The Only Admissions Letter That Mattered

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As many of you know, my kids happily entered Viewpoint School in Fall 2013 after 7 years at The Willows Community School. We knew it was time for a change after so many years at one school and my daughter was ready to begin 7th grade at a bigger school. So, we set out to find the right school for her. Twists and turns during the process last year left us feeling like we’d chosen to apply to the wrong schools. What seemed right at the time felt completely wrong for our daughter midway through the process. But, we pressed on, thinking that we’d finish the process and make our decisions then. I’m keeping things intentionally vague to protect the privacy of my 13 year-old, who is keenly aware of a lot of the things her mom writes. I know you understand.

 

As you may have guessed, applying for private middle school in L.A. is serious business. It’s also fickle because you’re dealing with a tween/teen. At one school where my daughter spent the day, they didn’t have enough chairs so she had to stand during several classes. This upset her, so she hated the school. We didn’t apply there. She loved another school because she had friends on the tour. We didn’t apply there either.

 

There are only a few top-tier schools for huge numbers of applicants, coming from both public and private elementary schools, including gifted magnets and charters. Points of entry for middle school are 6th grade (if there is one at the school), 7th grade and then for high school, 9th grade. The middle school admissions process is rigorous.

 

There are tours, parent interviews, student visiting days (long ones), an interview for the kid, letters of recommendation, lengthy applications (one written by the student and one by the parent). I do a lot of writing, but my portion of one written application still took me seven hours to complete. There are tons of prospective parent events and even more if you’re a minority family. There is the ISEE test and it is a very BIG DEAL that involves an ISEE tutor and at least a few months of tutoring (unless your kid already knows the material, which happens). Then there’s the 4-hour ISEE test on a Saturday. It is a mini-SAT. Of course, whether you kid plays sports is a huge deal.

 

We initially suspected that our interests and those of the incumbent school would not align. The Willows has a middle school and they want kids to stay through 8th grade for a variety of legitimate reasons.  However, our daughter’s world had become too small and she needed a change. Still, it was our backup plan. We had a daughter with all As, who was in 6th grade, but was taking 7th grade math and who had never had a discipline issue. Somewhere in the process we realized our son needed to move to a new school too. The pressure doubled. During our time at Willows we had donated the equivalent of the annual GNP of a small island nation over and above tuition.  Still, we anticipated, that wouldn’t be enough to ensure a smooth exit from the school. So we knew we’d need a contingency plan. But, we didn’t know what it would be. What we did know was that we were ready to move on–with or without their support.  

 

When a parent representative from one school where we applied called me during dinnertime to invite me to an African American parent event and then kept me on the phone for 30 minutes talking about her daughter’s basketball prowess (my daughter doesn’t play sports), I was about to lose my mind. Her voice droned on, as she asked me yet again whether my daughter played sports. I  tried politely to end the call. I was exhausted from the hours the process required and at that moment I realized this particular school was completely wrong for my daughter (who was totally dejected after spending an entire day there) and for our family. The call from Pompous Mom was the final straw. I didn’t attend the event for prospective African American families. The mere thought of it made me cringe…I pictured a bunch of prospective black parents standing around sipping cocktails, pretending to be comfortable, but really freaking out inside, while current black families talked about how fabulous the school was. No thanks. If Pompous Mom was any indication of what the evening would be like, I’d skip it. I didn’t attend the event, knowing it could be a deal breaker for our application. People are climbing over each other to get into this school and I’d just declined to show up at a black family event after a call from Pompous Mom and several emails from the school.

 

I also unwittingly made a terrible blunder during the admissions process at this school  by not asking a friend’s kid to host my daughter during visiting day. To do this, I would have needed to contact the school and request her kid, a current student. The message I got from my friend accused me of upsetting her kid–and worse. Confused and rattled, I had no idea that visiting day at this school is really a popularity contest and the kids who have a visitor assigned to them get public recognition by the school. I hadn’t meant to hurt her kid, I just didn’t know what other moms at her school already knew (but kept quiet for fear that their child wouldn’t have a visitor). Internal school politics that play out in the admissions process is how I’d sum this up.

