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Applying to private schools: step-by-step

A complete guide to private school admissions

Find a list of schools  

The independent or private school experience is an exciting time for new students: there will be new friends, challenging class work, sports and extracurricular activities.

But in order for your child to have these experiences, you must first find the right school for them, and apply. 

When applying to independent schools, the skills of prospective students are evaluated, their life experiences and aptitudes considered. Tests are often taken, interviews with admissions and school administration are completed, and then parents, rightfully nervous and impatient, wait for an answer to arrive.

Applying doesn't need to be stressful, though—not if you take your time to find the right fit and consider your child's needs along the way.

"I have met with parents who make this their full-time job…and the anxiety that they create in their children as a result is not helpful," says educational consultant Judy Winberg, Education Consultant with Toronto-based Options in Education.

In other words, listen to what your child wants. The older a child is the more involved in the process they should be, suggests Winberg. "I always say - especially in children up to Grade 6 - don't give them the power to make the choice themselves because with that comes the responsibility, and if it doesn't work out then the child's going to think they've made a mistake."

Researching prospective schools

Before you can choose a school, it's important you research the available options to determine where your child might find the most success.

"It's important for the parents to do their homework," says Chantal Kenny, executive director of admission for Upper Canada College, a boarding school, in Toronto, Ontario. "I would start, personally - in this day and age - with a web search. You can gain so much from websites and from the way schools present themselves, and you can dig a little deeper as well before you engage in conversation with the different people at the schools."

A web search will help you familiarize yourself with the options that are out there and give you an idea of what's around that will fit your child's unique needs. School websites will give you an idea of what each institution is all about and offer a starting point in determining which ones may be a fit for your child. This step should be done early. 

Many independent schools require a year's lead-time, meaning you should start considering where you want to apply the summer or fall a year before you want your child to attend. The applications at Upper Canada College, for example, are due the December prior to admission; deadlines at other schools may be earlier or later.

Each school is unique, so exploring what's out there is important.

School visits

Once you've searched online, narrow your choices down to a few and then visit the schools that seem like the best fit. Usually a visit to the school, particularly through an open house which most schools host annually, will help parents determine an appropriate environment for their child.

Some families apply to more than one school, she adds. And that's something Winberg, for one, recommends. "My thinking there is you can't - pardon the cliché - put all your eggs in one basket," she says. "It's a great, great disappointment if someone's only applied to one school and then they don't get in for some reason. So I would apply to two or three, but I wouldn't go crazy."

Applying to too many schools can get stressful, and it can also get expensive. Most schools have application fees attached, so Winberg suggests that setting a budget for the application process might also be a good idea for some parents.

Bear in mind that many schools have waiting lists and they accept applications more than a year in advance. Some schools also have very specific application deadlines; be sure to use our application calendar as a guide.

What schools might ask for in your application:
  • A written application detailing your child's personality, academic history (for upper years), your financial standing, and your family history
  • A school visit or tour
  • An in-person interview with you, your child, and an admissions team
  • An entrance exam (upper year)

Preparing the application

Once you've chosen the private schools you want to apply to it's time to fill out applications. As long as you have all of your deadline dates straight — and all supporting documentation, like teacher recommendations from your child's current school, for example — filling out applications is pretty straightforward.

Admission advisors recommend giving as much information as possible on the application, including learning disabilities, advanced learning abilities, or anything else that might identify the need for special attention in the classroom.

School admissions departments consistently say it's not in the student's best interest to hide any special needs that they may require. By being open and transparent it can help provide schools with the information they need to make sure they can meet your needs and your son or daughter gets the right attention for classroom success. 

And if you've missed the application deadline for any reason, don't give up completely. While it may be tough in the more sought-after schools to apply outside of deadline dates, others are more flexible—and either way, it never hurts to ask. "Contact the school to find out if there's availability," suggests Edwards.

You can also download our handy Application Workbook to help you plan and keep track of month-to-month tasks when applying to private schools.

Meeting schools face-to-face: the interview

While filling out the application is an important part of the process, so is the interview. Most independent schools will want some face-to-face time with prospective students, either with their parents presents or on their own.

Depending on the age of the child and the school itself, this might be a formal interview or could be something less official. "In terms of the interview itself, it's very much a dialogue," Kenny says, referring specifically to Upper Canada College's interview process. "It's a very open conversation—there are no set questions that really have a yes and no answer, it's about us digging deeper and probing and allowing the students to feel comfortable in the interview process so we can get to know them better."

Each school has its own set of criteria that they will look for in the interview. Kenny says she looks for several characteristics, including intellectual curiosity and a love of learning, as well a sense that students are interested in getting involved in the community and can both get along with their peers and feel comfortable in the company of adults.

Up until Grade 3 at Upper Canada College parents are in the room during the interview - in fact, it's referred to as a family visit. From Grade 4 on interviews are held one-on-one.

"They're nervous. It's natural to be nervous," Kenny adds. So what can parents do to help your child prepare for the interview, to maybe take away some of those nerves?

"I would do a bit of rehearsal," says Winberg. "If you have a very young and shy child... you'd better prepare them for it, because that could just cause a kid to clam up and not say a word."

It might help to put that shy child - who may not have experience talking to other adults - in front of a neighbour or family friend who they don't know well, she says, just to get them used to the idea of conversing with a stranger.

