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High School Admissions: 5 Tips for Mastering the Process

Why A High School Admissions Plan Is Essential

Admissions to prestigious private or magnet high schools — and even middle schools — is a tough process.

In fact, in many ways, it’s more complicated than college admissions. Thousands of colleges use the Common App or Coalition App, so students often only have to complete one application to apply to multiple schools. However, most high schools have different applications, different requirements, and different deadlines.

Plus, it’s more time-consuming for parents because their child is young and has no experience with applications, so parents have to be much more heavily involved.

Once parents realize they have to prepare for admission tests such as the SSAT, ISEE, or HSPT, fill out applications, get letters of recommendation, and visit school campuses, it can start to feel like a second job!

That’s why you need a plan.

Here are our tips and strategies to help you navigate the complex process stress-free.

Tip #1. Choose Your Schools Before August

Before school starts, you need to decide which high schools your child will be applying to. The fall will be very busy, so you want to start it off right with a game plan.

Make sure to note if the schools are private, magnet, or parochial, as this could affect the requirements, expectations, and overall application process.

Not only should you know the name of the schools, but which admission tests they require (HSPT, ISEE, SSAT, or school-specific). Additionally, you will need to schedule school visits and interviews. Coming up with an application calendar or chart is helpful for keeping everything organized.

Application Calendar

Here’s an example:

If you’re considering private boarding schools, it’s even more important to plan ahead because school visits and interviews will require several days of travel.

Since grades from the first marking period of 8th grade are a key factor in your applications, you don’t want your child to miss a ton of school days. Try and schedule school visits, test dates, and interviews on non-school days or half days. Holidays or three day weekends are a great time to plan for a visit or interview, but keep in mind that most parents will have exactly the same idea, so schedule early before appointment slots fill up.

Tip #2. Keep a List of Everything Required for the Application

High school or middle school applications have several parts that can be difficult to keep organized unless you come up with a system right away.

Here’s a chart we suggest you make to keep everything straight:

Let’s break down this chart a little bit more.

Application Format

It’s important to note which online platform a high school or middle school is using for their application submission or if they require you to mail it.

Ravenna and SAO are common online application portals for private or independent schools. If multiple schools on your list are using one of these platforms, then you can create one application to submit to multiple schools. That saves you time and effort!

However, many schools use their own specific online platform (such as BCA) or require you to mail in applications. This again is where the above chart will be a helpful organizer because it will help you remember which part of each application overlaps and which are different.

If you will be working with different online platforms, make sure you and your child come up with a simple, easy-to-remember username and password that you use for all of them. Don’t let your child come up with their own.

In our experience, kids often pick difficult and separate passwords for each online portal that they soon forget. You don’t want you, your child, or a recommender to get locked out of the account! Remember, you will most likely be logging in to your user account several times before you submit.

Transcript

All schools will ask for a student’s transcript. This transcript will include a student’s current GPA, grade history, and state exam scores. Your child’s transcript is with his or her current school district (or if they attend an independent school, then it will be with that school or larger organization). You can request the transcript at any time. Talk to your principal or administration early on about the best way for you to obtain your child’s records.

Guidance Counselor Recommendation

Another great reason to plan ahead: guidance counselor recommendations!

Most schools will ask for a letter of recommendation from a guidance counselor. This is something that is outside of your control. You cannot influence or edit what the counselor writes, and many young students may feel that they don’t know their guidance counselor and vice versa.

However, now you and your child can take time early on to meet with the guidance counselor. Explain to the counselor where your child is applying and which subjects he or she is most interested in. Letting your child develop one-on-one face time with his or her counselor will help the counselor get to know your child better. Recommendation letters are always strongest when they are more personal.

Teacher Recommendations

Many schools ask for teacher recommendations, usually one from an English teacher and one from a Math teacher. Occasionally, a school may ask for a recommendation from a third teacher such as a Science teacher or for a letter from a coach, director, or leader of an extracurricular activity such as sports, band, choir, or a volunteer organization.

Again, you cannot control what the person writes or if they will even write the letter of recommendation. So use your early planning to your advantage by reaching out to teachers early.

Make sure you or your child talk to them about which school your child is applying to, why he or she is applying to these schools, and give them all necessary information for submitting the letter, so they can do so as conveniently as possible. Make sure you give them plenty of time to write the letter.

Some schools will specify which grade level the teachers must belong to; others will not. However, generally you will want to go with your child’s current grade level teacher or the previous grade level, rather than several years back.

Most applications for high school are due in January, so your child’s current 8th grade teachers will only have known your child one semester when they submit their letter. All the more reason for you and your child to form a relationship with teachers early on by letting them know about your child’s high school ambitions. Personal letter are the best letters.

Writing Sample

A writing sample is an essay or writing piece your child wrote, likely for their English or Language Arts class, that has been graded by his or her teacher and returned to the child. It doesn’t have to be a clean copy; in fact, it’s better if it shows the grade markings of the original teacher.

Schools use writing samples to evaluate your child’s writing ability. However, it is also used to verify that your child actually wrote his or her application essay and not you (never write your child’s essay!)

It is important for you to note right away if the school requires a writing sample because many teachers don’t return a child’s essay or keep it. Even if they do return a graded writing assignment, many times you and your child don’t keep it!

