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How to Research Independent High Schools and Find the Best One for You

Now that you know all of the criteria you should consider in a private high school, where do you start your research? 

There is no shortage of avenues for learning more about the schools that interest you: Certainly, online info will be both ample and convenient. And in-person interactions—campus visits, admitted student events, etc.—will give you the most true-to-life view of the school. But there are plenty of options in between. 

You can find the private high schools that meet your search criteria, explore their offerings, and determine if they’re the right fit for you using the resources and opportunities below. 

School Websites

The official websites of the schools you’re considering will almost certainly be your primary source of information during the research process. They will likely include lists of classes, faculty directories, student profiles, calendars of events, blogs and news articles, videos, and more, not to mention their guidance for actually applying. Certainly, you should supplement your research with more objective sources (keep reading!). But the more you know about the private schools on your list, the more empowered you will be to make the final decision about whether and where to apply; spending time exploring their websites is the perfect means to that end.

Search Engines and Directories

Websites like Niche, U.S. News & World Report, and Private School Review aggregate private school profiles, allowing you to search for those that meet various, if somewhat limited, criteria. In addition to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), regional organizations (like the Association of Independent Schools in New England, Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, and New York State Association of Independent Schools) and accrediting agencies (like the New England Association of Schools and Colleges) often provide their own search tools specifically for the private schools in their purview. But don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a simple Google search. Queries like “private high schools near me” or “best private schools for [insert your top criteria here]” can jumpstart your research.

Some private school search sites offer school rankings and reviews as well. While these can be helpful data points, it’s important not to get swept away by the “best” schools or swayed by a single glowing (or scathing) review. Instead, think about what is best for you and look for patterns. For example, a school might be consistently recognized for its programs in the arts, or for attracting and supporting a diverse student body. 

Related: Everything You Need to Look for in a Private School

Tours and Campus Visits

Whether formal or informal, whether on your own or with a group, there are few better ways to get to know a private school than an in-person visit—all while hearing from and asking questions of a knowledgeable guide. If at all possible, visit while class is in session to get the most authentic sense of school life. Observe how teachers and students interact with each other in and out of the classroom. Prepare a few thoughtful questions (just be mindful of dominating the conversation if you’re part of a group tour!). Pay attention to the spaces that speak to your interests, from art studios to chemistry labs to areas of quiet study. And see if you can imagine yourself roaming those halls as a member of the community. 

Interviews

Private school interviews can be more casual, optional affairs, or they can be an official part of the application process (like they are at Commonwealth!). Either way, it can be helpful to remember that, at the end of the day, the interview is a conversation and a chance for you to get to know the school as much as the school gets to know you. Before the interview, reflect on what is important to you in your search for the perfect private school, and come up with questions that will help you gauge how the school’s offerings meet your needs. During the interview, speak confidently about your interests and accomplishments. And don’t be afraid to be yourself! 

Events

Whether in person or virtual, admissions events allow you to experience firsthand the schools on your list and the people who animate them before committing to an interview or campus visit. 

  • Private school fairs: These large-scale events, where students and families are introduced to multiple institutions at once, are still tentatively making their post-pandemic return. Typically, you’ll enter an event space full of tables, each one staffed by a school representative or two who can answer your questions, offer some promotional materials (including oodles of swag—bring a bag!), and take your information so they can keep you up to date on events and process-related details. Prep one or two thoughtful questions that extend beyond facts and figures you can easily find online (for example, “can you tell me about your advising program?” or “what is your favorite school tradition?”). And treat this like the buffet it is, sampling all your options.
  • Open houses and information sessions: Whether they happen virtually or in person, these events can be a great low-pressure way to experience a school and get a broad overview of its culture and offerings. They might include an overview of the application process; a panel discussion with current students, teachers, or parents; a Q&A with admissions representatives; or presentations by department. 
  • Events by topic: In addition to open houses and info sessions, some schools might offer specific opportunities to connect with others over a shared interest. For example, Commonwealth hosts an annual game night for prospective students who want to get to know potential peers over rounds of Codenames or Ticket to Ride. Other schools might offer events for student-athletes or girls in STEM. 
  • Admitted student events/revisit days: Distinct from orientation, these events allow you to see a school through the eyes of an admitted student. They can either help you in the decision-making process if you’re choosing between more than one school, or they can simply further acclimate you to your new academic home. By this point, you should be well acquainted with the school, so you can ask the more nuanced, pointed questions that will help you feel empowered once you enroll.

Your Network

You never know who might have a connection to a private school on your list: maybe a family friend is an alumnus, a neighbor is the grandparent of a current student, or your dad’s cousin teaches there. Ask around! If you’re not acquainted with anyone familiar with a particular school, their admissions office will likely be happy to facilitate an introduction to students, families, or alumni/ae who share your interests and perhaps even live nearby. 

Social Media

Social media can offer fun and informal glimpses into everyday life at a school, often via the usual suspects like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. A YouTube or Vimeo account, in particular, can be a treasure trove of information, with recordings of classes, concerts, student and staff interviews, and much more. By following all of the schools on your list (at least temporarily, as you conduct your search process), you will be plugged into the latest news—and the first to know about helpful happenings, like student social media takeovers.

Viewbooks and Brochures

Marketing materials, like viewbooks and brochures, will always show the most polished version of a private school. Still, these “highlight reels” can have their place in your search process, introducing you to institutions and some of their key differentiators. If you go to a private school fair, you can easily fill your bag with these materials. Otherwise, it should be easy to request information through a school’s website. And in our always-online world, it can be refreshing to pore over a pile of paper brochures, sift through your options, and see which schools call out to you.  

Did we miss a brilliant way to research or otherwise get to know a private school? Our admissions team would love to hear your ideas. Please feel free to reach out to us—and best of luck in your private school search!