email protected]. 

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