What private schools look for

The dos and donts of the admissions process

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 by Bryan Ide

The admissions process can be nerve-wracking for any family. The various choices of schools, the competition, the flurry of information (and the misinformation)—it can all be somewhat overwhelming. You want the best for your child and you are prepared to make sacrifices, but at the end of the day you need to gain admission. And at a number of private schools, especially the more popular ones, the competition to get in is only getting fiercer. Therefore, it’s important for you to know what makes an attractive applicant and how you can keep your child and your family in the running.

The Right Fit

The term “right fit” is often spoken by various private schools, but what does this mean? Remember that each school has its own mission, educational philosophy, identity, history, and culture. Schools want students who will fit in their respective unique environments. The most important aspect is whether a student is admissions-appropriate or admissions-ready. In other words, is the student capable of handling the requirements of the school? Can the student manage the academic, athletic, and extracurricular programs that the school provides? Would the student be a good culture fit? Does the student demonstrate the appropriate level of maturity? These are the main factors that go into determining whether a child is suitable for admission.

The right fit also applies to whether or not the student actually wants to attend the school (or whether it is the parents who are pushing for admission). Before becoming an admissions strategist, I worked in the institutional advancement field at my alma mater, St. George’s School (in Montreal), one of Canada’s leading independent schools and one of the most competitive to gain admission. One of the roles I held was being an admissions and scholarship interviewer. I will never forget an interview I had with a Grade 6 applicant. The boy and his parents were in the meeting room with me and the interview seemed to be going fine. However, when I asked him why he wanted to come to St. George’s, suddenly a scowl appeared on his face and he pointed to his parents and huffed, “They made me!” I can replay those three seconds in slow motion and pinpoint the exact moment his parents’ hearts sank as they realized that their hopes for getting in had just extinguished. The disappointed looks on their faces were crushing. But hey, private schools want students who actually want to be there. It’s amazing how honest some kids can be!

Bumpy, Not Well-Rounded

You’ve probably heard that some schools are looking for or are trying to create “well-rounded” students – that is those students who are good at academics, athletics, arts, and extracurricular activities. In my mind “well-rounded” is probably one of the most tired phrases. Let’s think about this strategically. If all applicants are well-rounded, then they run the risk of looking more or less the same. If your child’s application is similar to others, how is he or she going to stand out among the competition? So then, another factor in being admissions-appropriate is having a unique talent. Perhaps your child is a great athlete, or amazing chess player, or gifted artist, or musical whiz. Your child’s unique talent or gift will be of interest to the school and may give you an edge. I tell my students and their families that schools are not looking for well-rounded kids, but rather bumpy kids – those who have something special to differentiate themselves from the rest.

The Whole Family

Parents, if you think that only your child needs to prepare for the admissions process, think again. In fact, you have just as much homework as your child does since many private schools take the whole family into consideration when making their admissions decisions. Many schools now interview the parents, especially because of the crucial role they play in their child’s success at school. Moreover, they want to know that you’re applying for the right reasons and that you share their educational philosophy. In the end, you need to be on the same team as them when it comes to your child’s education.

I’ll share another story from my days as an interviewer at St. George’s School. On a number of occasions when I would ask parents why they wanted their children to attend St. George’s, the typical answers I would get would be “It’s the best” or “It’s number one” or “I want my kid to go to Harvard.” These types of answers don’t sit well with private schools because a) they show that the family doesn’t share the educational philosophy of the school, b) they don’t demonstrate how the family is the right fit for the school, and c) they suggest that the family is only using the school as a means to a particular post-secondary institution.

Getting Involved

Many private schools want parents who are engaged in their child’s education, but it goes beyond being concerned with just your child. It means being an active member of the school community and supporting the school’s mission. In the advancement world, we called this the Three Ts: time, talent, and treasure. In other words, it means volunteering your time and energy to support school activities and initiatives, whether that’s being a grade parent or chaperone, helping to organize the school fair, or sitting on various school committees. In terms of treasure, private schools value parents’ financial support in providing the best possible resources and learning environment.

The Hidden Agenda

A number of private schools will tell you that they’re looking for kids who can manage the workload, take advantage of the programs the school has to offer, and get involved in school life. And while this is certainly true, there are a number of other admissions factors that schools may not readily discuss. I call this the Hidden Agenda.

Ethnicity: In striving to create a diverse student body, private schools may take ethnicity into consideration. In some cases, one or two ethnic groups will comprise a significant portion of the applicant pool. In these instances, I would argue, ethnicity will play a role in the admissions process. Let’s say your family belongs to one of these significantly-represented ethnic groups, what then? I would say that your competition isn’t the families from other ethnic groups but rather those from your same ethnic group.

