Applying For 9th Grade: Skylar’s Story

Photo: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr
Photo: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr

Here, I interview one of my good friends, Skylar, about her experience as a mom going through the L.A. private school admissions process for 9th grade. Her son, Luc, attended The Willows for K-8, which is where we met. I think it’s always helpful to hear different perspectives about admissions from a variety of voices.–Christina

Question: Thank you, Skylar, for sharing your family’s experience with the 9th grade admissions process with our readers. Can you describe what the process was like for your family?

Answer: In a word, CHALLENGING. My son really wanted to go to Crossroads. My husband and I really wanted him to go there. Crossroads was his first choice. He wanted to be in the Crossroads theater program and play baseball there. We had high hopes that coming from The Willows he’d get in. He is a multi-faceted kid (baseball, theater, led tours of Willows, rock band, good grades and engaging personality). His ISEE scores were good, but not great. We had great letters of recommendation from parents at the school, his theater director, his baseball coach and even the head of the baseball league. Despite all this, he didn’t get in. It was devastating for him and for me and my husband. He was wait-listed and we tried so hard to get a spot from the wait-list, but it didn’t happen. It was an emotional time for us. Luc had good friends going to Crossroads and he wanted to go there with them. And, we thought it would be the best school for him. But, the numbers didn’t work in our favor. There were too many families with board-level connections and we didn’t have those relationships. Fortunately, he was accepted at 3 other schools.

Question: What do you think was the most difficult part of the process?

Answer: Definitely it was the written application.  The parent essays and the essays our son had to write for every school were very tedious. They are so time-consuming and you want to answer the questions directly but still be interesting and not dull.  Some schools require long essays and others are short. Each school asks different questions. Whew!

Question: What was the easiest part of the process?

Answer:  We are all outgoing and talkative, so for our family the interviews were the least stressful part of the process. We can talk to a potted plant and make it a two-way conversation. But, if you are the quiet type, or your kid is quiet, try to anticipate the type of questions you’ll be asked and practice answering the questions. The schools might ask why you want your kid to attend the school. They might ask your kid why he/she wants to go to the school or to talk about his/her extracurricular activities. If it’s an all-boys or all-girls school, they might ask your kid why he/she wants to attend a single-sex school. Vague, general answers aren’t what they’re looking for. Try to be specific!

Question: What advice would you give parents who are applying for 9th grade?

Answer: Cast a wide net! Tour a lot of schools. Apply to enough schools so you end up with options. Look outside your obvious choices or the most “popular” schools. Look for schools where other families at your current school are not applying. Remember that if you’re at a private school, your head of school has a lot of families who are applying to the same few schools, so if you can apply to a school that is not on that list, your might have a better chance of getting in. Your kid is competing against his/her classmates, unfortunately.

Question: Do you think it’s possible for a kid to get accepted without letters of recommendation?

Answer: Yes! At one school, we didn’t know anybody and Luc got in. At the other schools, we did have letters from current parents. The admissions process is very political at some schools. It can be about who your family is, or what you do for work, at some of these schools, even for 9th grade. If your job gives you strong connections to board members that’s a big deal.

Question: Do you have any words of advice for other parents?

Answer: Try to stay calm and know that your family will get through the process, possibly with an unexpected or surprising (in a good way!) outcome. Don’t rule out a school just because it is different than your current school. Kids change and have different educational needs in high school than they had in elementary school. Keep an open mind. Look at teachers, classes offered, extracurricular activities and college placements at prospective schools. Do they fit with what your kid wants? What you want for him/her? If so, apply! We were way too focused on one school and didn’t initially realize that there was another school that was a great choice for Luc. Also, I’d say that a lot of D1 sports school are religious, but don’t let that deter you. They attract kids of all faiths who come to play sports or for other programs.

Thank you, Skylar for your insights and advice–Christina

Skylar is the mom of Luc, a sophomore at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, where he is enjoying playing baseball and excelling at the all-boys school. 

Names have been changed for privacy. 


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Guest Blogger Alice: Getting Into Brentwood School for 9th Grade

Brentwood Upper School

I used to say that if everyone applying to private schools only met Keith Sarkisian, the then head of admissions at Brentwood (2008), no one would go anywhere else.  I must have been on to something because before I knew it, he was made head of Brentwood’s Lower School.  That says to me, that the school is moving in all the right directions. He was thoughtful, humorous, seemed to still value common sense and serious education.  So – another great school, how do you get in?


One of my daughters went to Brentwood and the other to Harvard-Westlake (H-W). Both went at 9th grade which is a trickier move going to Brentwood than H-W simply because of the numbers game.  Brentwood is taking between 15-20 kids in 9th grade and H-W is taking 70.  If you have a good student with good grades, excellent teacher recs and solid ISEE’s (I’d say scores of 6 and up), frankly they may have a better chance at H-W simply because of the numbers.  But if you know that Brentwood is the school you want to be at, it is still possible.


Probably the most important thing you need to communicate in the application process is that Brentwood is your first choice.  If they know you are also applying to H-W and Crossroads and sense that they are your “back up” choice, I doubt they’ll be that interested.  The year my oldest daughter applied, she was coming from Mirman School and no one in her class that year really wanted H-W.  A “mean girl” had left Mirman for H-W in 7th grade and it profoundly colored how the others felt when applying out in 9th grade.  It shouldn’t have theoretically, but it did.


