Boarding School Application Essay

Much has been written about how to write a parent statement or essay for your child’s applications to private preschool or continuing K–12 schools, but little has been written on what not to write.

For parents of preschoolers to students at older points of entry (and all the years in between), the finest example of admissions/application essay instructions can be found in the Common Application to U.S. colleges and universities.

The Common App asks applicants to write a statement of 650 words about anything — anything at all — so long as the statement is about them. You may think that sounds easy, but it’s not. For example, the finest Common App essay I have ever read was by a high school senior who, at age seven, started volunteering with kids diagnosed with cancer. The little girl became a national advocate for volunteering with sick children, appeared in the media, and won prestigious awards for her work. Over a decade, she worked with over 100 hospitalized children, befriending each one as well as their families. Her college essay, however, wasn’t about her work or the accolades she received for it. It instead detailed how she had stayed close to these parents and siblings, and talked about the emotional impact upon realizing that she was a link, often the final one, to the children the families had lost.

The same principles apply to parent essays. To make it easier, we ask parents to not use adjectives when they write and describe applicants. Terms like brilliant, gifted, caring, talented, and a host of others not only bore admissions committees, but scare them. If, for example, a parent genuinely feels his child is brilliant or gifted, is that same parent going to expect and demand “special” treatment for that child if and when she is admitted to the school, taking teachers’ precious time away from the class at large? That is how to get rejected on the spot.

Try to write an anecdotally-driven parent statement.

For young children, a day in the life of your child is far more interesting and introductory than a list of his or her attributes as observed by Mom or Dad. For older kids, one or two academic or social experiences is a good suggestion for parent admissions statements, especially the effect these experiences had on the child’s development.

Do not write a statement longer than a single page.

There is much to say about every child, but school applications may not be the venue in which to say it. If schools receive 900 parent statements for a particular point of entry, how much do you believe actually gets read if the statements are overwhelmingly long? More saliently: will it get read at all?

Do not feel you have to impress.

Usually when parents write to impress, it has the opposite effect. The “leader” who is always first to finish the reading or art or math project and “help” his peers in the classroom, while at the same time designs the group’s imaginary games and activities, is often perceived as demanding and overbearing. This is a more central question: can that same leader also assume the role of follower, giving others a chance to shine and create?

Don’t try to conjure the future.

The kid who likes playing with a science kit is not necessarily destined to become a neuroscientist, just as the kid who enjoys writing about his summer vacation is not necessarily tomorrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Above all, don’t overstate.

A child who donates his or her gently used clothes or toys to charity is not Mother Theresa helping the poor, or Jimmy Carter building homes for humanity. She is a kid learning about charity and community service.

Balance what you write.

Few kids, especially younger children, actually sit around all day trying to perfect a task or learned skill, whether that be math, writing, art, or computer science, and if they do, they are missing out on many other aspects that childhood and adolescence exist to introduce them to. Admissions directors are famous for asking the magic question, “What else is your child interested in?” Schools do not teach one subject; they teach many.

Don’t brag, even inadvertently.

Your child’s interest in the ocean, marine life, and swimming is fine to write about as is his fascination with changing seasons, nature, and animals, as long as it isn’t preceded by the words: “At our vacation home ...”

Finally, an admissions essay is not the place to list the people you know who are connected to a school (parent, alumni, board member, etc.). For the most part, admissions directors do not like the “powers that be” to dictate which students to accept, and that is the subtle message of a parent statement that name drops.

We are taught to be ourselves at every turn. It’s hard to do in private school admissions, when you suspect that other parents are presenting better selves than they really are, and, of course, painting rosier, larger-than-life pictures of their children. Yet, being honest often yields the best results in terms of admission at virtually every point of entry. Think about the simple, beautiful message of the aforementioned Common App essay.

Back in the 80s when our daughters applied to boarding schools, the process was entirely paper driven. The schools sent us thick envelopes full of forms which we had to complete. Then we mailed the completed applications to the schools. Thirty-five years later, I am very pleased to report that most schools applications processes have gone digital. That makes things so much easier. These days there are essentially four ways to apply to boarding schools:

1. Complete the application forms which the school has on its website. 
2. Complete the common application which you can find on the SSAT website. 
3. Complete the common application which you can find on the TABS website.
4. Complete the paper application forms which you have either downloaded or received from the school.

Applications on Individual School Web Sites

If you are applying to just one or two schools, then it might make the most sense to simply go to those schools' websites and complete the applications right there. Many schools allow you to complete the main application form online. You will still have to download teacher recommendation forms and requests for school transcripts, as well as addressing and putting stamps on the envelopes required.

You can also pay the application fee online with your credit or debit card. But, if you choose to use the school's application forms, just remember that those forms are specific to that school. They cannot be used for applications to other schools. That's the basic difference between applying on a school website versus using one of the common applications. After you complete a common application, you can select the schools to which you would like to send an application. The software will take care of sending the information to the schools which you have chosen.

The SSAT Standard Application Online

The Secondary School Admission Test organization has developed a Standard Application Online (SAO) which most of their member schools accept. This simplifies the applications process since the SAO includes all the forms most schools use: Student Information Form,  Student Questionnaire, Parent Statement, Teacher Recommendation Forms (English, Math, School Head/Counselor) and Academic Record (Transcripts). Best of all, the SAO is included at no extra charge when you register to take the SSAT test.

When you use the SSAT Standard Application Online, you only need to request one set of teacher recommendations and transcripts. The SAO software will send those confidential documents to the schools which you have selected. Naturally, some schools require you to complete additional forms. The SAO knows which schools require those extra forms or supplements as they are called. The bottom line here is that you can save time and stay well-organized by using the SSAT's Standard Application Online whenever you can.

The Boarding Schools Admission Application Form

The Boarding Schools Admission Application Form offers a convenient way to apply to more than 200 boarding schools. These schools will accept all of the TABS application forms, or some of them depending on the way each individual school handles its respective admission procedures. As with the SSAT's Standard Application Online some schools will have additional forms which they will want you to complete. The system knows this and will alert you to the additional forms needed.

The application fees vary from school to school. They range from zero to $150. 

The Paper Application Process

In most cases where schools require you to complete and submit paper application forms, they will give you an admissions packet with all the materials which they require. Some schools, such as The Academy of the Holy Family, