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Everything You Need to Look for in a Private School

As you try to find the right private high school for you, what should you be looking for, exactly? Who should you talk to, and what questions should you ask? There’s a lot to consider—but below you’ll find more than a dozen different facets of the private high school experience worth factoring into your search process.

Start by thinking about the circumstances in which you thrive: Are you keen to spend hours immersed in a book, an experiment, a musical score, or simply thinking deeply about ideas that fascinate you? Do you come alive on the basketball court or soccer field, surrounded by your teammates and motivated by beating the buzzer? What hobbies fill your time and your senses? Do you enjoy raucous events, surrounded by lots of people, or do you prefer quieter settings and small groups? What do you need in a school versus what do you want? 

Write down your thoughts and use them as North Stars in your search for the perfect private high school. Along the way, keep the following criteria in mind.

Academics

Attending a private high school often means tapping into an extraordinary curriculum taught by exceptional teachers. College-level classes like Modern European History, Multivariable Calculus, and Organic Chemistry. Electives from Economics to Short-Story Writing to Jazz Theory. Specialized arts, whether your passion is molding clay or monologuing on stage. In fact, you might be considering private schools because you’re craving more challenging classes in general. 

So, how can you assess what academic adventures might lie before you? Consider:

  • Curriculum: Pore over the school’s course catalog, which you may find on their website or by asking your admissions contact for a copy. This long list of class descriptions (often prerequisites, too) will give you a sense of the academic options available to you and how you might progress through the curriculum. As you peruse the curriculum, what classes resonate with you? Which are you most excited to try, and which do you think will be most challenging? (And where do they overlap?!) Would the upper-level courses allow you to pursue your academic interests as far as you might want to? And pay attention to the books taught and stories told; do the novelists, historians, artists, and even mathematicians and scientists you encounter reflect diverse perspectives and backgrounds?
  • Graduation requirements: From foundational first-year classes to special seminars for seniors to required community service or athletics, a private school’s graduation requirements can illuminate their academic imperatives while giving you a sneak preview of how you will spend your time over the next four years. Speaking of which…
  • Sample schedules: Whether a real-world or representative example, student schedules offer a handy glimpse into day-to-day life at a private school. They can also help you start thinking about how your schedule will jibe with any preexisting commitments outside of school.
  • Homework: This can be a surprisingly potent litmus test. Ask current students (or recent alumni/ae, if you can) what they think about their homework assignments: do they feel fruitful or like mindless busy work?
  • Academic support: Students taking rigorous classes should have robust support, from tutors to designated study spaces to a culture of understanding teachers. Be sure to investigate what academic support systems are available and how easy it is for students to take advantage of them.
  • The first-year experience: When it comes to preparing new students, orientation is just the beginning. Special classes or seminars just for first-year students can provide solid foundations for navigating your new school, especially if you’re one of the many students coming to private schools from a public school or homeschool environment. For example, at Commonwealth, all first-year students are required to take a seminar designed to teach them how to communicate effectively, how to navigate Boston comfortably and conscientiously, and how to safeguard their health and wellness.
  • Teaching style: While a teacher’s approach to the material often differs with the class, some schools are known for particular pedagogical styles, like employing the Socratic method (question-based lessons), Harkness (student-driven roundtable discussions), “close” reading (deep and methodical interpretation of texts), etc. Beyond that, you might ask what other qualities define learning at the school: A reading- or writing-heavy curriculum? An experiential learning or arts requirement? A focus on group or individual work? 

Then, of course, there are the teachers themselves…

Faculty and Staff

Before stepping foot on campus, spend some time both poring over faculty directories and other resources to get a sense of who will be shaping your private school experience. 

Who teaches your favorite subject or advises the student club you’re most excited to join? Where did they study or teach before coming to their current school? And what do their interests look like outside the classroom? Like you, faculty might perform in a local orchestra or theater company, be a diehard sports fan (Commonwealth is solidly in Red Sox Nation), or be engaged in their own research projects. Ask about current faculty—how long do they typically stay? What’s the longest and shortest tenure?—as well as systems in place for training new teachers. 

Beyond the folks at the front of the classroom, who is there to support your growth in other ways? From college counselors to academic advisors, coaches to kitchen managers, it takes a team of dedicated individuals to keep private schools—and their students—thriving.

