Mistakes parents make in applying to private schools.

We work with many families applying to private schools, and there are a number of mistakes that families make throughout the process.  I have listed the top 10 mistakes we see every year.


  1. Getting a late start.  Ideally parents should start researching and visiting schools at least a year before they plan to apply (two years before the student would enter a new private school).  The process is daunting, and it takes time to research schools, determine which schools are a good fit for your child, and prepare your child for the test.  Often parents see their child’s peers applying to private school and they jump on the bandwagon at the last minute, not wanting to be left behind.  These families usually do not have a good outcome.
  2. Picking a school for the wrong reasons.  The school may have a great reputation, it may be one of the “top” schools in the area, a large percentage of the school’s graduates many go on to attend Ivy League schools, neighbors and friends may send their children to the school, etc.  This does not mean that the school is a good fit for your child.  Be realistic about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and what they need.  Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole is not going to work.
  3. Applying to too many schools.  Many parents do not do enough research, and they have not narrowed down the list of schools they plan to apply to, and the process becomes unmanageable.  Applying to eight schools is a quick way to drive you and your child crazy.  It is a lot of work.  Chances are these schools are very different from one another, and several are not a good fit for your child.  If you get an early start and do your research you should have a manageable list of schools to apply to (3-4 at most).
  4. Setting the child up to fail.  Parents can sometimes be unrealistic about their child’s chances of gaining admission to some very competitive schools.  These schools are not a good fit for their child, but they insist on applying anyway.  They have no “safety” school or “likely” school on their list, only “stretch” schools.  Their child receives a handful of rejection letters and no acceptance letters.  This demoralizes the child, and they feel that they have failed, and that no school wants them.  This is not a good situation to be in, and I suggest avoiding this at all costs.
  5. Picking a school based on sports or other activities.  Your child is going to school to get an education, not to specialize in a sport or an activity.  Students who play a sport in middle school may no longer stick with this sport through high school.  Many parents believe that if their child is successful playing a sport they will receive a scholarship in college.  The chances a child will be offered a scholarship in college for athletics is very low.  According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, the chances of your child being offered an athletic scholarship is less than 1%. 
  6. Thinking that a private school is a good fit for a child with special needs.  There are some private schools that are geared towards educating students with special needs, but most private schools are not set up to adequately assist students with special needs.  Many parents believe that since private schools have smaller class sizes and offer more personal attention that they will be able to meet their child’s special needs.  Often this is not the case.  Be honest with the schools about your child’s needs.  The schools will tell you what they can and cannot accommodate.  It is best to be upfront about this during the applications process so that you are not trying to find a new school for your child because the school was not able to meet their needs.
  7. Not preparing the child for the test.  The private school admissions tests are quite challenging.  The material is often beyond grade level.  It is very rare that a child can take the test with no preparation and score at the top level (which is what many elite private schools like to see).  Often the math topics are 1-2 years ahead of where most public and private school students are working at their current school.  Students who are strong readers tend to do better on the verbal sections of the test.  Most students can benefit from preparation for the essay, given that they are required to write the essay in a tight timeframe.  Many parents mistakenly think that because their child is doing well in school that the test will be easy for them.  This is often not the case.  The more familiar the test is to the student, and the more practice they have with the material, the better they will do on the test.  Don’t make the mistake of sending your child off to take the test with little or no preparation. 
  8. Trying to pull strings to get the child into a private school.  Many parents are looking for “a leg up” in the admissions process.  A question parents often ask is if they should have their friends, neighbors and/or colleagues who have a relationship with a private school write a recommendation letter for their child.  When this question was posed to admissions staff they almost unanimously agreed that parents should only submit recommendations from people who know the student very well.  If the only exposure the person writing the letter has to your child is seeing your child’s picture on your desk at work, then do not have them write a letter on behalf of your child.
  9. Not asking for financial aid if it is really needed.  Many families are afraid to ask for financial aid when they apply, as they think this will reduce their chances of being accepted to a private school.  Most private schools are not “needs blind”.  They cannot afford to meet 100% of the financial aid needs of the students they would like to admit.  Parents need to be honest about their need for financial aid.  Some parents believe that if they do not ask for aid the first year, they can apply for aid once their student is enrolled for subsequent years.  This is a false assumption.  Schools budget financial aid by class.  Many schools will send you a letter if you do not request financial aid the first year, explaining that only a major change in circumstances (generally a job loss or a death in the family) will make families eligible for aid.  Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to take your child out of a school they love because of financial issues.
  10. Inundating the admissions office with information about the child.  Some parents believe that if they provide the admissions staff with as much information as possible it will increase the chances that their child will be admitted.  This strategy can backfire.  There is a saying in admissions: “The thicker the folder the thicker the kid.”  Don’t send material that is not requested.  Videos of student performances, student papers, copies of awards, numerous letters of recommendation, and other material parents may want to submit to try to impress the admissions staff are generally not necessary.  The interview is a good time to highlight these accomplishments.