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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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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Guest Blogger Adine: Staying Sane During The Private Middle School Admissions Process

This morning, with tears running down my cheeks, I have finally achieved closure on the lengthy, yet exciting, middle school admissions process for my son.  It was a process that my husband and I decided we would embrace with gusto and enthusiasm, and we were determined that all of us, even my daughter who is years away from the process, would have fun with it, or as much fun as could be humanly possible.   We would all learn very quickly that there are many excellent choices in middle and high schools in Los Angeles – including some public schools that no one seems to be factoring into the mix.
We started the process in August by meeting with our Principal at Brawerman Elementary Of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and discussing options, thoughts and goals…even long-term dreams.  And, then we waited.  And we waited until that very first Open House – this one for both parents and kids, where almost the entire 6th grade from every private school in West Los Angeles descended upon the school that put itself out for the sacrificial first rite. 
The process repeated itself over and over again, some with the kids, some without.  Each one brought more excitement, comparisons, and lots of banter and new acquaintances, too (“oh, weren’t you at the open house last week?”).  We saw the new gym here, the new auditorium there, the plans for the 2011 build out, the new science labs, each reaching out with great attraction.  We saw excited teachers, engaged students and lots of active learning.  There were special “meet the coaches” practice sessions, coffees for girl and boy parents, and arts and media show and tell.  Some schools even bragged about their lunch program. 
I must say, most (and, I mean most) of the parents, both at our school and at other ones, were much less competitive and sly then I had heard I would experience.  They discussed their feelings – good and bad – as we marched through school after school, drinking weak coffee and eating mediocre bagels, and filling out some applications along the way.  Lots of fun chatter mixed with a little gossip, taking the edge off of the finality of it all.  And some Girls Nights Out with lots of alcohol didn’t hurt.
There was also the “dreaded” ISEE Prep Classes and In-Home Tutoring Services.  We decided to keep our stress-level in check and found the one that seemed the most mellow and fun.  And most of all, I adored Valerie, the owner of Learning Encounters.  I wasn’t sure my son would be into the classes, but he really enjoyed it.  Even now, he’ll talk about how fun it was and how the homework wasn’t too much.  He met new kids, and reconnected with old buddies from probably every city recreation league in town.  The class was kept fun and light by some fabulous instructors, and the plethora of flowing snacks didn’t hurt either…along with the red licorice that they grabbed on the way out the door.  Some parents came early to chat/whine/complain/brag with others about schools and the process, and that was also mildly engaging, at times, as well.  And, the test was the test…kids came loaded with number 2 pencils, the new and improved erasable pens, and a mountain of snacks and water, and gave it their all.  Lots of energy at test sites, and then the dreaded waiting for scores, which rolled in with unexpected, expedited, rocket speed for those that paid the extra $30 to get them via email.
And, then, it all stopped at the end of February.  The applications were filed away, and coffees, tours and interviews completed.  Quiet.  Deadly silence.  Most parents did all they could and/or wanted to do.  But, of course, it is the Westside of LA, and some did more – to be clear, we did not.  Well, except for the letter from his Club Soccer Coach, which some schools seemed to want, or at least list as “optional.”  The calls to well-connected friends on the Boards of the schools, friends of friends on the Board, friends of distant relatives, friends of a friend that stayed at the Kea Lani with another friend, or some chateau or villa…you know the type.  Basically, anyone they could find that knew someone, somewhere, on some Board.  It was “game on” for some, and for others, it was time to just have yet another lemon drop martini and relax.
And then, Saturday morning – Decision Day, 2011 finally arrived.   Home phones, cell phones, texts, iChats (for the kids)…they all lit up like a raging inferno. Incredibly, the servers didn’t crash and trunk lines didn’t go down all over the Westside.  Some were so happy that you could peel them off the ceiling, others got the expected, and others were crushed.  A few got into their pre-designated first and only choice, and postcards were completed by 5 P.M. on Saturday night; others cried and cried and then started the next step in the process…settling or strategizing, and still others got into decision-making mode.
We were lucky enough to get into our top choices, and it was decision time.  We had an early favorite and stood by our choice through the process until we unexpectedly found another love.  It was back and forth, and back and forth, but deep inside, we knew. We started the pro-con lists, over and over again, with calls into parents to make sure our first love was still as shiny gold as it had started.  And, it was…even more so.
Yesterday, I filled out the postcards, listed our selected school: Windward.  Then I got to the dreaded task of writing letters to the schools our son won’t be attending.  Heartbreaking. 
We loved so many of them, for so many reasons.  Some oozed passion for learning and the arts; some demonstrated that they could challenge our son at levels we didn’t conceive possible; and still others had sports and electives programs that were mind-blowing.  Really, we asked, how could anyone go wrong at any of these schools?    In the end, we picked a school, Windward, that seemed like the best fit for our son and our family.  But, I cried when I wrote that letter to our almost first choice.  I never thought I could get that attached to a school, but I did.  I even called them and cried when I told them we weren’t going.  But, in the end, we know we were fortunate to have a choice.   
And, most of all we kept the process light.  Saying he was “going on tour” like a rock band, and finding his new home away from home.  We laughed at some of the craziness together, made him feel like he would do great anywhere he went, never put pressure on him with the interviews, and just joked about whether he attended more than half of the first semester of 6th grade at his school.  And, of course there was his lucky interview polo shirt with his favorite soccer team logo on it.  I don’t think he’ll ever part with that shirt…he even wore it out to our “celebration dinner” on Decision Day.
The process is as easy or difficult as you make…keep it stress-free for yourself and your child, and have fun with it!  Any other way, and it is a pressure cooker waiting to explode…and now, only a couple of years until we start it all over again.  Oy.
Adine Forman grew up in Chicago and is an attorney who works 30 hours a week at a non-profit, while her children are in school.  Adine has been married to Dan, also an attorney, for 15 years, and has two children who play a combination of club soccer, travel basketball and lacrosse, school sports and musical instruments.  Adine spends all of her free time driving to gyms, and turf and grass fields throughout the Southern California Region.