Do’s and Don’ts For Applying To L.A. Private Schools by Sanjay Nambiar

Do and Don't

Hi Friends,

I’m so happy to welcome Sanjay Nambiar back to the blog! His advice is always excellent and it’s based on firsthand experience. Along with his wife, Priya, Sanjay runs Nambiar Advising and they are parents at PS1 Pluralistic School in Santa Monica. –Christina 


Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me I Wasn’t Supposed to Do That?!

Applying to private schools in Los Angeles can be stressful for so many reasons. Selecting schools, writing essays, prepping for interviews, coordinating open house visits – all of it can be overwhelming to even the most savvy applicants.

But when you add judgment calls to the mix, the whole application process can be downright maddening. It’s amazing how many people have asked us if it’s okay to make donations when they are applying, or to have famous people call the admissions on their behalf, or to submit 10 letters of recommendation, or any number of supposed strategies to help them get in. And while these situations are straightforward for admissions officers, many applying families simply become befuddled by the options.

And that’s okay.

We can’t expect families to know the subtleties of the admissions process. It can be very confusing. To help demystify some of these situations, however, below are a few suggestions on what families should do, and what notto do, when applying.

Do . . .

Have 1-2 people contact the school, but only if they know your child/family well

First of all, if you do not have contacts at a school, do not worry – it’s not essential. It’s a myth that you must know someone to get into a school, and that false premise creates a lot of undo stress for families.

But, if you have a close friend who knows your child well, and if that friend is associated with the school you’re applying to (current parent, alumni, Board member, etc.), then by all means ask them to send an email to the admissions office on your behalf. The letter should be short but insightful, with meaningful observations and praise for your child.

Also, one to two additional letters of recommendations (beyond required letters from teachers or school administrators) will be more than enough. Many admissions officers have been inundated – and annoyed – by families submitting five, 10, and even more recommendations. It’s overkill and unnecessary.

Send a 1st Choice letter

If you love a school and absolutely would send your child there, then send a nice, short email to the admissions office stating why the school works for your family and that you would absolutely matriculate if given the opportunity. It’s helpful for admissions officers to know that you’ll accept – it differentiates you from another applicant who might be just as qualified but more interested in another school.

If you do send a 1stchoice letter (i.e., email), however, only send it to one school, and then fulfill that promise. It’s incredibly bad form to send a 1stchoice letter to multiple schools, or to deny an acceptance and go elsewhere after you’ve sent such a letter.

(Caveat: Many admissions officers like 1stchoice letters, but some state that they don’t need or want one. Nonetheless, it can be beneficial for families.)

Be nice to administrative & custodial staff during tours

This should be obvious, but it’s unbelievable how many parents (and sometimes kids) are rude to administrative and custodial staff at schools. We know many anecdotes where a child would have gained acceptance but was denied because a mother or father was rude to a front desk receptionist or parking attendant. Always keep in mind, a school is not just accepting a student, but also his or her parents and family. They are building communities. No admissions officer wants to bring difficult, rude, or entitled people into that environment.

Have parents prepare for interviews as well

As mentioned above, applying to schools is not just about the student, but about the family as well. It’s worthwhile for parents to prepare for interviews, and to make sure they are on the same page with each other (when applicable). It’s awkward when a student shines but a parent comes across as disinterested and uninformed about a school, or when two parents seem to disagree about what’s best for their child.

Don’t . . .

Have people contact the school just because they are prominent or connected

If you happen to know someone important or famous – and if that person doesn’t know your child very well – having them send an email or letter probably won’t help. In fact, it could hurt your standing. Admissions officers are not impressed by big Hollywood names or Senatorial/Gubernatorial/Presidential letterhead. They’ve seen it all before, especially in Los Angeles. This is particularly troublesome when the recommendation is cursory and doesn’t demonstrate a meaningful knowledge of the applicant. In those cases, it seems as though the family is trying to drop names, and that leaves a negative impression.

Donate to the school

Please don’t do this during the admissions process. Seriously. It may seem like a nice or generous gesture, but it looks like the donating family is trying to buy its way into the school. You can donate once you are accepted and matriculating!

