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Independent School Admissions: It's About the Kids, After All

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This has been a stressful weekend in Lake Woebegone and other communities where parents hopeful for their children, above average or maybe not. In many metropolitan areas March 10 (or so) marks the date on which independent school admission decisions are made known to anxious children and their more anxious parents.

The New York Times and other media do a fine job of reporting on the frenzy, which in the Big Apple begins with admission even to public preschools and kindergartens. Admission to the right place, parents believe, sets in motion a chain of happy outcomes, like the switches of a rail route lining up to ensure that the Offspring Express arrives unimpeded at the plush depot called Success.

Cynical as such scenarios might make us, we might have a bit of pity for those who live in markets where admissions are so selective that some households go all out of balance in the quest for the One and Only School. It isn't healthy, but the popular mind connects this sort of obsession to wealth and snobbery until it becomes only a pathetic, or maddening, joke.

I would point out that this quest, at bottom, is about children, and if you are reading this you are likely to be someone who cares about them. It's also about schools and teachers--the institutions and men and women who have chosen to devote their lives and energies to looking after children. They didn't ask for the process to be like this, and as much as some might relish the prospect of a carefully selected student body, they didn't mean for the selection to take on the trappings of the crazed college application process, with test preppers, interview coaches, and high-priced advisers buffing and polishing kids and parents alike to make the perfect impression, to present the perfect application.

The schools and the teachers just want there to be good kids in the desks, and they want just as badly for there to be enough money in the financial aid budget to ensure both diversity and quality. (In many areas independent schools shy away from merit scholarships, incidentally, and several services are available to help families and schools toward equitable need-based financial aid offers.) So far, at least, I haven't sniffed out any outright efforts by independent schools to inflate application numbers in the way that colleges do with mass-mailed "priority" or "snap apps," although the coming of high-profile for-profit independent schools may, sadly, alter this.

In fact, the notion of narrowing a wide "funnel" of many applications down to a narrow spigot of acceptances is losing favor among the smarter people in independent school advancement. If every school is different, and most try hard to differentiate themselves by values and programs, then a better approach to enrollment management involves clarifying the school's messages in order to connect with families who share the school's beliefs and aspirations and will be enthusiastic about its methods. Find these families, and you might actually have fewer applicants but more completed applications and a higher yield among admitted students. You will also, of course, make life easier in the long run for administrators and teachers, reducing surprise and disapproval in subsequent conversations about the child's experience.

A smart "progressive" school, thus, discourages applications from those who want only traditional programs. Schools embracing racial and cultural diversity avoid applications from families uncomfortable with such environments. It's not a perfect system, but it allows schools to highlight their unique values and methods rather than to try to be all things to all people.

None of this, of course, can stop the admission season from being a time of tears and elation. Although the median "accept" rate of National Association of Independent Schools member schools is 67% (source: NAIS Member School Facts At A Glance 2012-2013) and the range of schools in most markets makes it likely that there is an independent school for almost every kid (financial aid permitting, I am bound but regret to say), there are thin envelopes as well as thick ones.

As the media dine out on the frenzy--as they will absolutely feast in a few weeks when Harvard inevitably announces yet another record level of selectivity--let's remember the kids. In the end this is about their education, even if some parents forget this in the hullabaloo. And teachers and administrators in independent schools will be at their daily, fundamental task of making sure that these kids get an experience that is worthy not of an overhyped process but of them as human beings.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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