Later on, take advantage of any opportunity to connect with faculty and staff: via email, at an admissions event, and/or during an interview. If you’re keen to meet a particular teacher, let your admissions contact know; they might be able to introduce you! And if you can, ask them: What attracted them to teaching and to this school in particular? What does “success” look like in their classes? 

Location

Though you will of course spend most of your day in classes, you will likely have opportunities before, during, and after school, and perhaps even over semester breaks, to venture into the local area. What will you find there? City schools, by their nature, tend to enjoy a proximity to more—more places to study, intern, volunteer, eat! But perhaps you can more readily imagine yourself on a quiet, sprawling, rural or suburban campus with quick access to outdoor activities. 

As you consider private schools, take a close look at where they are on the map and what’s accessible by walking, public transportation, or a short drive. Research where students hail from and where they spend their time around the school day. 

Facilities

Between your online research and in-person visits to the school, you should get a solid sense of the physical space and facilities available to students. Consider the school’s building(s) and campus through the lens of what is important to you and how you hope to spend your time: Are there studios to support your artistic interests? Does the library seem like a place you could comfortably study in? Where would you go for warm-up runs or to play pick-up basketball games? What specialized science equipment is available to you, and at what grade can you access it? (Lasers, anyone?) Where do students just hang out?

A school’s physical space can offer lots of hints at what they value institutionally, too, even beyond the pristine athletic fields or professional-caliber performance spaces that clearly indicate investments in those areas. Whose art hangs on the walls? What kind of conversations do you overhear, and where do they take place? 

Related: Commonwealth 101

Size

Private schools tend to skew on the smaller size to ensure personal academic attention for every student, with even the largest institutions rarely enrolling more than a couple thousand students. Still, there’s a wide range in between, and the size of the student body can impact classroom interactions, teacher accessibility, and opportunities available to you, as well as the overall “vibe” of the school. 

Going to a bigger school might mean more classes to pick from, extracurricular opportunities, and overall diversity. A smaller school often translates to lots of personal attention and feeling more connected to your classmates—but these are not guarantees! You can find your niche at a big school, and you can find small schools with the variety and resources of a much larger institution. At the end of the day, it’s important to consider what kind of environment you’re looking for and how you learn best.

How many students are enrolled in the institutions you’re considering? What’s the average class size and student-to-faculty ratio? How much intermingling is there between students in different grades?

Student Body

Your peer group will be one of the most influential facets of your high-school experience, arguably even more so than your teachers. You’re likely looking for an environment that is warm, welcoming, and supportive. A place full of different perspectives that can introduce you to new ways of thinking. A school where you can make one or two friends who really matter.

What’s the student body like? Where do they come from and what do they seem to value? What gets them talking—and what makes them laugh? What is the school’s attrition rate (aka the number of students who transfer or withdraw each year)? Ultimately, is this a tribe you want to be a part of? 

Spending time with current students (ideally on campus) provides the perfect window into their world, and you should have opportunities to do so throughout the admissions process, whether during open houses, formal visits, or admitted student events. 

Related: How to Research Private High Schools and Find the Best One for You

Extracurricular Opportunities

High school is the perfect time to both discover new extracurricular interests and strengthen your commitment to existing ones. On any private-school website, you will invariably find lists of student clubs, athletic teams, and performance groups. But to find the right schools for you, you need to dig deeper. Consider how the arts are treated both as an academic discipline and an extracurricular activity. Look for longevity in student-run groups and the breadth of interests and affinities. 

How much playing time do younger athletes get, and how easy is it to try a new sport? Does the school offer a variety of student organizations that will hold your interest and challenge you? How does the school support students’ outside interests? Can you find examples of students pursuing independent projects, like a long-standing commitment to an individualized sport, a musical instrument, or even a small business they have founded? How easy is it to start your own club? Remember, too, that your interests may change over time; will you be able to sample activities that intrigue you?

Practical/Hands-On Experience

Private high schools often offer—or require—hands-on learning experiences, such as lab work or internships. At Commonwealth, for example, all students conduct a week-long project each year, where they venture off to various organizations to dive into subjects of interest, from chocolate making to violin repair to studying zebrafish. Not only can these opportunities stimulate your intellect and imagination, but they can add depth and clarity to your decision-making processes as you consider colleges, majors, and careers. What kinds of experiential learning opportunities are available at the private schools on your list, how do students get involved, and how have their experiences shaped their college and career trajectories?