Have assistants or nannies call/contact on your behalf for logistics

People in L.A. are busy. Many are important. Yet, some of the biggest names and wealthiest parents still find the time to call an admissions office themselves to ask questions or coordinate appointments. If they can, everyone else should be able to as well. Having an assistant or employee call instead of yourself can come across negatively.

Keep It in Perspective

Beyond the specific situations listed above, there are a couple of other points we like to mention to clients. The first is to not get caught up in the race for a “bumper sticker school”. Many families become fixated on specific schools because of a reputation within a community, or competition with other families attending the school, or many other reasons. Sure, the bumper sticker of that school might make a parent proud or boost social status in some circles, but at the end of the day what matters most is how a child responds to his or her environment. The fit is always the most important element, in our opinion. If you focus on how and where your child will thrive, the potential of a happy child starts to take priority.

Additionally, if possible, do try to relax and have fun! We know this might sound crazy. But we have seen many families who have learned new insights about their children and themselves through the application process. It can be part therapy, part introspection, part discovery. And that can be beautiful.


*Priya and Sanjay Nambiar run Nambiar Advising, a consulting practice that shepherds families through the private school admissions process, from helping clients find the best-fit schools for children to application support, essay editing, interview preparation, and more. Priya has spent more than 20 years in education and was the Associate Director of Admissions at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles. She earned a B.A. in Education from Brown University and an M.Ed. from Harvard University. Sanjay is an entrepreneur and professional writer who has written several award-winning children’s books. He earned a B.A. in Economics and Neurobiology from U.C. Berkeley and an M.B.A. from UCLA. To learn more, please visit

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Waiting for Admissions Letters and Getting In, Wait-listed, Rejected by Barbara Cameron

thorns and roses concept



Here’s another insightful, honest post from our friend Barbara Cameron. This time she writes about the thorny issue of waiting for admissions letters. Then, there’s the rose at the end of the journey…if things go well. We’re wishing all of you the very best of luck as you wait for letters and find out results!–Christina and Anne 

We wait for an online purchase to arrive. We wait in traffic. We wait for our Double Cappuccino extra froth at Starbucks (where I recently saw a woman flip out on the barista because she waited “three minutes and it was all wrong” when she received it). We wait for news from an oncologist about ourselves, or a loved one or a friend when all wrong takes on an entirely different meaning. We wait for our babies to be born.

And then, of course, we sometimes wait for acceptance letters from L.A. private schools to hear where our children will get their education. It is easy to say, “Keep it in perspective, it isn’t a life or death matter,” because it is not. However, seriously hard work, time and effort have gone into this process more times than not. Our children’s education matters a great deal. Expectations are high, and fear can creep in, so how do we handle it?

I had a friend who drove around her neighborhood trying to track down the mailman the day the letters were due to arrive, which some might judge extreme, but if you knew her, you would laugh. That is her. She laughs now. Getting a little crazy is okay if that’s what you do. The Los Angeles Times famously coined the term “Black Friday” to describe this day.

For each family dynamic, there is a valid answer to how do we wait for this news. My crazy, I tended to play the waiting down, quell the anxiety by telling myself whatever happens it happens the way it is meant to happen. Whatever works; it’s a trick of the mind. I created options so I could remain faithful to my mantra. Some families are clear about their few choices and bet on that. These days, parents frantically check their email or log onto sites which schools posts acceptances. Check your email’s junk mail folder too because I’ve heard that’s where some of these admissions emails end up.

I guess the one real thing to take away: in many ways, it is a crapshoot. It’s a roll of the dice no matter that you may have the odds in your favor. The best way to prepare yourself and your children, is to ready them to handle whatever happens, which means you as a parent must control it. Lead by example.

