By Becca Gillis
You’ve done your research and found private high schools that interest you—maybe you even think you’ve found The One. No matter how much information you found online or in those snazzy brochures, attending a campus tour is a vital part of getting a true-to-life feel for a school. So how can you make the most of it?
Whether you’re with admissions staff or student tour guides, ask these ten questions on your private high school tours to make sure you leave with the information you really need.
1. What Is the Classroom Experience Really Like?
As you research high schools, you want to develop a clear understanding of what classes are offered, from the introductory to the advanced. While you might find course catalogs online (and if you don’t, ask!), it’s still helpful to ask specific questions about academic life during your high school tours. Admissions reps and tour guides can give you a sense of the academic ethos of the school and share other details that may not be included in a course catalog or the curriculum section of a high school’s website. What are their standout classroom memories? What have they been most excited or surprised to learn? How does the classroom experience evolve from ninth to twelfth grade? You’ll spend most of your time in class—make sure the school you choose offers the experience you want!
2. How Would You Describe the Culture of the School?
Don’t underestimate the importance of school culture; you may be there primarily for academics, but student life can have a palpable effect on your overall happiness and satisfaction with an institution. What’s the vibe like at school? What do students and teachers care about? How do they spend their time outside the classroom? Asking about the culture of a high school can shed light on social dynamics; how seriously students take things like academics, sports, and arts; and what the community values. All of these areas of student life can affect your experience just as much as your classes, so don’t hesitate to ask about them.
3. How Do Class Sizes Shift Over Four Years?
Class size can have an equally significant (if not greater) impact on the student experience as overall school size. The number of students in a classroom can determine how much individual attention a teacher is able to give to students and affect things like the quality of class discussions or opportunities for participation. While you can probably find the average class size on a high school’s website, asking about how class sizes shift over four years can give you a better idea of what your long-term experience at a school might look like. For example, how many students tend to be in a ninth-grade seminar versus an advanced twelfth-grade class?
4. What Is Homework Like?
You already know that homework is a significant part of a student’s life—so you should ask about it during your high school tours! Students’ answers to this question will undoubtedly vary, depending on the classes they’re taking, and private schools have different practices about the amount of time that students are expected to spend on homework. But a private high school tour is the perfect opportunity to ask current students questions about what kind of homework assignments they tend to receive, how long they spend on them, and how helpful they find the assignments.
5. How Does the School Help Students Prepare for College/the Future?
When you’re applying to private high schools, college and other post-graduation plans can seem lightyears away. Still, it’s helpful to ask questions about the school’s approach to the college-search and application process: What’s the school’s general ethos about college? What resources are available? How are parents/guardians involved? And when does the college-search process formally begin? More specific questions could focus on what the school provides in terms of college counseling or SAT/ACT preparation. Whether or not college is in your future plans, you should also feel free to ask if the school offers any “life-skills” classes that would be useful to you after graduation, such as financial literacy or similar courses.
6. What Kind of Personal Support Is Available to Students?
Students don’t just need support when it comes to tackling the college-admissions process; you might find yourself wanting to talk to someone about a difficult class, a hefty workload, or even personal issues with friends or at home. Asking this question can help you determine what structures the school has in place to address academic and more general issues, whether that be a guidance counselor, an advisor, a center for student success, or something similar. (For example, at Commonwealth, every student has their own faculty advisor, and our dedicated Student Life team helps coordinate everything from fun social events to new family orientation to academic support and more.)
7. How Do Students Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities?
Having a well-rounded high-school experience includes getting involved in activities outside of the classroom, so you definitely want to keep the school’s extracurricular offerings in mind during your decision-making process. While you can likely find a list of extracurricular offerings online or in admissions materials, it can be worth asking how students get involved. Can anyone sign up for any club or extracurricular activity, or are auditions or tryouts involved? Can students be involved in multiple groups? Are there any expectations surrounding extracurricular activities, like required participation in sports? If you’re feeling ambitious, you might even ask about how to begin a club of your own!
8. How Are New Students Welcomed Into the Community?
Whether you’re an incoming ninth grader or looking to transfer, being a new student can be a bit nerve-wracking. It’s helpful to ask questions about how the high school supports new students like you; some schools offer programs specific to ninth graders, like pass/fail grading or a ninth-grade seminar, or have instituted helpful measures like buddy systems to make sure new students have a veteran student to guide them as they adjust to the school. (Like we do at Commonwealth!) Learning about how the school will help you make the transition can help calm your nerves and also give you a sense of how the school views its role in supporting students.
9. What Traditions Does the School Have?
If you’re curious about the history and culture of a school, asking about school traditions is a great way to learn more. Some schools may have more than others, but many partake in traditions of some form; for example, a school might have an annual Spirit Week, holiday celebrations, or more unique happenings, like Commonwealth’s twice-annual Hancock camping trip. Fun traditions like these can tell you a lot about what the school values and what their community cares about.
10. What Makes This School Unique or Different From Other Schools?
This is a great question to ask at the end of a private high school tour, because while the school may have demonstrated a great number of strengths by this point, it’s likely that plenty of other schools could say the same! (Strong academics! Lots of cool extracurriculars! Etc.) So ask the people who know the school best to share why they think it’s special—and why it deserves to be a leading contender in your search.
Bonus: What Not to Ask.
An in-person visit or tour is the perfect time to ask thoughtful questions about the things that matter most to you in your private high-school search. By posing well-researched questions, you will also show admissions staff how interested and invested you are in the school, which they are sure to appreciate. You don’t want to take up precious time asking questions that could be answered by a ten-second Google search! Unless you cannot find the answer online, you probably don’t want to ask questions like “When are applications due?” “What’s the student-faculty ratio?” and “How many students go to this school?” Do your research ahead of time, and make the most of your visit by asking pointed questions like the ones above.
When it comes to asking questions during your private high school visits and tours, don’t limit yourself! Admissions teams are happy to guide you. Because the more information you have, the more empowered you will be to choose the best high school for you.
Becca Gillis is the Communications Coordinator at Commonwealth School. An alumna of an independent middle and high school herself, Becca has a deep and lifelong familiarity with independent and private education.