Secondary School Admissions: Q&A with Admissions Director (re-post)

Hugh Gallagher Essay


This post was originally published on June 9, 2015. It was written by Beyond The Brochure’s guest contributor, Alice. We are sharing it again because extracurricular activities for the secondary school admissions process are a BIG DEAL! 

I consider myself occasionally sane when it comes to parenting. I don’t wildly over book my kids, or expect them to be proficient in coding by third grade, nor do I ask them to study Chinese on the weekends, so I don’t think of myself as someone prone to resume padding, but I’ve done it. The reality is that middle and high school applications give you large spaces in which they expect you to write down your child’s extracurricular activities and awards. It’s a painful process if you’ve got nothing, so even the best of us have turned walking the dog into “community service.”

There are a lot of blank spaces on those applications to fill in and if your child doesn’t play an instrument, hates sports and hasn’t saved the needy lately, you may have a problem that a last minute visit to a homeless shelter and a day in computer camp won’t fix it. My older children had enough real things to muddle through. So far my son has baseball. If you know you plan to send your kid to private school, then you need to think about this earlier than you might like to, not in order to do resume building, but to genuinely help your child start to identify his or her interests.

I sat down with an admissions veteran who has 25 years of experience at at prestigious private schools (in L.A. and other cities) to ask about the importance of extracurriculars.–Alice

Alice: Thank you for taking the time to educate us on what admissions directors like yourself think about the importance of an applicant’s extracurricular activities.

Admissions Director: If the child is an academic match for the school but you have five spaces and fifty students who would be academically great… That’s when you start looking at the extracurriculars… at who is the violinist and whose the swimmer.

Alice: How much detail are you looking for?

Admissions Director: I would not go into great detail on an application about each specific kind of activity. Use bullet points and be brief. The thicker the file, the more questions I will ask. Why do you need this resume and two DVDs that show a choir performance? When you supplement, make it really relevant. Frankly I don’t have time to watch the whole thing (choir performance) anyway.

Alice: What do you think when you see few or no outside interests?

Admissions Director: That depends on the child’s age. A student who is younger might not really know what their passions or interests are yet and that’s okay. You wouldn’t expect a middle school child to have already identified all their interests.

Alice: Is there a good number?

Admissions Director: There or four… That might show they have already developed a few interests, things that speak to them already.

Alice: How do you separate a kid’s real interests from the parent’s resume padding?

Admissions Director: In an interview you can tell what a child is truly passionate about or truly loves. If you ask about Chinese and their eyes glaze over, that might not be their true interest. Then you talk soccer, and they get excited, our team did this and that. When they have details and are excited to talk about it, you know it’s real. Especially as you’re going into seventh or ninth grade… they are much more communicative than third graders are.

Alice: Is all lost for the kid with nothing on the resume?

Admissions Director: Not necessarily. Sometimes you meet a kid with no big identifiable interests and think that maybe the school can be the spark that ignites that kid who hasn’t found him/herself yet. But that depends on everything else in the file. If every teacher says great student. and a pleasure to teach, then that’s still interesting. Resumes are tie- breakers in a way. First you look at the student academically and whether he/she will be a good fit for the school, then the resume is the gravy.

Alice: Are you focused on class building?

Admissions Director: When I put classes together, I read all the folders first and focus on getting to know the individual child and family. But, there is a time after you’ve somewhat put the class together, that you think, “What am I covering here?” Do we have diversity, the artists, the sports kids? You want to make sure you have a mixture and a rich environment for other students.

Alice: Thank you for your time!

This is just what I suspected. The reality is that schools like Harvard-Westlake, Viewpoint, Brentwood, etc. are all trying to build classes. For them that means they need a wide variety of kids with different interests. They’ve hired a drama teacher and someone to teach Chinese so they need to look for kids who will audition for plays and study language. And they need to field their teams. The admission director can no more accept a hundred kids who want to play football than they can take thirty kids who play the piano. They have to have tennis players, soccer and field hockey players and the whole rest of the orchestra.

It’s like the old Kennedy quote… ask not… what the school can do for your kid, but what your kid will do for the school.–Alice

Mother of three, Alice attended east coast private schools as a child and has been in the private school world as a parent for nearly twenty years. Her kids attended Mirman for elementary, then Harvard-Westlake and Brentwood for high school, with one still to go. She is a writer working in film, TV and for various magazines such as Family Fun, Wondertime, Glamour and Brides.

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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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