A Voice in the Secondary School Admissions Process

The most powerful tool for secondary school admission is an applicant’s own voice. As secondary school consultants, we spend considerable time speaking with admissions officers trying to determine what it is that attracts them to an applicant. The obvious answers are strong SSAT scores and grades, but even they will acknowledge that there are no magic numbers. They review each applicant holistically, so there is a wide range of scores and GPAs which are acceptable for a successful applicant. Across the board, all secondary schools are looking for students with a strong voice who clearly articulate their interests as well as a genuine passion for attending the school.

Develop a voice in the Secondary school admissions process

Develop a voice in the Secondary school admissions process

The applicant has two opportunities to speak to the admissions office - one through the application and one through the interview. A student’s voice is found in the written words on the application essays and the short answers. Many schools use the SAO application which is similar to the common application for college. This one application will be forwarded to most boarding and day schools. There are four 250 word short answer questions which ask, for example, What reading have you enjoyed most and why?, or What are the reasons you want to attend independent school and what can you contribute to the school? A student must also prepare one 500 word essay chosen from a group of five.  An example of one essay is If you could spend the day with any 2 people - real or fictional, living or not, famous or not - who would those 2 people be and why would you choose them? How would you spend your day and what topics would you hope to talk about? Some schools also have supplemental essay questions, and others may use their own application with different essays. Both the short answer questions and the essays ask that the student is introspective, creative, and unique. The essay and short answers are the student’s opportunity to differentiate themselves from all of the other applicants. It is a way to speak to the admissions officers without being in front of them. The most difficult part of this is that most middle school students shy away from being different and hope to simply fit in with their peers. The challenge in these questions is to help the student understand and articulate what makes them unique. Developing a voice takes time and discussion; it can be helpful for someone to ask the student some probative questions to assist in the self-discovery process. This person can also help the student by guiding them through the editing and revision process.

Students must interview at every school where they are applying. This is a daunting requirement for most twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who are accustomed to communicating through text and Instagram. Simply said, the art of conversation has been lost on many students because of social media. Just as students prepare for standardized tests, they should also start early to develop their interview skills.  Students can benefit from being coached on the basics of presentation, shaking hands, and eye contact as well as how to elaborate and clearly tell their story. They can also learn how to passionately and genuinely show their interest in the programs and activities offered by the secondary school. Routinely, we have heard from admissions officers that the student did not seem engaged during the interview or excited about attending the school. Developing a unique voice, whether through writing an essay or interviewing, takes time and work and should be started as early as possible to best prepare the student for the competitive secondary school process. A student must write something or say something which leaves the admissions officer thinking, “I need this student at my school. He or she will add great value and shape our community.”

In order to make the secondary school process manageable and stress-free, a student should have a realistic list of schools to which to apply. This should be based on the best fit, not the prestige of the school’s name. By visiting a school, students can learn about the school’s culture and values and whether they would feel comfortable on campus.  Unlike college where students can rely on Naviance or the countless books which rate the colleges based on scores and grades to give a student a sense of their chances for admissions, no such tools exist for secondary school. There are some valuable resources such as Boardingschoolreview.com which categorizes the schools based on variables such as SSAT scores, percentage of students on financial aid, and percentage of boarding students. It is important to remember that these are only informal reference points and often gleaned from a small sample size. This site is valuable because families can compare qualities and requirements of secondary schools in which they are interested. Another resource is The Association of Boarding Schools, www.boardingschools.com. Here families can find out about admissions fairs as well as school features and contact information.

Unlike the college process where students have designated guidance counselors to help them, an applicant for secondary school is often left to navigate the process on his or her own. Students have the optimal chance of success in the secondary school process by working hard in school to ensure strong grades, preparing early with regular and formal SSAT practice, and developing a solid, realistic list of schools. Students can soar to the top of the applicant pile with a powerful voice, in their application and interview, clearly and passionately articulating who they are and why they want to attend a particular school.


To chat with us about how Success Prep Partners can help your student achieve improved educational or career success, please contact us at info@successpreppartners.com.