Plan ahead by letting your child’s English teacher know at the beginning of the semester about the required writing assignment. The teachers will probably let you know when the first assignment is due and graded and will make sure your child receives a copy.

Obviously, if the school requires a writing sample you want it to be a strong essay! So you and your child should focus on building strong writing skills. Check out our MEK Writing Lab program to see how we help students become top writers in the classroom.

Due Date

Of course, it’s crucial that you keep all the due dates for applications straight or all your hard work will be wasted!

Don’t rely on your child to remember. Use your chart and make sure you are gathering all the necessary items with time to spare. Most application deadlines are in December or January, but some may be as early as November. Note that many private school applications are due January 15th.

Tip #3. Create a Resume for Your Child

On the application and during an interview, you will be asked many questions about your child’s activities, accomplishments, and skills. It’s hard to remember what your kid did and when they did it. So a resume is a great reference document that will keep track of all of your child’s awesome accomplishments!

To get started, sit down and brainstorm with your child all the activities that they participate or have participated in. Think about sports, band, clubs, organization, or camps they’ve attended. Try to remember what, when, and where and any special skills they learned or distinctions they earned while participating.

Here’s an abbreviated example of one of our student’s resumes (minus any personal info) to get you started:

Tip #4. Prepare for the Test

These prestigious schools will require an admission test.

Two of the most popular tests for private schools are the SSAT and the ISEE, while the HSPT is very popular among parochial schools. However, many independent or magnet schools may have their own admission tests. In addition to finding out which test or tests your child will be taking, you need to give your child enough time to prepare.

One of the biggest mistakes parents make is underestimating how much time their child needs to reach a top score.

Remember, the more prestigious the school the higher your child’s score will need to be. For instance, if you are applying to a top-notch private school that accepts the SSAT or ISEE, your child needs to reach the 90th percentile of test-takers to be considered a competitive candidate.

These exams test skills and knowledge that your child will not find in the classroom, so it is crucial they spend time specifically preparing and practicing for the test.

Let’s look at each test more carefully:

SSAT

This test requires higher reading comprehension than children are accustomed to at school.

For instance, they may have to interpret and answer questions about a poem in a timed environment. This test also requires a high school level vocabulary for the verbal section, a strong understanding of analogies, and a rock solid foundation in mathematical concepts and calculations. Students must also complete an essay in 25 minutes.

Our recommendations for your child:

ISEE

The ISEE overlaps significantly with the SSAT. It too requires above-grade level vocabulary and strong reading comprehension skills. However, it also requires above-grade level math skills.

For instance, students must answer quantitative comparison, Algebra, and complex word problem questions.  Students must also complete an essay in 30 minutes.

Our recommendations for your child:

HSPT

The HSPT is very different from the ISEE and SSAT. It has a difficult Language section that requires students to have an in-depth understanding of grammar and mechanic rules including spelling. It also has almost double the number of questions, and no essay.

Our recommendations for your child:

Bergen County Magnet Schools

Since our campuses are located in Bergen County, many of our students and parents are interested in Bergen County Academies (BCA), Bergen County Technical High School (BT), or Academies @ Englewood. All three are prestigious magnet schools and have admission tests that are very different from the standardized SSAT, ISEE, or HSPT.

If you want to learn more about what’s on these tests, check out our blog on BCA Admissions and Prep.

Our recommendations for your child:

Dual Prep

Once you’ve completed your application calendar, you might notice that you need to prepare for multiple tests.

How are you going to prep for different tests, plus keep all the deadlines, test dates, and applications straight?

With our help.

Here are our recommendations for your child:

  • Take our Summer Exam Prep 8 class to build key foundational skills for all H.S. tests.
  • In the Fall, we’ll customize your study plan to accommodate dual preparation. For instance, if your child is taking both the SSAT and BCA prep, we’ll have him or her join our SSAT/ISEE Test prep class through October/November, then transition to BCA Prep until the admission test in January. If your child is taking both the ISEE and HSPT, we’ll create an individualized study plan, so he or she can concentrate on one test at a time. If your child is taking the SSAT and ISEE, our Fall SSAT/ISEE class already prepares him or her for both!

Note: For all students, we suggest starting in the Summer or even with MEK Labs in the Spring.

Remember, it takes time for students to reach their full potential on these tests, and the fall is already jam-packed with a list of to-do’s for admissions, plus they need to focus on their grades.

The best way to avoid stressing out your child is to start preparation early!

Tip #5. Take the Admissions Process Seriously

As you can see from above, the admission process is rigorous!

Many parents don’t plan ahead or decide they will have their child apply to one or two top schools, just to “try.” To quote the wise Yoda from Star Wars, there is no try.

If you really want your child to have a shot a top schools and not feel unprepared or stressed out, you have to go into it with a strategic plan. You need to come up with a list of schools that range from safety schools, competitive schools, and top schools. Plus, you need to come up with a plan to make sure they have the best shot at acceptance.

Use the above tips and MEK Review to help you map out the best course.

If you want more information about navigating high school or middle school admissions and test preparation, call 855-346-1410 or contact us for a free consultation.

We look forward to helping you!

Katie Weisman

Katie Weisman is a driven, dedicated English teacher at MEK Review, who leads group test prep classes, as well as one-on-one sessions with students. Her passion for teaching, in-depth knowledge of test content, and use of our systematic approach to test preparation helps her guide students to high test scores, strong writing skills and their full potential.

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