Who Gets In? Who Doesn’t? Some Observations About L.A. Private Schools…


Photo: Flickr by Giulio Molo
Photo: Flickr by Giulio Molo

If someone had asked me who gets into the most competitive L.A. private schools before I went through the admissions process, I would have probably said, “celebrities!” Now that I’ve been immersed in the private school world for the past 9 years as a mom and 5 years as a writer on the subject, I know that’s just part of the short answer–and really not the most important part. Celebrities, while highly coveted by some schools, are avoided by others, considered too high maintenance and disruptive to a school environment. And, there aren’t nearly enough celebrities to explain the cutthroat private school admissions process in L.A. So, what else is going on that causes some kids to get in everywhere and others to be declined admission? As my co-authors and I have said before, it’s about your family–your child and you. Especially when you’re applying for kindergarten.

Here are 3 categories to attempt to explain who gets in and who doesn’t. A family usually has one or more factors in a category working for/against their application:


  • Gets in everywhere 
    • Family has a prominent last name (Disney, Annenberg, Spielberg) and/or a large trust fund
    • Kid scores very well on kindergarten entrance tests
    • Family adds ethnic diversity without needing financial aid
    • Kid is extremely bright, articulate and the kind of kid who appeals to every admissions director (think of a mini Barack Obama)
    • Kid has a unique ability in music, art, math or some other area
    • Very high ISEE scores for middle and high school (8 and 9)


  • Gets into some, but not all schools (this is most families who apply)
    • Parents are well connected at one or two schools, but not all the schools where they apply
    • Follows the “rules” of the admissions process
    • Has a similar family profile to a lot of other families, making it more competitive for their kid
    • Kid attends a “feeder” preschool to a certain private elementary school
    • Kid has been tested as highly gifted
    • Extremely bright kid from disadvantaged background
    • Good ISEE scores for middle and high school (5 and 6)
    • Family is philosophically at odds with some of the schools where they apply
    • Admissions director has a strong preference for a certain type of family/kid


  • Does not get in anywhere
    • Family only applied to one very competitive school
    • Needs financial aid, but didn’t apply for it
    • Parents (or sometimes kid) seem very difficult and demanding
    • Kid has undisclosed behavior or other issues
    • Family is “outsider” applying only to “country club” schools
    • A negative recommendation from preschool director
    • Family appears to prefer public school
    • Family/kid does not have support of head of school for middle and high school admissions
    • Very low ISEE scores for middle or high school (scores of 1 and 2)
    • A contentious divorce or custody battle that isn’t adequately explained (or resolved)
    • Admissions director doesn’t think the kid will succeed at their school (academic or social reasons)


There’s nothing scientific about the categories above. These are simply my observations after 9 years of being a mom at two private schools and 5 years of writing about the topic and talking to tons of parents, admissions directors, heads of schools, educational consultants and preschool directors.


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Why Private Schools Want Kids Who Do Stuff



A really good article, Our Push For Passion and Why It Harms Kids by Lisa Endlich Heffernan, in the New York Times argues that parents are pushing our kids to find their “passion” very early and it’s getting in the way of kids finding their true interests. It is all driven by the college admissions process, the author argues, which seeks kids who are passionate about their interests. Well-rounded, it appears is a less desirable quality. Dabbling is even less impressive.


So what does all this focus on helping your kid find his/her true passion mean when it comes time to apply to private schools? What do years of sports, arts, camp and music mean? What if your kid hasn’t discovered his/her passion by middle school?


Here’s what I’ve learned. Private schools want kids who do “stuff”. By that I mean, kids who enter middle school ready to audition for the school play, sign up for softball, play in the orchestra and so on. Private schools need to fill their programs with kids who excel in various activities. The head of the drama department at any private middle or high school needs theater kids who have talent. So does the dance department. The band director must have kids who play violin and trumpet. If the school has a fencing team or a field hockey team, what would happen if nobody signed up or tried out for the team? Schools use the admissions process to make sure that doesn’t happen.


So, what do schools do to fill their programs with the kids who have demonstrated passion and/or talent in a specific area? They leave a lot of space on the written application for the parent and the kid to write about the kid’s interests. That blank page is what needs to be filled with extracurricular activities. During the interview, kids are asked about their interest in the activities they’ve listed on the application. If sports is one of them, the athletic coach may get involved in the admissions process. You’ll see the male ballet dancer who gets in everywhere or the robotics champ who every school wants. Of course, there will always be star athletes who are recruited at the high school level.


