Applying to a Private U.S. High School: Insider Tips to Impress Admissions

For middle schoolers around the world, admission to a top American private high school—otherwise known as a secondary school—is a key goal. But what does it take to get in?

Boarding schools like Exeter, Andover, and Groton are known worldwide, and their names carry more than just the promise of high-quality education. Graduates of these institutions often go on to Ivy League schools and top research universities. Their ranks include American presidents, tech titans, and Nobel-winning scientists, and many of the most accomplished medical doctors.

In short, acceptance to a top private high school in America can be an important step along a path to a successful academic experience and meaningful life.

Unfortunately, these schools are considered “elite” for a reason. Andover, for example, once boasted of accepting only 402 out of 3,029 applicants.

We all know that top American secondary schools are looking for academic achievers, gifted artists, and skilled athletes. But given the stiff competition for relatively few spots, many applicants are turned away each year.

So besides excellent grades, what will help your child stand out to admission officers? Here are a few insider tips, keeping in mind that every school approaches admissions differently.

Private Schools Look for Students Who Contribute to Their Communities

Private School Admissions Want to See Active Students
Private School Admissions Want to See Active Students

A top private school isn’t just a collection of high-achieving students. It’s a vibrant community with a unique culture. When selecting students, admission officers are looking for applicants who will contribute to the diversity and energy of the community.

Many schools look for students who are not only academically gifted but who are also socially aware and treat those around them with kindness and compassion. Schools are also looking for students who will immerse themselves in activities outside the classroom, such as:

Being Active in Athletics

Varsity, junior varsity, and club-level sports are available at most schools, and participation demonstrates dedication, grit, and perseverance.

Creating Culture in the Arts

Music groups, visual arts, and theater performances add to the atmosphere of the school. Creative activities show that a student is well rounded.

Excelling in Extracurriculars & Clubs

Technology, debate, Model U.N., and Math Team, just to name a few. Being involved with extracurricular activities is a key sign that a student is an active, responsible member of their community and can put what they have learned in the classroom to use in other areas.

Keeping Active with Community Service

Spending time studying and preparing for exams is important, but private high schools want to see students who also take time to help those around them and keep their community vibrant.

Just because a student isn’t a soccer star or violin virtuoso doesn’t mean they should worry. Top American secondary schools aren’t looking for impossibly gifted applicants; mainly, they’re looking for students who are well rounded and excited to jump in and get involved in the community.

Private Secondary Schools Want to be Your First Choice

Knowing Why You Love a School Can Help Make Them Love You As An Aplicant
Knowing Why You Love a School Can Help Make Them Love You As An Aplicant

Every top school in the U.S. requires applicants to participate in an interview. During the interview, admissions officers are looking for a range of factors, and chief among them is genuine enthusiasm for their school.

No one wants to feel like a backup plan, and top secondary schools are no different. They’re well aware that there are hundreds of boarding schools in the U.S. to choose from; they want to know they are the top choice.

There are a number of ways that applicants can demonstrate genuine interest in a school:

  • Talking about programs specific to that school and the ways they see themselves contributing.
  • Talking about the diversity of the school and how excited they are to be a part of it.
  • Talking about their plans to make the most of the school’s resources, like what they want to build in the robotics lab or what they hope to find in the media library.

Most of all, the applicant should be prepared to treat each school like a unique opportunity—not just another interchangeable boarding school.

American Schools Expect Students Who Can be Independent

Demonstrating Maturity & Independence Shows The School You Can Succeed.
Demonstrating Maturity & Independence Shows The School You Can Succeed.

Adjusting to life at boarding school can be a challenge. There’s no amount of studying or athletic practice that can prepare you for it. Top private high schools want to be sure their applicants are ready.

A top boarding school will expect future students to manage time effectively to study for tests and complete assignments. Each student will have to learn how to keep his or her dorm room tidy, manage laundry and mealtimes, and balance schoolwork with socialization. Not every 14-year-old is up for the challenge.

One way to ease the transition to secondary boarding school is to enroll in a junior boarding school — either for the entirety of middle school or just ninth grade. There, students can develop life skills and become more independent under the close supervision of faculty and dorm parents, without the extreme pressure of a competitive high school environment.