Money: Many private schools will automatically tell you that you cannot buy your way into the school. In other words, a sizeable donation will not increase your family’s chances of being admitted. However, that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it’s all in the wording. Yes, you cannot buy your way in. However, at many private schools, the customary practice is to have newly-admitted families meet with the advancement (a.k.a. fundraising) office. The ultimate objective is to have the family provide financial support. So while you may not provide a donation upfront during the admissions process, demonstrating your family’s capacity and potential interest to give may make you a more attractive applicant.

Connections: Often times, various types of connections will help your application. Connections may come in the form of good words put in by members of the school community including current parents, donors, alumni, and board members. These individuals provide valuable reference checks for the school at the same time as serving as advocates for the family that is applying.

Culture: I talked about right fit before, but there is a little more to it. As part of the admissions process, many schools will try to determine whether or not the family fits into the unique culture of the school. One way that schools can assess this culture fit is through language. I’m not talking about English or French here, but rather your vocabulary. Just as doctors use medical language in a hospital or lawyers use legal language in a courtroom, admissions people have their own unique language that they use in the educational setting. If you know how to speak their “language” you show that you’re the right culture fit.

Dos and Don’ts

Do prepare: There’s a saying in the admissions world – the difference between a successful application and unsuccessful application is preparation. For some tips on how to best prepare your child, I invite you to read my other article that I wrote for Our Kids on the importance of preparation. The best preparation usually involves allowing your child to discover his or her passions and to develop his or her strengths.

Do your homework: Research, research, research. Whichever schools your family chooses, remember to research each school to understand their mission statements, educational philosophies, and programs. It is crucial to know the facts, figures, and history of each school to which you are applying. Imagine how poorly it looks when parents can’t even answer simple questions like “What is the school motto?” or “Who is the Headmaster?” And yes, I’ve witnessed this myself when parents have no background knowledge of the school to which they are applying; only that it is the “best” (whatever that means).

Do create the compelling case: The most important part of the application is making the compelling case as to why your family is a good fit for the school. Each school will have its own admission criteria so your job is to figure out how you meet most of, if not all, those criteria and to think about how best you can articulate your message.

Do be wise in choosing an admissions consultant: A growing number of families are turning to admissions consultants to help them with their applications. Certainly, some consultants are valuable resources guiding families through the often-confusing and complex world of private school admissions. If you decide to go with a consultant, make sure that he or she takes a student-centered, right-fit approach. In other words, the consultant should advise you on schools that are the right fit for your child. Also, make sure your consultant has genuine knowledge of the admissions world gained from actually having worked in private school admissions.

Don’t focus solely on name brand: It’s a message that I keep on sharing with parents and students, and I’ll keep on sharing it. There is no such thing as the best school. That’s right, there is no such thing as the best school, but rather the best school for your child. Focus on finding the right-fit school where your child will flourish and enjoy learning. Of course, the “name brand” private schools have built up a reputation for excellence, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the right schools for your child. Your child’s happiness factor at school outweighs the prestige factor, plain and simple.

Don’t underestimate the competition: At some of the more competitive private schools, there will be anywhere between three to five students competing per spot. Therefore, you need to think strategically about how your child and your family will stand outwhat does your child offer in terms of talents and how can you properly articulate those to the school?

Don’t despair: At the end of the admissions cycle, some families will be elated and some will be disappointed. What happens if you’re one of those latter families? To some parents, their precious little one is a super kid, talented artist, top of the class, genius in the making, future Tiger Woods, and so on. What do you mean he didn’t get in? How could the other kids who aren’t as good as him have gotten in? How could the school make such a big mistake? I think one of the hardest things for parents is the first time their child “fails” at something. And being declined admission is often times a family’s first “failure” for their child, the first instance where their super kid may not necessarily be so super. To these families, and to any family that doesn’t succeed the first time, I say try again. Continue to provide your child with the best preparation and apply next time round. In my mind, you only fail if you don’t try again. And I know a thing or two about failureI performed very poorly on the Grade 3 entrance exam to St. George’s but managed to do well in the application process the following year and was accepted to Grade 4.

Becoming More Attractive

Hopefully you will have gained some insight into the private school admissions process. Now you know what private schools are looking for in attractive candidates. As you navigate the world of admissions, keep in mind how you can make your family one of the more attractive ones.

