How to Navigate the Private School Application Process

Posted by Liz Yee on 10/24/16 8:10 AM

Is your child outgrowing your current school or daycare? Maybe public school isn’t quite working or maybe you’re curious about other schools and finding that “just right” fit. While this school year has just begun, it isn’t too early to think about the next step in your child’s education.

In fact, if you are interested in looking at private schools, you need to work a year in advance. The process might seem daunting at first, especially if you want to apply to multiple schools, but it can be a rewarding process as well, so don’t panic before you begin!

Below are 11 suggestions for navigating the independent school search process and, hopefully, making it all a little easier to find the perfect school for your child.

Think about your values.

There are many, many schools to explore and get to know. Before you dive in, spend some time thinking about what qualities you hope to instill in your child.

  • What are your family’s values?
  • What qualities, experiences, and knowledge do you want your child to have at the end of their school experience?
  • What kind of community is important to you?
  • What size school and classes do you think will be best for your child?
  • What qualities do you think are important in a teacher?
  • Do you have opinions on curriculum or teaching methods?
  • What kind of school are you looking for? Preschool only? K-8 or K-12?

Make a list of what traits are important to you and use that as a guide as you search out schools.

Make a list of private schools to research.

Talk to friends and neighbors to create your list of school options. Don’t forget that Google is your friend. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) allows you to search their list of schools geographically, and Independent Education has a listing of schools in the DC area. Websites like Great Schools (national) and DC School Hub (local) are also great resources for learning more about a wide range of schools in your area.

Fairs are yet another way to familiarize yourself with the schools in your area. Schools set up booths where you can pick up materials and ask questions—some also offer helpful workshops. Here are few in the DC area:

Do the research.

You don’t need to attend a fair to research schools. Spend a few minutes on each school’s website to get a sense of its philosophy, mission, and curriculum. How does the school “feel” to you? Does their approach resonate with the values you’ve identified? Are you curious and excited to learn more? If so, make a note of it.


If you need a tool to keep your thoughts organized, download this handy excel spreadsheet to get you started.


Consider working with an educational consultant.

Some parents find that having an educational consultant to shepherd them through the process is worth it. Consultants can make the calls, inquire about spaces, and identify schools that might be a good fit for your child. Consultants are wonderful advocates for your child/family. Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources has a list of consultants of all types in the Washington, DC, area.

Register for a tour or open house.

Visiting a school is the best way to see if it’s a good match for your child. You’ll want to spend the months of October and November visiting schools so that you can narrow down your list and decide where you want to apply.

Private schools offer group or individual tours, or larger open houses. You’ll find that most schools have an online registration option, so get your calendar out and book yourself for some visits!

Take a hard look at your finances.

For some, funding a private education can be challenging financially. Be honest about what you might be able to contribute and become familiar with the school’s financial aid process. Note the financial aid application deadlines. Most schools have a set financial aid budget, so meeting the deadlines could mean the difference between getting a financial aid grant or not.


Narrow down your list of schools and start applications.

Now that you’ve done your research, attended some open houses, and learned more about the schools, you’re ready to apply. You might have added a few more schools to your list or removed some—that’s ok. Trust your gut about what schools feel right to you.

It is time consuming to apply to multiple schools, so make sure you set aside some uninterrupted time to do so. Most schools have an online application that requires you to set up an account first, so begin there. Then, take the time to complete each application in full and customize answers to make it evident you have a clear picture of the school and that it’s a good match for you and your child. Cutting and pasting may work for some answers, but others will require that you tailor your answers for each school.

Note your deadlines!

Schools that have a rolling admissions process review the application when it’s received and make a decision shortly thereafter. Schools with standard admissions processes set deadlines for applications, review them all at the same time, and then notify parents on a particular date.

It’s important to make sure you meet all of the application deadlines to ensure that your child will be considered in the admissions process at each school. The good news is that most independent schools have similar deadlines and notification dates. Tip: Determine which school has the earliest deadline, and get all your applications in by that date. That way, you don’t need to track multiple deadlines, and it never hurts to be early!

Start compiling the supporting paperwork.

The paperwork needed to complete an admissions application for your child can be daunting. If, however, you know in advance what is needed, it is a little easier to tackle! Most independent schools require similar documentation, so once you have the paperwork lined up, you’ll be able to provide it to any school that has openings. If you are able to get the materials together quickly, the process will move much more smoothly. Here are a few things to get started on early:

  • Admissions testing—This is required by many schools. Check the schools’ websites to get an idea of what test is required for each grade. Some schools are starting to move from requiring the WISC-IV to the WISC-V, and most schools are now using the WPPSI-IV, so have an idea of what most schools require. Though there are many testing sites in our area, it may take a few weeks to get in for your appointment. It takes another few weeks for the tester to write the report, so get the appointment scheduled ASAP.
  • Teacher recommendations and school transcript—Once you know what schools you’ll be applying to, check in with your child’s current school to find out how to get the process started. Be gracious and make it as easy as possible for the school to help. Be sure you know what forms are needed—many schools use a common recommendation form and require multiple recommendations for middle or high school applicants. Tip: Print the recommendation form(s) and provide stamped and pre-addressed envelopes!

Ensure that the application is complete.

Review the admissions pages of the schools’ websites to make sure you’re aware of everything that is needed for the application. Many schools also have an online system that tracks what applicants have submitted and what is missing.

If needed, book your parent interview or your child’s visit and do your best to be flexible. In most cases, admissions officers are working with hundreds of applicants!

Know that waiting is the hardest part.

Once you’ve completed the application process, there is a bit of waiting time before you hear about the school’s decision. As the decision date approaches, it doesn’t hurt to contact the school to let them know that you are still very interested.

The wait for a decision can be difficult. But, as you reflect back on your process, know that you did all you could to ensure your child has the best shot at enrolling in a great school!

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Private School Admissions

Liz Yee

Written by Liz Yee

Liz Yee has combined her passion for people and an award-winning marketing background to create her perfect job: director of admissions at Lowell School. You may find Liz observing in a classroom, giving a tour, crunching numbers, or strategizing around Lowell’s brand. Liz earned her BA in English and Communication Arts at North Park University in Chicago, IL, and her Masters of Public Administration with a specialty in marketing research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.