 

Our parent interview at the same school can only be described as ridiculous. A 20-something admissions assistant who was brand new at the job conducted our parent interview. The interview consisted of her reading off a checklist to confirm that what our daughter said in her interview sounded correct. “Yes, that sounds like our daughter,” we nodded, making a mental note that our daughter hadn’t said anything inflammatory or immature. Once the checklist was completed, the interview was finished. The scenario in the waiting room was like something out of a cheesy movie…families dropping names, bragging ostentatiously about how rich they were, hurrying to coach their kids to make sure to say XYZ in the interview.  When the admissions director emerged from her office, she got a big over-the-top hug from the family she was about to interview. Their kid was the cousin of a current student who “happened” to stop by at that moment to say hi. They’d mentioned this to us as we waited. Sitting in the claustrophobic waiting room, Barry and I whispered to each other, “We misread this one!” What we saw—and what we’d seen during the tours and events– was not what we wanted. Nor did they want us, it turned out (we were wait-listed, but opted not to remain on the list). And that was a good thing, although stressful at the time.

 

Then, the most amazing thing happened: Viewpoint School. We toured, spending half a day there. Our kids loved it. Barry and I knew this was the right school in so many ways. Big academics (6 grads went to Stanford this year) and big sports, with a remarkable professionalism and warmth that starts at the top with the Headmaster, Dr. Bob Dworkoski. It seemed ideal for both our kids. We couldn’t believe that luck, serendipity, a few smart decisions, some quick thinking, advice from those in the know and a gut feeling about the school would result in both our kids getting in. The admissions director, Laurel Baker Tew was gracious, knowledgeable and welcoming. We connected with her in a way we hadn’t with admissions officials at the other schools. On the car ride home, we sensed the day had gone well, but we didn’t know what Viewpoint thought. We’d have to wait.

 

Then we got the only admissions letter that mattered. Acceptance to Viewpoint! For two kids. Cheers and hugs in our family. Calls to friends and family. A dinner celebration with our kids. The admissions process had worked, although not in the way we’d anticipated it would play out.

 

This school year at Viewpoint has been incredible for so many reasons. My daughter is pushed and encouraged academically—she works hard and has a lot of studying and homework in a traditional college preparatory environment. She also has a chance to try new activities like journalism, which she loves. She was selected as one of the editors of the middle school newspaper. She placed second in a middle school writing contest. She’s planning to audition for Jazz Lab (she plays guitar). She’s received Highest Honors for both quarters because she’s worked hard and has classes with teachers she adores. Many of the academic skills she learned in elementary school have served her well in the transition from progressive to traditional school. She has a wonderful group of friends. She’s happy because she’s at the right school. I’m not even going to pretend I’m humble-bragging. I’m just really proud of her (and my son too). I know you understand.

 

Our family is at the right school. It’s an awesome feeling.

 

I truly hope your family ends up at the right school too. Even if the route there is unpredictable. Good luck!

 

Here’s a link to some of our most popular previous posts about getting in, not getting in and being wait listed. Also, once you have acceptance letters, how do you chose? It’s all here. 

 

 

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Christina Simon: Los Angeles, California, United States I'm the mom of a daughter (15) and a son (12) who attend Viewpoint School in Calabasas. I live in Coldwater Canyon with my family and a rescue pit bull, Cocoa. Contact me at csimon2007@gmail.com

18 thoughts on “The Only Admissions Letter That Mattered

  1. Wow! I loved this piece. Thank you for your honesty and directness. Today is much harder than a week ago because waiting is impossible. I want to know now where my daughter will be going to school. Argh!

  2. So glad there was a happy ending for your kids. The application process is so wrong. It’s insane that parents and such young kids have to go through this high level of stress which is not that different than the level of stress relating to college applications.

  3. Thank you for sharing – your honesty is refreshing. Makes me realize we are not the only one questioning this crazy process!

  4. What a great piece and HOW true! Only ONE letter matters! (of course, I say this as a parent at public school). So glad this story and your family had a happy ending. And VERY honored to be a visiting author at your book fair this year!