We waited before kindergarten, were accepted to The Willows, our first choice, wait-listed at PS1, got rejected from The Center for Early Education, and, well, case in point, I can’t even remember the rest now. Of course, I signed the contract for The Willows instantly. As for high school, we did as we were told because we needed financial aid; we threw our net wide. Seven schools, applications, interviews, tours! Seven letters to await. Crapshoot: one school we thought he had a good chance, a no-go. The school we thought was out of his league was a yes, and wait-listed at one he liked very much. Fairly last minute, my son did a shadow day at Arête and fell in love with it. They accepted him; two very different schools. I remember conversations with family and friends, what to do? On the last day to decide, driving to work, debating which would be best for him, after receiving generous financial aid from both, I just made a decision, knowing we can never, in the end, know the answer to that question. Arête, I still believe, was the best choice!

Maybe all of this means remembering that we are always in the process of waiting for something; waiting is hard. Traffic can make us late to an important meeting. If we crave and look forward to our morning caffeine, waiting for it might seem impossible if the line is long. Some news we think will change our lives, and some possibly will; some may not, although we feel (as the Cappuccino women felt) it will.

Maybe teach your kids, the degree of importance varies, but waiting is a part of life. It never stops. The outcome of hard work, whatever it may be, is a part of life. Whatever happens, we deal with it and move on. There is no other choice. How we handle what we receive after the wait is– and will– become a part of who we are.

Barbara Cameron is the 2012 winner of the American Literary Review nonfiction contest, judged by Alice Elliot Dark, and her winning essay, “Hawk Blood,” was published in the journal. It was republished in the Colorado Review as an editor’s pick. Her essay, “In Avalon, She Fell,” was a finalist in a 2017 literary contest, judged by Abigail Thomas. She has studied with Mary Gaitskill and with Tom Jenks, founder and co-editor of Narrative. Barbara is a graduate of Barnard College, a former restaurant server and now manager, a single mom by choice and a resident of Los Angeles. You can read Barbara’s most recent essay about Financial Aid on Beyond The Brochure and her creative nonfiction in Angels Flight Literary West.

Check out Beyond The Brochure’s previous posts about admissions letters, wait-lists and rejections and here on The Daily Truffle. 

Follow Beyond The Brochure on Facebook for all the latest news about L.A. private schools.

Good luck to everyone!

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Get Your Copy! Third Edition of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles

BTB Cover Third Edition

We’re thrilled to announce that the Third Edition of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles (September, 2017) is now available!  You can now buy the book on Amazon!

The Third Edition of the book includes:

  • Updated! List of Los Angeles and Pasadena area private elementary schools
  • New! Five additional sample written applications
  • New! More information about tuition and non-tuition expenses
  • Updated! Current affairs and trends at LA private elementary schools
  • Updated! Beyond The Brochure’s most popular blog posts

Thank you so much to our longtime and new book and blog readers! We truly appreciate your support since 2010, when we first started Beyond The Brochure. We receive your heartfelt emails and we understand exactly what it’s like to navigate the competitive L.A. private school admissions process. We answer as many questions as possible, on our Facebook Page and by email. Your support, encouragement and feedback means the world to us. Cheers to a new edition and lots of acceptance letters for all of our readers!

All our best, Anne and Christina Simon

Please note: If you purchased the Second Edition of the book, you can exchange it for the Third Edition. Or, if you bought it at a local bookstore within the past 2 months, email Christina at csimon2007 @ gmail dot com and we will send you a free Third Edition.

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It’s Summer! How To Beat The (Admissions) Heat by Lisa Marfisi


It’s summer! Time to relax and forget about private school admission….or is it???  If your plan is to apply to L.A. private schools for the 2018-2019 school year, there are plenty of things you can do during the summer months to make the process  less stressful in the fall.

The private school admission process takes about nine months. That’s nine months of intensive work touring schools, writing applications, asking friends for recommendation letters and more.  You can start by doing research in the summer, visiting schools in the fall and submitting your applications in October, November and December.  Interviews and assessments are in January and February and you’ll get a decision letter in mid-March.

Before the fall frenzy of tours and applications hits, you may want to use the slower pace of summer to do a few important things like researching schools, creating a tour list, starting to write applications and talking to your child about the process.