But, where does it leave kids who don’t have a deep, demonstrated passion in one or two areas? What do they write on that blank page?  I have a daughter who entered middle school without a deep passion, but instead with interests she wanted to pursue. She does not play sports. She plays guitar and wanted to auction for the Viewpoint jazz band, so that’s what she talked about during the admissions process. She had never played in a jazz band, but she had played with a local music school in Silverlake. She loves to write so she wanted to take the school newspaper elective. These were her interests, but not deep, obsessive passions. I’m not sure if she’s found her passion yet. What she has found is a school that offers a wide variety of activities for her to participate in. Next year, for 9th grade, she’s picked school newspaper and photography and she wants to do yearbook in 10th grade.


The admissions process requires you (and your kid) to create a direct link for the school to see between your kid’s experience/interest/passion and what the school offers. If you kid is a concert violinist, that shouldn’t be difficult. If your kid has dabbled in a few activities, but wants to try lots of things, point out the activities the school offers that he/she is enthusiastic about trying.


I have a son who is undeniably passionate about sports. He’s played soccer and basketball since he was little. These two sports are his deep interest, passions, obsessions.  So, his application reflected those interests and experiences. It wasn’t a stretch to talk about the competitive tournaments, the positions he plays and how he wanted to play on Viewpoint school teams. He also loves math and has always demonstrated a very deep interest, so trying out for the math team could be an option next year. For the first time, he’s played a musical instrument. Who knew he’d enjoy the trumpet so much?


It is harder to talk about what your kid will do than what they plan to do. It is easier to write an application filled with things your kid has already accomplished. Of course, when parents are paying $30K per year, they want their kids to be able to participate in their chosen sport or activity. Private schools encourage participation up to a point, when competition edges out some kids. Then, they are encouraged to find another activity. A quick pivot, guided by parents, ensures a new passion will emerge almost overnight. “She’s no longer doing musical theater, it’s now field hockey,” said a mom I know. None of us want kids who lack interest in anything and who are uninvolved. I’m trying to guide my kids to take advantage of great opportunities, but not insist they create fake interests. To force an activity on a kid to develop a “true passion” seems unfair and leads to bloated resumes filled with stuff kids resent.


We all know the road to the college is littered with discarded violins, baseball gloves, skis, cellos, swim goggles and hockey gear. What seems like a kid’s passion when they are 10, might change by the time they’re 15.


That’s part of growing up. Or at least it should be.


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A New Secondary School: Beacon School For Boys, L.A.


Beacon School For Boys


There’s a new private secondary school for boys that will open its doors for grades 6-9 in Sept. 2016, adding through grade 12 by 2019. The school’s two founders are experienced educators from Harvard-Westlake. Jennifer Dohr is a mom at Archer School For Girls and Harvard-Westlake. Oona Miller Hanson is a mom at Archer and Carpenter Community Charter public school.

We wish them success with this exciting endeavor!–Christina



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Weekend Links: Spring Break

Big waterslide at Arizona Grand Resort
Big waterslide at Arizona Grand Resort


Happy Weekend!

Hope you’re all having a great spring break! We spent a few wonderful days in Arizona with several other Viewpoint School families. Our kids had a blast at a hotel that had 3 big watersides, a pool and a swirling lazy river. My daughter and her friend babysat the younger kids for the first time while the grown-ups had a fabulous dinner at The Arrogant Butcher. Back to school on Monday, well-rested and happy. –Christina

AZ 4


Here are a few of my favorite links for weekend reading:

Funny article about what happens when a mom brings the “wrong” potato to her daughter’s preschool for Spud Day. Oh, the perfectionism of it all! (Brainchild)

I shared this on BTB’s Facebook Page…an interesting read.  The writer captures some of the most common notions about public and private schools in an interesting way. (Salon)

What happens when you dislike your kid’s teacher? Or, her style rubs you the wrong way. It happens. (Literary Mama)

Cool ways librarians are helping English language learners who are loyal patrons in school and public libraries. (School Library Journal)



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Independent School Alliance For Minority Affairs: Interview With Keishia Gu, Exec. Director

