Private schools: what to avoid when picking

February 21

When you’re thinking about private schools for your child, beware of a few common obstacles that seem to trip up even the most seasoned parents:

1. Putting all your eggs in one basket: Sometimes parents will have one school in mind that they view as “perfect,” and all their energy goes into getting their child into that single place. Don’t let unbridled optimism get the best of you — otherwise, you and your child will be disappointed if that top school doesn’t work out. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a top choice, just that you should always have a backup plan.

2. Equating low acceptance rates with superior quality: It’s easy to assume that the harder the school is to get into, the better the education, but that simply isn’t true. Don’t make the mistake of putting a highly competitive school with very low acceptance rates a rung above another school that may not be quite as tough to get into. There are many academically challenging schools in our area that provide just as good an education as their counterparts without the same exclusivity. Look beyond acceptance-rate data to the mission of the school and the strength of its academic program.

3. Having too many “reach” schools on the list: This is the biggest mistake parents make. Last year, I had a mom come to me in March after her daughter had received denial letters from all three schools to which she applied. Upon examining her grades (which were excellent) and her SSAT scores, which weren’t so good, I would have encouraged her to apply to one or two less competitive schools, but at that point it was too late. She had no option but to enroll her daughter in the local public school.

4. Ruling schools in or out based on their matriculation list: I’ve seen too many parents add or subtract a school from consideration based on the matriculation list. This is a big mistake. Although the school your child might attend next is always a factor, it should never be the deciding factor in where to go right now. When too much emphasis is placed on getting into a competitive high school or top-tier college, it sends the message that school is all about grades and test scores, and that students’ self-worth is defined by where they attend school. Far more important is the process or the journey. Developing socially and emotionally is just as important as developing academically. Be sure that your judgment is not clouded by factors that are only a small part of the equation.

— Ann Dolin in “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition”

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