  1. Research. Take a look at websites of the schools you are interested in. Try to figure out which factors are most important to you. Some of these things might include a school’s educational philosophy, school size/model (K-6, K-8 or K-12) and number of classes per grade, distance from your home, afterschool activities, teacher/student ratio, academic class offerings, music and art programs and sports programs and facilities. Make a list of schools that you would like to visit, with the goal of starting with a big list and narrowing the list after you tour the schools. Take time in the summer to really focus and learn which schools have what you are looking for. If you wait until the fall, you may not have enough time to look at as many schools as you would like.
  1. Create. Look at the dates of open houses and tours. Set up a calendar so that you can keep track of the dates.  Use a system that works for you. Online with a Google Doc or iCal or on a BIG desktop calendar. Something you will LOOK at. Schools may have tours on the same date, so plan ahead in order to see all the schools that interest you.
  1. Plan. Look at the applications for these schools. Many of the schools have essay questions. Start to think about your answers.  A good thing to do is to write your family message. Take time to reflect on your own educational experience.  Think about what was important to you and what you liked.  Then think about your child and how you are the same or different. Your family message will convey who you are and what you value. You can refer to this when you are writing your application answers. You will want to include information about who you are as a family, who your child is as a learner and a person, your educational philosophy, and information about you and your partner. You will want to write several drafts of this.  Summer is a perfect time to work on crafting your message. This is not something that can be rushed.
  1. Prepare. If your child is applying to 5th grade or middle or high school, the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) is required. Summer is the perfect time to do test prep.  Without homework and other activities, your child will be able to focus more attention on test prep.  Many different types of test prep are available – classes, one on one tutoring and online classes. Select something that will work for YOUR child.
  1. Drive. Go to the school so you can see how far away it is. Try to go at a realistic time-drop off or pick up from either home and/or work.  If you can’t do that, use an app during rush hour to see how long the drive would be. Find out what options you have for transportation. Is there a bus? Can you find a carpool? Learn more about how long it will take to drive to and from the school daily. Sometimes parents underestimate important geographical factors when choosing a school.

Applying to schools requires that you stay organized! You’ll need to be able to refer to your written application before your parent interview. You’ll need to keep copies of correspondence sent to you by each school. The earlier you submit your application, the sooner your parent interview and/or child’s interview can be scheduled. Some schools take the first X number of applications so you’ll need to submit your application very quickly before they reach the cutoff.

Get Organized – Start a notebook so you can keep all of this information in one place. Divide it into sections for each school.  Keep information about the deadlines, tour dates, applications, interview dates, assessment information, brochures and anything else related to your child’s admissions process. You don’t want to lose a document and have to call the school to get another copy.

Get support -If possible, find resourceful parents with with older children who have been through this process and ask them for their best admissions advice. If you know a parent who can write you a letter of recommendation, let them know you’ll be asking then when the time comes so they’ll be expecting your call. Talk to your preschool director and let her know your plan. Solicit her advice too. Preschool directors may have suggested schools you can consider while you’re doing summer research. If you think you will need help from a professional consultant, contact that person as soon as you can. Fall is a very busy time and late summer can be a good time to make that connection.

We hope you kick off the fall admissions process with energy, enthusiasm and a well-organized notebook filled with all the information you’ve gathered about schools over the summer. This will be time well spent and it will help set you and your child up for success throughout the admissions process!

Lisa Marfisi

Lisa Marfisi has been a professional in education in Los Angeles since 1991. She was the Director of Admissions K-12 at Wildwood School and PK-6 at Echo Horizon School. She also worked at the Archer School for Girls, PS #1, and Westside Neighborhood School. Lisa’s experience has given her an understanding of what schools are looking for and enables her to help parents navigate the admissions process from an insider’s point of view. Lisa has been helping families with the admission process as a Director of Admission for 15 years. Her two children are in college at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. Lisa has experience as a parent at independent, public, charter and parochial schools.  She holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Contact information: email:  Ph: 310-560-9393 and web:

Beyond The Brochure’s Facebook Page keeps you updated with private school news and events!