Keishia Gu

The Independent School Alliance For Minority Affairs (ISA) recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. What an accomplishment! The organization started with just a small group of committed school administrators, led by Margo Long, the head of Oakwood Elementary School. I like to think of the ISA as a full service educational consulting organization for minority families. The 30th anniversary gala event was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. In addition to 54 heads of school who were recognized for their contributions to the organization, it was a star-studded event that raised $650K to fund ISA programs. In the spirit of the event, Beyond The Brochure contributed $500 to help fund admissions fees for ISA families. Jessica Alba presented an award to Brian Lee (The Honest Company, LegalZoom), who bid generously on live auction items. Lisa Loeb sang and I spotted John Legend too!  Jeffery Campbell, an ISA board member and his wife, Jennifer Fox, were gracious hosts who invited me to join them at the event. The kids who have benefitted from ISA admissions services were incredibly poised and articulate. They are students at Archer, Harvard-Westlake, Viewpoint and many more schools. I met Keishia Gu, ISA’s Executive Director, an articulate and accomplished leader who I know we can count on to ensure there is a steady growth of diverse families in L.A. independent (private) schools. Here’s my interview with Keishia:


1. You have a very impressive resume! Can you talk a bit about your background and what brought you to ISA?

Thank you!!!! I grew up as a nomad, and therefore I have a unique perspective on education and schools. My father is a retired Colonel in the US Air Force, and as a result of being a military brat, I attended 16 schools from K-12. From my personal experience, I learned that not all schools, curriculum, or teachers were created equally. I attended some great schools, and I attended my share of “poor performing” schools, but didn’t have the sophistication to understand educational inequity. But I always knew that I would go into education because of the impact “school” had on my life. I started my career at my alma mater, Georgetown University–and served as the Assistant Director of Admissions with a particular emphasis on multicultural recruitment. I moved on to graduate school at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education where I focused on education reform and policy. Bob Riddle, the Head of Crossroads for Arts & Sciences, gave me my first job in California at Crossroads where I did a seven year stint as an Academic Dean, English teacher, and college counselor. In 2010, in order to reach back to the communities who I felt needed my college planning expertise the most, I joined the award-winning KIPP LA Schools, and worked as the Director of the KIPP Through College program. I’m grateful to Lee Miller at Cal West Educators, who personally called me about the opportunity at the Independent School Alliance. I believe I was ultimately selected because of my experience in recruitment and admissions, working with families of color, knowledge of independent schools, and business acumen. I had the right background and new vision to lead this organization into its next incredible phase of growth. Personally, it is my life’s work to provide children with the opportunity to attend a school that best matches their passions and personality, so I feel like I’m helping all of the “little Keishia’s” of the world.


2. Who are the families ISA serves?

The Independent School Alliance (ISA) works to inform families of color across Los Angeles about the option of independent school education. Our families self-identify as African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and Multiracial/Multiethnic.

ISA Gala

3. How do you help families find the right independent school in L.A. given the extremely competitive admissions process at many of the top schools.

At ISA, we understand that choosing the right school is by far one of the most important decisions that one can make for their child. We work with our families to help demystify the complexity of applying to independent school. We offer workshops and resources on educational philosophies, so that our parents understand the mission and vision of our 54 unique member schools. With our program, parents learn the differences between progressive, developmental, project-based, constructivist, and traditional approaches to education. Additionally, as parents consider their options, we perform an initial vetting of the children in order to understand the best fit for the child’s strengths, personality, and learning style. When our member schools receive an application from ISA, they can know and trust that we have worked hard to ensure that it’s a good match for all parties involved. Finally, we take the stress out of the paperwork because ISA families complete ONE common application and one financial assistance application, which is honored by all of our member schools. We also offer fee waivers for the ISEE, FAST, and SSS–making the cost of applying to independent school substantially lower than if families applied without the support of ISA. To see a complete list of schools where ISA helps families get in, click here.


4. If a family wants to handle the admissions process on their own, but has a few questions, can the ISA help?

We are a small and mighty nonprofit, and have the resources and staffing to support the 150 -200 families who are a part of our program each year. We’re happy to take a call or walk-in consultation for a few people each year who are not formally a part of our program. But for the most part we reserve our program, advice, and expertise for those who are working with us directly.


5. Do ISA families have to demonstrate a need for financial aid?

No, actually, we are very proud to work with families of varying degrees of socioeconomic status. Many of our families may be considered low-to-moderate income, but a reasonable percentage of our families are able to pay 50% to 90% of their tuition fees. We provide information regarding budgeting and financial planning for independent school education, and we will work with our families to identify schools that are within the range of what they are able and willing to contribute.


For more information, visit, www.independentschoolalliance.org


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Photo collage: Candi Schreuders

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