Bryan Ide, the Education Director of Key Admissions, is one of Canada’s most qualified and experienced admissions experts. He graduated from St. George’s School and holds a BA from Cornell University and an MA from Columbia University. He has worked in institutional advancement for both St. George’s School and the Sauder School of Business at UBC. While at St. George’s, Bryan served as an admissions and scholarship interviewer. He is the past chair of Cornell’s alumni admissions committee for British Columbia. 

Find Private Schools:

In the spotlight:

List of private schools


Port Hope, Ontario — At TCS, an excellent education means students remain open to learning throughout life and doing something positive with what they have learned. View School Profile.

  • AP Capstone school with extensive AP course offerings
  • Rural campus setting with 100 acres of fields and facilities
  • Academic and service learning travel education programs
  • Personalized guidance and support for academics and health and wellness
  • State-of-the-art athletic centre
5 to 12 (Coed)
$28,000 to $77,500
Avg. Class:
12 to 16
Trinity College School 28000 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Belleville, Ontario
  • JK to 12 Coed
  • $18,700 to $75,400

At Albert College, every student is an 'A' student. From Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 12 our students experience all 5 of the Albert 'A’ s; Academics, Arts, Athletics, Active Citizenship and Adventure programming.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
Albert College 18700 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $10,000 to $29,300

Located in the heart of Toronto, McDonald International Academy offers programs for grades 9 to 12 . Our average class size is 10 to 20 students.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
McDonald International Academy 10000 HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Stanstead, Quebec
    Dufferin Street/Willow Lane
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • $23,900 to $74,900

An English school in a French milieu, Stanstead College is located on the Quebec-Vermont border, offering rigorous university-prep, Grades 7 to 12, in a secure, family-focused learning environment.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
Stanstead College 23900 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Sherbrooke, Quebec
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • $30,000 to $75,710

Bishop's College School is an English boarding and day school for students in grades 7 through 12. Small in size and culturally diverse, BCS is an IB World School offering the IB DP and course certificates.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
Bishop's College School 30000 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Fort Erie, Ontario
    Townline Rd./Niagara Parkway
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • $42,425 to $50,425

Niagara Christian Collegiate offers both middle school and secondary school programs from Grades 6-12. Graduating students achieve top university placements around the world. We accept both day and boarding students.

  • Homestay/Boarding
  • Traditional
Niagara Christian Collegiate 42425 MiddleSchools HighSchools Homestay Boarding Coed
  • London, Ontario
    Richmond Street/King Street
  • 9 to 12 Girls/Coed
  • $25,600 to $32,000

A Canadian Private Secondary Boarding school, located in the heart of London, Ontario. LIA is authorized to grant the Ontario Secondary School Diploma and International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

  • Boarding
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
London International Academy 25600 HighSchools Boarding Boarding Girls Coed
  • Montverde, Florida(USA)
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • US $15,315 to US $52,925

Founded in 1912, Montverde Academy is an elite college preparatory school for students in grades Pre-K3 through post-graduate studies with a distinct student population from over 80 countries worldwide.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
Montverde Academy 15315 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Brantford, Ontario
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • $7,700 to $26,500

At Haven, we equip our students with critical thinking skills, a global perspective, and a respect for core values of honesty, loyalty, perseverance, and compassion.

  • Day/Boarding/eSchool
  • Traditional
Haven International School 7700 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding eSchool Coed
  • Montreal, Quebec
    De Maisonneuve West/Park Row West
  • K to 12 Coed
  • $22,550 to $43,550

At Kells, flexibility is the key. We develop programs allowing students to work within their comfort zone, which may be above, below or at grade level. The result is students who outperform even their own expectations.

  • Boarding/Day/Homestay
  • Traditional
Kells Academy 22550 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Homestay Coed
  • Windsor, Ontario
    Hwy 401/Cousineau Road
  • JK to 12 Coed
  • $10,950 to $50,000

JK- 12/IB/AP , inter-faith/R.C.co-ed day, and boarding located in Windsor, ON Family of Schools includes Nursery, Elementary and Secondary Schools, athletic facilities, performing arts wing (music and dance studios).

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
Académie Ste-Cécile International School 10950 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Wilcox, Saskatchewan
    Railway Ave/Rouleau St
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $11,000 to $54,600

Notre Dame is a private, independent co-educational high school with an exceptional educational & boarding experience with a balance of strong academic, athletic and spiritual growth in a safe & caring prairie community.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
Athol Murray College of Notre Dame 11000 HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Merrickville, Ontario
    St. Lawrence Street/Elgin Street
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $16,450 to $58,200

Merrick Preparatory offers grades 9-12 and a University Qualification Year to students preparing for successful admission to degree programs in the world's top universities, in a safe and secure family environment.