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Making the Transition From Public to Private School for Middle and High School

Viewpoint Upper School
Viewpoint School, Calabasas, K-12

If your child is currently in a public school, but you’re thinking of applying to private school for middle or high school, here are tips to help you get started. Please note, we used the term “private schools” but many L.A. schools are called “independent” schools. The difference is that independent schools are non-profit and private schools are for-profit or may be run by a church or religious organization.

Getting started might seem a bit overwhelming, but if you approach the application process in an organized, step-by-step manner, you will be ahead of the game when it comes time to tour your first school!

Plan ahead. You will need to apply to private school one year before your child enters the school. So, if you are applying for 9th grade for 2018, you will start the process in September of 2017 or when your child is entering 8th grade.

Research schools you want to visit. You can go to the Los Angeles Independent Schools  to find a list of independent schools, but you may also want to look at Catholic schools that are run by the L.A. Archdiocese and we have a list of schools in Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools in Los AngelesIf you’re wondering why there isn’t just one big list, it’s because there are different types of schools that are not all governed by the same organizations.

Pay attention to deadlines. Each school has its own deadline various steps during the application process, but you can generally expect the following:

  1. Tour of schools (September-December)
  2. Written application (September-December)
  3. Parent interview (if required, October-February)
  4. ISEE Test is the Independent School Entrance Exam. Here is a great explanation of the ISEE test by Matt Steiner of Compass Prep. The ISEE is required for grades 5-12 at most private schools. Catholic schools have their own entrance exam called the HSPT. Because the ISEE has a high degree of difficulty, many families hire test preparation companies to help their kids prepare for the exam. Here are a few excellent options: Academic Achievers, Compass Prep, Learning Encounters and Team Tutors  The ISEE is administered from September-April. You should pay attention to school deadlines because the January ISEE may be too late for some schools.
  5. Child visiting/testing day (October-February)
  6. Transcripts, teacher recommendations (See school websites)
  7. Open houses, sports events, other school events (September-March)
  8. Notification of decisions (all LAAIS Schools notify on the same day in March. See school websites)
  9. Note: Deadlines are final and you must meet all deadlines. Schools do not make exceptions for late applications or other missed admissions deadlines!
Turning Point School, Culver City, Preschool-8th
Turning Point School, Culver City, Preschool-8th

Apply to At Least 3 Schools. No matter what grade you’re applying for, you should apply to enough schools that you maximize your child’s chances of getting in. Many schools receive far more applications than spots available, so you should consider applying to at least 3 or more schools.

Follow the school’s application rules. Even if the school’s admissions process seems cumbersome or just annoying, follow the rules. Pay attention to deadlines, avoid calling the admissions office numerous times to ask questions that could be answered by looking on the website, show up on time for interviews, be nice to everyone and that includes the people at the front desk, security, the tour guides, etc.

Be Familiar With Types of Private Schools. Determine the type of school you think will be best for your child (See our 7 part series about progressive or traditional educational philosophies here. Just like public magnet and charter schools, private schools differ in their mission and educational philosophy. Some private schools are a blend of educational philosophies, so it will be up to you to figure out the best fit for your child.

Tuition is expensive! Some of the top private high schools cost between $35,000-$38,000/year. Tuition typically goes up 4% per year. 

Apply For Financial Aid If You Can’t Pay Full Tuition. Financial aid is available and is based on family need. It’s not merit-based. It is a separate application process from the admissions process. Some schools will offer admission to a family irrespective of their financial aid needs. Other schools do consider a family’s need for financial aid and it may impact the admissions decision. But, if you cannot afford the full tuition, apply for financial aid!

Contacts/Connections Help, But Aren’t Necessary. You don’t need to know somebody at the school to get your child in! It can help, but it isn’t necessary, especially if you are a public school family and haven’t established those connections. Private schools understand that it is not the job of public schools to help your child get into private school.

Extra-curricular activities matter to private schools. Make sure to include your kid’s sports, music, theater activities. If they don’t have significant activities, look at the activities each private school offers. Would your child really like to get involved in the school newspaper or yearbook? Tell the school that! Let them know that’s one of the reasons you’re applying.

The Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs is a non-profit that functions like a school placement organization for minority families. Check out their services!

