By Carrie Healy, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid
You found a private high school—or schools—that interests you and your family. Now it’s time to craft an application that shows the admissions committee that you’re the right fit. But how? What are private, or independent, school admissions committees looking for as they pore over application materials? And why do they ask for all of these things (essays, recommendation letters, etc.) in the first place?
While private high schools may be similar in their overarching application requirements (transcripts, recommendations, etc.), admissions committees often differ in how they determine a student’s fit on an academic, extracurricular, and social/personal level.
At Commonwealth School, for example, the admissions committee is looking for students who:
- Are intellectually curious and creative
- Deeply love learning, working hard, and stretching themselves academically
- Have unique extracurricular interests, hobbies, and opinions
- Want to contribute to and shape the school community
- Come from a wide range of backgrounds
We invite you to continue reading for an overview of what private high school admissions committees typically want to see in applications, as they search for students who will thrive at their institutions and long after...
Related: View Application Requirements
Academic Record and Intellectual Curiosity
Academics are, of course, central to the private school experience—their unique and challenging curriculums are often what attracts prospective students and families to these schools in the first place.
But private school admissions committees also know that applicants come from a wide range of backgrounds: public school, homeschool, other private schools, or even a combination. That’s why they look at a constellation of factors to assess an applicant's academic preparation. The admissions committee also likely has some familiarity with the curriculum at local schools and a good sense of the academic foundation graduates receive.
- Grades are important, and private schools will almost invariably require transcripts from any schools attended, but a perfect straight-A record is certainly not required.
- Standardized test scores like the SSAT and ISEE, are uniform metrics as well—but they don’t tell the whole story, either. And since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of standardized tests in admissions has shifted, as more independent high schools become test optional (at least temporarily).
- Academic writing samples and application essays provide greater insights into a student’s logic, reasoning, analysis, and creativity. In addition to responding to questions on the application form and submitting a graded essay, Commonwealth is unique in asking applicants to complete admission assessments during their day visit. They spend two forty-minute periods completing an analytical essay and a quantitative exercise.
The private high school admissions committee is looking for signs and patterns that demonstrate a student’s academic aptitude in ways letter grades and standardized test scores can not. They view the applicant’s file—writing samples, short-answer questions, extracurricular experience, recommendations, and, of course, the application form itself—through the lens of academic fit. For example:
- Do the recommendation letters talk about a student’s perseverance overcoming challenges or their exuberant participation in class discussions?
- Has the student been involved in an academic-themed extracurricular activity or are they confident enough in their abilities to tutor other students?
- Did the student ask insightful questions during admissions interviews or sample classes?
- If they’re transferring in from another high school, did the student take the rigorous courses available to them?
- Did the student spend time and effort fully answering and elaborating on the questions on the application form?
- Will they enter the classroom excited and ready to learn?
It’s also critical to note that admissions committees are looking for both academic preparation and academic potential. How might the student grow their abilities, perhaps with the help of the private school’s academic support programs?
Interests and Extracurriculars
There is no magic formula of activities that leads to private school admission. Some students will try a variety of extracurriculars; others commit to just one or two. To private high school admissions committees, the quality of the engagement matters far more than the quantity. It can be unstructured or informal, too! The admissions committee understands that applicants have wildly varying extracurricular opportunities available to them and different priorities in how they spend their free time. At the end of the day, they are simply looking for some demonstration of the breadth and depth of the student’s interests, the individual passions and perspectives they will bring to the high school community.
Does the student exhibit genuine interest and enjoyment in activities, whether it’s playing a team or independent sport, practicing their instrument, joining a student club, reading every book on aerospace engineering available at their library, volunteering at a local organization, watching YouTube videos to learn a new skill, or perhaps using their talents on a project of their own design? This interest can come through in the application itself, admissions interviews, and/or recommendation letters.
Private high schools have personalities. You’ll find institutions known for their commitment to the arts or athletic achievement or social responsibility. Some are defined by their legacy as a religious institution or military academy. You can get a sense of what an institution values by exploring its website, social media accounts, institutional publications, and much more.
The admissions committee is looking for applicants who will jibe with the school’s personality and values—but they’re not looking for cookie-cutter clones in their applicants. Far from it. They hope to enroll students who bring diverse interests and perspectives, who will contribute positively and meaningfully to the life of the school.
Students at Commonwealth, for example, tend to have lots of varied interests and a penchant for diving into them with great relish, whether it’s studying the effects of the pandemic on animal health, running an Ultimate Frisbee team, doing sound design for the fall play, or carving an elaborate lithograph. Cliques aren’t really our thing; geeking out with your friends over your latest project—that’s our thing. If that ethos resonates with applicants during the admissions process, they may be a good fit for the school!
Private school admissions committees are looking for these varied things because admissions decisions are born from a nuanced process—and that’s a good thing. Students contain multitudes, and this highly personalized approach to the admissions process, where each application is considered as an individual with unique needs, helps them find a school where they can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
At Commonwealth, the admissions committee draws on deep knowledge of the school’s culture and programs to determine the fit between an applicant and our school. They dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy to getting to know students and their families, answering questions and maintaining a dialogue, all to ensure that Commonwealth is the perfect place for every student to discover themselves and shape their future.
Carrie Healy has served as the Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Commonwealth School since 2013. After attending Middlesex School, Ms. Healy graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Education Studies. She began her admissions career at Newton Country Day School, and she gained experience in boarding admissions at Northfield Mount Hermon. Before starting at Commonwealth, she earned an M.S.Ed in School Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Her other independent school roles have included sailing coach, dorm parent, and advisor. In her free time, Ms. Healy enjoys cooking up new recipes and running along the Charles River.