By Kris Langetieg, Director of Secondary School Counseling
The start of the school year is always one of my favorite times of the year. As faculty members and students return to campus, or perhaps arrive for the first time, there is a noticeable excitement in the air. For students and families who are embarking upon the admissions process to independent secondary schools, this time is doubly exciting, incorporating a combination of eagerness, urgency and exploration.
Secondary school counseling teams, like the one of which I am a member, and families across the world spend countless hours investigating and discussing the keys to a “perfect” application. Applicants tirelessly seek out a mystical “secret” ingredient to place themselves in higher regard than their fellow applicants. I, too, pondered this as an applicant 25 years ago, but the more time I spend working with students and admissions offices across the country, the better I understand that there are a few truths that lead to success in a process that holds no guarantees.
You must have a growth mindset. It is no coincidence that the best schools are designed to empower their students to seek out and embrace challenges. Students who are willing to leave their comfort zones, try new things, and embrace constructive criticism have an opportunity to grow in myriad ways. This extends beyond the traditional confines of a classroom and can be applied to athletic teams, the stage, a canvas, and anywhere else you can imagine. Students who are not afraid to fall, dust themselves off, and try again are going to eventually find niches and success. They will most likely also be more willing to offer a hand or a pat on the back to a friend who is facing similar challenges. Finding ways to emphasize a growth mindset on applications is a definite advantage for applicants.
"The secondary school application process is such an exciting time, but it must be undertaken with an intentionality that extends beyond website searches and pursues substance over prestige." Kris Langetieg
This extends to the next area of importance, a collaborative spirit. Independent schools, and more specifically boarding schools, are structured to be community minded and character driven. They are, of course, looking for talented young men and women who will excel in the classroom and across a variety of programs, thus inspiring their peers and drawing favorable attention to their institutions; however, even the most exceptional scholars, artists, athletes, and musicians will be expected to put their teams first, listen to the opinions of others, and hopefully be willing to set aside their own personal accolades for the best interests of their communities or teams. Talent is talent, but how it is applied often makes a bigger difference. Recommendation forms should certainly explore applicable academic and extracurricular skills, but they should also emphasize character and collaborative skills. Students who understand and prioritize this are in high demand.
Finally, “fit” is often the most important factor in the secondary school search. But, what does “fit” mean? Of course, this is the appropriate match between an applicant and a school, which for an institution means academic and extracurricular alignment; however, it also means that the student, and in many cases the parent(s) as well, get “that special feeling” when they are on campus. Through connections with an interviewer, tour guide, or program head—not to mention being generally drawn to a campus community—applicants and families should try to find a match, one that will consequently lead to greater success from start to finish. To achieve “fit,” applicants and families need to set aside preconceived notions, and more importantly, superficial rankings. Instead, they must genuinely and astutely assess a school for how it truly matches a student--not a bumper sticker or perceived transaction. Ultimately, if college is the end goal, and it always should be, a student will be better served by finding a school where he or she can excel, and this is driven by “fit.”
The secondary school application process is such an exciting time, but it must be undertaken with an intentionality that extends beyond website searches and pursues substance over prestige. You never know what you might find if you set aside biases or reputations—many of which or outdated either positively or negatively—and truly look at the depth and scope of a school through a lens that relates to the child and family. While applicants are never guaranteed a particular result, if they keep an open mind and genuinely look closely at a variety of communities, making a successful match that lasts for a student’s entire secondary education is possible.