Educational Consultants. If you need help navigating the admissions process, educational consultants offer everything from one-time consultations to full-service packages. Sometimes, having an expert help you develop a list of schools and giving you advice about the admissions process or reviewing your written application can make a big difference in helping the process go smoothly.

Senator Kamala Harris speaks to seniors at Wildwood High School in West Los Angeles.
Senator Kamala Harris speaks to seniors at Wildwood Upper School in West Los Angeles.

Navigating the “Gap” year between end of public elementary and start of private middle schools. One of the biggest challenges families face is the fact that public elementary schools are K-5 and private elementary schools are K-6. So, the public schools end one year before private schools end. There are also private schools that are 7-12 so that presents a challenge too. You’ll need to consider where your child go during the “gap” year that is the result of schools not aligning. There are several options we’ll discuss below.

1. Understand the points of entry. Private schools accept the majority of students for kindergarten, 6th grade, 7th grade and 9th grade.  These are the grades when the most spots are open and accepting applications. Some schools will accept applications for other i.e. 3rd grade or 10th grade, but it depends of whether there are spots available. To inquire, call the admissions director to ask. You’ll need to call the admissions director one year before your child would enroll.

2. Consider a K-6 School for 6th Grade. You can also consider applying to K-6 schools for 6th.  Openings will depend on whether families have left the school, but it happens! You will need to contact each school. There’s no other way to find out if they will accept an application for 6th grade. So, roll up your sleeves and, when you’re ready, start contacting schools. They will require ISEE test scores in most cases. The drawback to this approach is if your child attends 5th grade at public school, 6th grade at a K-6 and then 7th grade at a different private school, that’s 3 separate schools in 3 years, a lot of transitions for the family. But, it happens every year and it’s one way to solve the problem of the gap between end of public school and start of the 7-12 private schools.

3. Apply to private middle schools for grades 6-8 with the intent to apply out for 9th grade. This can be a good option and many of the K-8 schools expect applications for 6th and 7th grades from public school families.

4. Enroll in your local public middle school or a magnet or charter for 6th grade

5. Apply to private schools that accept students for 6th grade. Here’s a partial list (in alphabetical order):

  • Archer School For Girls
  • Berkeley Hall
  • Buckley
  • Calvary Christian
  • Chaminade Middle and High School School
  • Crossroads
  • Geffen Academy at UCLA
  • New Roads
  • Notre Dame Academy Middle School
  • Pilgrim School
  • Rolling Hills Prepratory
  • Sierra Canyon
  • Turning Point
  • Westside Neighborhood School
  • Wildwood
  • Willows
  • Viewpoint
  • Wesley

See Beyond The Brochure’s School Profiles for detailed profiles of selected schools.

Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, Preschool-12th
Pilgrim School, Los Angeles, Preschool-12th

Questions arise about how parents can find out which are the “good” private schools or the “best” private schools. Public schools use the API to rank schools, but private/independent schools don’t use that measurement. Because private schools aren’t required to test students the same way public schools are, you will need to look at factors such as college placement, student/teacher ratio, teacher qualifications, AP and honors classes offered, size of the school, number of classes per grade, discipline policy, diversity of student and teacher population, standardized testing, location of the school, accreditation, head of school qualifications, campus facilities, security, extracurricular activities like sports, music and art that are offered and other factors that will contribute to your child’s education.

Attending events about the admissions process can also be helpful. We keep up with these events and post on Beyond The Brochure’s Facebook Page.

There are 3 types of admissions letters: Acceptance, wait-list and declined admission.

Finally, we’ve written about L.A. private school admissions on this blog since 2010, so there are lots of posts in the archives. Take some time to browse. Don’t let all the steps of the process intimidate or deter you. If you want to apply, do it! L.A. private schools want students from public schools! We’ve also written Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. The book is intended for parents apply to elementary school, but many of the admissions steps in the process are the same for middle and high school. The big difference is that for elementary school, the parents and the child are considered important during the process. For middle and high school, the child becomes more significant and the parents are not as central to to process. This is because older kids have grades, teacher recommendations, test scores, interviews, extracurricular activities so the school can evaluate a kid based on these factors.


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