Unlocking the Big Mystery: How Do Private Schools Make Admissions Decisions?

Posted by Liz Yee on 12/13/19 4:01 PM

You’ve done all the hard work of applying to schools for your child—you’ve gone on all the tours, gotten the inside scoop from family and friends, submitted what seemed like a ream of paper to the admissions offices, analyzed your budget to make sure you can afford private school tuition, and fallen in love with a school.

Now you wait…

This can be one of the most challenging aspects of the admissions process—waiting to hear back. Will your child be offered a space at your top choice school? While you’re waiting, you might be wondering what the admissions committee at a school is actually doing—how do they make decisions about applicants and how will they evaluate your little one to determine if there is a match between the school and family?

The simple answer is that it is nuanced and quite complicated. But there are some basic factors and principles that schools use to build a cohort. To help you sleep at night, below are a few insights that might put your mind at  ease as you wait it out.

Why do we need to submit so much documentation?

Once the application has been submitted, admissions offices focus their time on fully understanding your child. They want to know your child as best they can before making a decision. Your child’s profile is built through a combination of documents and discussions, which may include:

Each piece of the applicant file gives us a little more information and helps to build out a picture of your child as a learner, as a friend, and as a potential member of our community. The more information we have, the more we can start to envision your child and family in our community.

Are some pieces of information considered more important than others?

Parents often wonder how schools weigh different aspects of their child’s application file. Parents ask me: “Does the testing weigh heavier than the student visit?” or “What if my little one has a hard time separating from me during their play visit? Will my child automatically be disqualified for admission?”

Every school will approach this differently depending on their process, expectations for applicants, and other factors. Ultimately, however, admissions committees spend quite a bit of time reviewing every single piece of information that is submitted during the application process. Trust me—we pour over all that paperwork! Because the admissions process is limited in time and scope, schools will scour the information to really understand your child.  

Important Note: When admissions professionals are reviewing the various part of an applicant’s file, they are also looking for consistency. If there are discrepancies between what the parents say, or what a teacher indicates and what was observed during a play visit, the admissions office will want to dig a little deeper.

What factors are considered in an admissions decision?

Ultimately, schools are trying to fill their classrooms and build cohorts of students that will thrive at the school. They need students who are leaders and followers. Outgoing personalities and introverts. Kids who are interested in the arts, athletics, foreign languages, and science. Kids who love math and those who love reading. The list could go on and on. In order to run a school with multiple offerings and exciting programs, they need students who can join a cohort and contribute positively to the overall school experience for everyone.

Pro Tip: Knowing what types of students excel (or struggle) at the school is a great question to ask during your parent interview. It will help you get a sense of what types of kids attend the school and if you can see your little one thriving.

Who is involved in making decisions?

Rarely does the admissions office make decisions about applicants in isolation. A variety of perspectives and opinions is essential in understanding the child’s academic style and social emotional needs, as well as building a cohort. Admissions committees take on many different forms, but may include the admissions director, head of school, athletic director or coaches, faculty representatives, and/or division directors. This list will vary from school to school. While you may be curious, it’s not too important to know the key players—just know that there are many!

How can I prepare for the decision?

It can be very difficult to wait to hear about a school’s decision, but when the decision does come, you will need to be prepared—emotionally and physically—to respond and make that all-important decision for your family.

Regionally, independent schools have agreed-upon dates when they make decisions public to families. If you’ve applied to multiple schools you’ll likely hear from all of them on the same day.

Generally, admissions committees make three decisions about applicants:

  • Admit—Yes! Your child has been accepted.
  • Waitlist/Waitpool—The admissions committee feels the school would be a good match for your child, but for various reasons, they don’t have space available right now or cannot offer your child a space. Most schools keep an active waitlist/waitpool in case an opening becomes available.

Knowing the difference between a waitlist and waitpool is important. A waitlist is just that—a ranked list of students who were not offered admission during the first round. A waitpool is slightly different in that each child is put into a pool and would be considered if an opening becomes available. Factors that would be considered when reviewing the waitpool are the gender balance of the existing cohort; the academic, social, and emotional profile of the cohort; and the diversity represented in the cohort.

  • Declined—For some specific reason, the admissions committee does not feel like the school is a good match for your child. If you are inclined to know more, it is certainly appropriate to reach out to the admissions director to know specifics. Having this conversation may also help guide your next steps in finding that just right fit. Obviously, this is not the decision that you hoped for, but if you find yourself in this position, there is usually a reason and ultimately, things work out for the best in the long run.

If you find yourself with multiple acceptances, now it comes time to really make a choice. If you’re curious how other parents have made their school choice, these tips might be helpful.


Title image: ID 9078698 © Yury Shirokov | Dreamstime.com

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 admissions@lowellschool.org, 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.