Values

How do you research something as esoteric as a private school’s values? Though it takes some time, it’s easier than you think. A school’s mission statement is often the perfect jumping-off point. From there, research the school’s history, read its blog and student publications, follow their social media accounts, watch the videos on their YouTube page—learn all you can about them, essentially—while paying close attention to recurring themes and how they live up to their stated values. You can dig deeper into this research during campus visits and conversations with students and faculty; ask how the school’s ethos has shaped their studies and growth. Note, some private schools have a religious or military affiliation, which will likely influence their values, traditions, student expectations, and even curriculum and extracurricular opportunities.

Alumni/ae Outcomes and College Placements

Among the many goals of your private school experience is forging a path to your future, whatever it might entail. Looking for patterns in alumni/ae outcomes and college placements can be a useful preview of what that path might look like. As you consider private schools, learn what you can about their alumni/ae (on the school’s website, on LinkedIn, etc.): What do they do? What have they accomplished? What difference are they making in their communities? How involved are alumni/ae in general with their alma mater? 

The school might even be able to connect you with alums, so you can get answers straight from the source. You can also review the school’s College Board profile, which includes matriculation data, SAT and ACT scores, and other academic stats for recent graduating classes. 

Day or Boarding?

If you are like 99.99 percent (truly) of K–12 students in the U.S., you are accustomed to the day-school experience: commuting in the morning, attending classes during the day, and going home in the afternoon or evening, perhaps following extracurricular activities. Boarding schools are more like colleges and universities, where you live on campus in addition to attending classes, with much of your free time revolving around school happenings. 

Plenty of students consider both day and boarding options in their search for the perfect private school, though the experiences differ significantly, both in campus vibe and in cost, given lodging, meal, and activity expenses. Do you want or need to stay close to home? How do you feel about commuting to school, and what are your options (public transportation, carpools, school-organized bus, etc.)? Does the thought of immersing yourself in a boarding school environment appeal to you?

Cost and Financial Aid

Many private schools have demonstrated their commitment to opening their doors to all students by extending financial aid to anyone who would thrive at the institution, regardless of their ability to pay the full cost of tuition. Still, assessing and comparing costs will likely be a critical part of your private-school search. In addition to tuition, fees, and (if relevant) room and board costs, there’s the critical question of financial aid and scholarships. 

Look beyond the “sticker price”: What percentage of students has need- and/or merit-based aid? What is the average grant amount, and what is the range? What is the financial-aid application process like, and how might it evolve after your first year? What scholarship opportunities are available?

Early in your search, you should have a conversation with your family about tuition and financial aid. Note, too, that financial aid applications often require tax and other documents that your family will have to gather and submit. Both the financial aid application and the necessary forms might have different deadlines than the application for admission, so be mindful of both! 

Resources for Parents and Guardians

You, the student, may be driving your search for the perfect private school, but your family will, of course, be an important part of the process. As you think about what classes you might take and athletic teams you might join, the adults in your life will want to know about resources for parents and other primary caregivers, too. What kinds of parent/family associations are there, what do they do, and how do they ensure all families can get involved? Who can parents or guardians turn to when they have questions about academic requirements, enrollment logistics, or school events? 

During the admissions process, they will likely have opportunities to connect with other current families, too, perhaps via informal conversations or a new parent “buddy system.” These first connections can be invaluable introductions to the private school community.

Admissions Criteria and Process

In researching all of the more objective criteria above, don’t forget about the important admissions details you need to keep track of, like application requirements, fees, and deadlines, as well as admissions events and campus visit opportunities. Though private schools largely look for similar qualities (a diverse incoming class with a shared zest for learning) using similar tools (essays, standardized test scores, recommendation letters, etc.), they will vary in many respects, just as the kind of students who would be well served by their institutions will vary. So be sure to keep track of what each school on your list requires and get to know each institution well enough that you can speak to what you can uniquely bring to their institution. At some private schools (including Commonwealth!), the interview is a formal part of the application process as well and worth factoring into your campus-visit plans. 

What are the application requirements and deadlines? What kinds of campus visit and admission event(s) are available? Can you sit in on classes and talk to students and faculty? Take advantage of opportunities to learn from those who know the school best and preview what your experience there will be like.

Now that you know what to look for, you can find private schools where you can thrive. And remember: they will be lucky to have you.