  5. Ladies, thank you for your blog. I’m a Hancock Park parent. The information, advice and honesty shine through and have made this process so much better. We just got our first acceptance email!

  6. I’m so glad this process is behind me. I think middle school admissions was more stressful than college admissions, since there are so many more colleges to choose from. How wonderful that you found the right place for your family. Several of our friends felt they had won the lottery when their kids got into one of the very top private schools, only to be disappointed later when their kids were unhappy or unsuccessful there and either needed to or chose to leave. I only wish your blog would have been around when we were going through this process to educate us and help ease our nerves.

  7. I’m so glad I have you. If I ever had to go through this I would need you to help me keep my sarcastic mouth shut. SO glad this arduous process had a happy ending xoxo

    1. Hi Anna, we get a lot of requests for secondary school blog posts. Are you most interested in the admissions process or what life is like for parents/kids at private secondary schools? –Christina

      1. Both! :)
        We just went through the middle school application process and found it to have aspects (and stresses) that were very different from when we applied to elementary school. I think people would love to hear your thoughts (and advice) about how to have the conversation about “applying out” if their current school does have a middle/high school (and how the conversation may be different if they wish to keep the school as a back up vs. definitely wanting to leave), different approaches to the ISEE prep, the role of the family vs. the student in the application process, and maybe even more real life stories of what the process was like (just like what you wrote about yours). And I think people would also love to hear your thoughts about the experiences in middle (and high) school. How is it different from elementary school in terms of parent involvement, dealing with adolescence/peer pressure/academic pressure/wealth around them.
        This is probably more than you wanted to hear! But I enjoy reading your blog and definitely would love to hear more!

        1. Hi Anna, that’s a lot to think/write about! Good ideas, all of them. Maybe you’d like to write a guest blog piece for us? Applying out of Willows before 8th grade was no easy task…I felt like my kids were being held hostage and I needed the help of the Navy SEALS to helicopter in and airlift them out in the middle of the night in a stealth maneuver:) Why? Because the school wanted our tuition and annual giving dollars? They’re MY kids!

          1. LOL! I’ll leave the writing to those who can! :)
            Yep, applying out from a place that has a secondary school is not an easy process! It’s like you have to be in battle mode going into that meeting to discuss why it would be best for your child to leave after 6th! (I’ve prepared less going into a negotiation meeting at work. lol)
            The fact that your school was so intent on trying to keep your kids there is an indication that your kids are great kids, though! I’ve heard stories about how schools can’t wait to get rid of some “trouble” kids by encouraging them to apply out ;-)

  8. I’m not applying to middle school but your statement “What seemed right at the time felt completely wrong for our daughter midway through the process.” really resonates with me.

    My first choice schooI felt right for my son but once we went through the evaluation process, I realize it is not an ideal fit for our family (and that’s provided we even get an offer). My interview went well but upon meeting current parents and hearing more about the expectations involved, I realize the school is not ideal for my son.I made a mistake in ruling out a school (with an opposing philsophy) where I have friends due to distance. The K admissions date has closed for most schools.

    I would love to see you examine this issue in more detail. Surely, it couldn’t be an uncommon phenomenon? It seems a shame that many schools may miss out on great candidates and many candidates may miss out on finding the best fit due to deadlines. I would hope an admissions director would want to include all candidates including those who realize they made a mistake and are willing to admit they may not have the right fit for the family midway through the process.

    I just the lesson learned here is to cast a wide net and start the process early.

    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading! I think you’re right about starting early and casting a wide net. What a school appears to be about at first glance may not be accurate. Distance is an important factor, especially for early elementary school when long car or bus rides can be hard on everyone. To be honest, I have a post written on this very topic, but I haven’t published it. It’s a pretty stark examination of how I completely misread our former school. What dazzled me about it turned out not to matter (or to be just for show or maybe mattered to some parents) and what really mattered to me just wasn’t what they promised. What I did get in big doses, I disliked immensely. –good luck with your admissions process. And, don’t forget, some schools do take late applications after the deadline has passed. –Christina

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