Let me put this issue another way.  If you know Brentwood is a good choice for your family (think location, serious education, excellent sports and art programs, etc.) then seriously consider applying earlier.  I don’t know much about their lower school, but I’ve already indicated I think it’s in good, capable hands.  If your child doesn’t get in at kindergarten, but you’re confident it’s a match, try again, let the school know how much you want to be there and more importantly why.  They will listen.  (If on the other hand you’ve been rejected several years running, then accept they may never agree and move on).


If you’ve chosen a lower school that works for you and are now looking towards middle school or high school, you’ll have a much better chance applying for 7th than 9th grade.   In my opinion if you have a girl, going in at 7th grade will be an easier transition anyway.  A lot of the Brentwood girls have been together since kindergarten and teenage girls can be cliquey and difficult, so the sooner the better.  They accept about 70 kids into the 7th grade and that allows for lots of other new kids to bond with and gets the child there while there are still shifting groups and friendships.


But if you’ve waited until 9th grade, as I did… all is not lost.  But you have to come in strong.  That will mean different things to different families.  I’ve known kids who got in with weak scores and weak grades but were from spectacular donor families.  Money talks at every school and anyone who says otherwise isn’t speaking the truth.  That doesn’t mean money can buy a troubled kid, or a kid who is truly unqualified, a spot at any school, but it can give the edge to a qualified candidate.  For other applicants it’s sports.  Brentwood has a great tennis team, water polo and a variety of other sports, if you have an athlete, work it.  It can compensate for weaker ISEEs or grades.  My daughter was a drama kid and that is another area in which Brentwood excels.  She was also a strong writer.


I will say this, location matters a little more with Brentwood than it does with H-W for example.  For one thing, you can get trapped on Sunset Blvd. at certain times of day, which can cause aggravation.  Secondly, there are a lot of Westside familes that attend the school.  If you live out of area, a lot of your child’s social time will be spent in Brentwood and you have to think about whether that works for your family.  We live in the valley right off the short cut that takes you over the hill to Brentwood and the commute was easy and reverse from normal traffic.  So it was a match.


It also worked for our daughter.  She was a good student but not a hyper-ambitious one.  At 9th grade she didn’t know who she was yet, or where she was headed.  She was an “all arounder”.  She liked a lot of things including theatre and music, but wasn’t a musical prodigy or aspiring to be a movie star.  Because of Brentwood’s size it was a great place for her to find herself. She stumbled into the newspaper in 10th grade and discovered she loved it.  By her senior year she was editor-in-chief.  At a place like H-W if you don’t hit the ground running in 9th grade, it will be hard to find a place on the managing staff, much less make EIC by 12th grade.


But don’t let the smaller size fool you.  If you have an academic kid, you can get every bit as challenging a learning experience at Brentwood as you can at H-W. With the exception of certain math geniuses who really need to be at H-W, most bright kids will find everything they need at any of the top schools.  The AP English class my daughter took at Brentwood I’d stand next to any class at H-W in terms of rigor, excitement and college preparation.


There is one more thing to consider; because it is a westside school there is a lot of money there.  I love money, huge fan and always hope to have more of it.  Just bare in mind that because of the size of the school, you have a preponderance of families who can afford to live in that area and that ain’t cheap.  Your children will be exposed to beautiful homes which is fantastic, people who have done great things, and be given many opportunities – all good.  The only flip side to that is that a lot of kids go out for sushi for lunch and get new Audi’s when they turn 16.  Know who you are and what you have and what you think your kids should have.  If your family is going to feel deprived and left out and unhappy then find another place. We didn’t fit the mold, but my daughter never cared about that stuff and was thrilled with her 1999 Volvo.


(As an aside you have every bit as much extravagant wealth at H-W but because of the sheer size of the school you also have every other kind of family as well.)


To recap:  Brentwood is not a back up school to H-W and shouldn’t be treated as such.  Know why you like Brentwood and communicate it. This is especially true in 9th grade.  I’d add that I knew kids who picked the wrong school for them in 7th grade and switched. In fact, I know several examples of kids who transferred out of H-W to Brentwood and visa versa.  Finding your match is really the important thing.


ISEE scores do matter to Brentwood, although I don’t believe they weigh them quite as heavily as H-W.  Grades and teacher recs are critical in all applications, if you know Brentwood is your first choice let the teacher writing your recs know that as well.  Know what kinds of clubs and extra curricular activities etc. Brentwood offers and which ones your kid will want to be a part of.  Be mindful of when you apply and the numbers game, there is no point in wearing rose colored glasses. Because it’s a smaller and therefore more tight knit community, if you know people in it, tell them you’re applying and see if they can help you.  Having somebody walk into any admission and saying, “Hey I heard so so in so is applying and they’re terrific” will always help. This applies to any school.  And of course a great interview.  Brentwood has the time and resources to really do great interviews with the applicants and applicant parents. This is where your kid can really make or break his or her application.  And it also gives you a chance to say why you think Brentwood is a fit for your child.


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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