  • Boarding/eSchool/Day
  • Traditional
Merrick Preparatory School 16450 HighSchools Boarding eSchool Day Coed
  • Hamilton, Ontario
    Main St. W./Longwood Rd. S.
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $2,050 to $2,700 /course

Columbia International College is Canada’s largest private boarding school, offering Grade 9 to 12 programs. #1 in scholarships awarded by universities. The University of Toronto's official Global Partner School.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
Columbia International College 2050 HighSchools Day Day Boarding Coed
  • Gretna, Manitoba
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $6,285 to $26,435

Faith is at the center of all we do at MCI- from the court, to the stage, to the classroom. We work to provide a safe space for students to ask questions, dig deeper, grow into who God is calling them to be.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
Mennonite Collegiate Institute 6285 HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Markham, Ontario
    14th Ave/Kennedy
  • NS to 12 Coed
  • $8,200 to $41,500

Trillium School is a private school that offers programs from pre-school to grade twelve in Markham with Montessori-based kindergarten.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Montessori
Trillium School 8200 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Day Boarding Coed
  • Ottawa, Ontario
    Mariposa Avenue/Springfield
  • 4 to 12 Coed
  • $30,585 to $71,720

This traditional private school in Ottawa, Ontario offers Grades 4 to 12 with 100 boarding and 600 day school students. Tuition is from $30,585 to $71,720.

  • Homestay/Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
Ashbury College 30585 MiddleSchools HighSchools Homestay Boarding Day Coed
  • Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia
  • 8 to 12 Coed
  • $33,205 to $83,615

Beginning in Grade 8, our unique Shawnigan journey purposefully guides students through a distinct, unparalleled and bold educational experience on our stunning waterfront campus on Canada’s beautiful West Coast.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
Shawnigan Lake School 33205 HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Richmond, British Columbia
    Lansdowne Road/Kwantlen Street
  • 10 to 12 Coed
  • $22,000 to $37,950

MLWS-KPU offers a truly unique high school experience. Students receive the support and community of small high school classes along with the academic opportunities of learning within world-class university facilities.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
Maple Leaf World Schools - Canada 22000 Boarding Day Day Coed
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Keele St/Dundas St
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $1,200 to $27,120

Reputed Diverse Traditional Day School. 100% of students graduate and move on to excel in their Post Secondary Education and life. Extremely positive, caring, and knowledgeable teaching staff.

  • Boarding/eSchool/Homestay/Day
  • Traditional
Great Lakes College of Toronto 1200 HighSchools Boarding eSchool Homestay Day Coed
  • Markham, Ontario
    Woodbine Av./Hwy 7
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • $16,500 to $40,800

Since 2002, J. Addison has provided a stimulating education for students. Located at the corner of Woodbine and Valleywood Drive in Markham, ON, Canada, you will find our state-of-the-art 58,000 sq. ft. facility.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
J. Addison School 16500 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Markham, Ontario
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • $5,000 to $18,000 /semester

Markham, Ontario; IB School; OSSD; OSSD online credit course; NOIC ACADEMY’s annual university enrolment rate is 100% and more than 85% of graduates are admitted by University of Toronto.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
NOIC Academy 5000 HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Bracebridge, Ontario
  • 1 to 12 Coed
  • $6,400 to $28,000

Dewey’s educational goals follow the philosophies of John Dewey, preparing students through “student-centred learning" and "learning by doing", while emphasizing the cultivation of the "three New Liberal Arts".

  • eSchool/Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
Dewey Institute 6400 Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools eSchool Day Boarding Coed
  • Laval, Quebec
  • 7 to 12 Coed
  • $13,150 to $20,900

North Star Academy Laval is the only private English high school in Laval. We offer small classroom sizes for individualized attention. We teach not only for school but for life! Certificate of eligibility not required.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
North Star Academy 13150 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Rigaud, Quebec
    Rue Saint-Pierre/Rue Bourget
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • $4,700 to $35,000

Collège Bourget is a day & boarding school situated between Montreal & Ottawa. The school offers Quebec's french program from Grade 7 till Grade 11 and english program from Grade 10 till Grade 12.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
College Bourget 4700 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • Windsor, Nova Scotia
    College Rd/King St
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • $19,950 to $63,550

Benefitting from its safe and beautiful Nova Scotia location, King's-Edgehill facilitates the opportunity for every student to Be More – in the classroom, on the sports fields, on stage, in the community and beyond.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
King's-Edgehill School 19950 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Coed

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