And don't be afraid to call the school ahead of time to talk about the interview and what might be asked, Winberg adds. Finally, while practice may be helpful she also suggests knowing when to stop - don't practice to the point where they'll sound rehearsed. "And not to the point of causing them anxiety," she adds.

Standardized testing and results

Kids might dread them, but tests also help give schools a sense of the students applying. Many schools will rely on past report cards but depending on the school and student's age, independent schools will use in-house or standardized testing to determine where your child stands academically compared to other students of his or her age. How much weight each school puts on the test's final outcome varies across the board, but it's only one factor in the overall assessment of a student. "We're looking at the whole student," says Kenny. "We weigh all of the criteria equally."

While Kenny herself discourages any special tutoring - it often just creates anxiety - in the case of standardized tests familiarizing your child with the format of the exam they'll be taking might help to make them feel more comfortable come test day. For example, the SSAT - or Secondary School Admission Test - is one of the more popular standardized tests that independent schools use anywhere between Grades 5 and 11. Prep materials for that test are available online to help students familiarize themselves with its format, says Karen Smith, communications director with SSATB, the non-profit organization that runs the test.

"For the parent, what they can do is go over test-taking strategies with their child, help them practice," Smith says. "Simulate an actual test in a timed environment, go over errors that your child makes on the test and help them see if they can figure out the right answers."

Parents should also help kids keep the importance of the test in perspective, Smith adds. "It is only one part of the application," she says.

A waiting game

With your applications in, and the tests and interviews done, the next step is just waiting it out to see if your child gets into their school of choice. But don't sweat it too much, Winberg suggests. "I always say the year before they get into a private school, the child should be concentrating on that year. If the kid's in Grade 3, they should be thinking about Grade 3 and not Grade 4," she says.

Dealing with schools’ responses and final steps

When the responses from schools do start coming in it can go one of many ways, of course. Parents should be careful not to personalize any disappointment if their child doesn't get accepted. "I think one of the realities is that some schools just get way more applications than they have spots for, and we need to assure a child that it's not their fault, that they're not to blame, that they're not disappointing us," Winberg says. "And it's important for a parent not to badmouth the current school, because if the child has to stay at the current school they won't have gained anything by the parent having told them what a bad school it is."

In a lot of cases, there's also the chance - if a child didn't get in this time around — that there will be other opportunities to apply again, adds Kenny. "Young students who are applying are constantly changing and developing," she says. "They might just need a little bit of time."

On the other hand, getting accepted can come with stresses too. Some independent schools in specific areas will often coordinate their responses together so that parents can make an informed choice knowing where their child stands with all of the schools they've applied to. But there can be cases too where they might still be waiting to hear back from their school of choice, uncertain what to do with the acceptances in hand until they know where the preferred school stands.

Even though deadlines may be looming and schools are waiting for your response, Winberg says not to panic if that happens to you. A simple phone call to the school you've already heard from could do the trick. "Just pick up the phone and say 'here's the situation — I really just need a little time,'" she says.

What's next?

So you've got the offer and you've accepted it. What's next?

Make sure you know the deadlines for fees, Winberg suggests. Other than that, Kenny adds, just relax and get to know your child's new school better. Some schools—like Upper Canada College—host days meant to do just that for new students, where the children can get to know the peers they'll be sharing the classroom with come September, and where parents can get more comfortable with the school themselves.

If your school doesn't offer events like those, then you can help your child get to know the school better. "If the child is really excited, then great," Winberg adds. "If the child is nervous about it perhaps you can get the names of other children that are going, arrange for your kids to meet. Take your kids there during the summer, let them walk around and feel comfortable. If they have a summer camp, maybe you could think of enrolling them there."

Other than that, it's just a matter of waiting for September to arrive and for the experience to begin.

You can also download our handy Application Workbook to help you plan and keep track of month-to-month tasks when applying to private schools.

In summary: expert advice

  • Submit applications early. Once you’ve made your school choices, don’t put off applying.
  • Be open to options. Don’t pin all your or your child’s hopes on one particular school. Your child would likely prosper at more than one school and several schools might be an appropriate fit for your family.
  • Look beyond the bells and whistles. Consider whether they are important to you. Riding stables or a skating rink may be impressive, but are these your child’s interests?
  • Be realistic about your child's academic abilities. Don’t push them into a school where they will feel overwhelmed.
  • Be honest and upfront. Don’t withhold pertinent information about your child. The goal is to ensure his or her needs can be met at the school.
  • Don't stress out your child about the entrance exam. Be prepared to deal with less than stellar results and remember most schools will consider more than just test scores.
  • Be clear about what you want. If you are not prepared for your child to be assigned two hours of homework a night, don’t sign up for a school where this would be expected.
  • Ask about extracurricular activities. These are an important component of many private and independent schools. Find out the level of participation expected and consider how this suits your child.
  • Find out what's expected of parents. Expectations vary and you want to be comfortable with the level of involvement and type of contribution.
  • Ask lots of questions. Admissions officers expect and welcome them, so go in with a written checklist.
  • Inquire about financial assistance if this is a concern. Bursaries or other financial support might be available.

Further reading:

—Lisa Van de Ven
Private School Expos
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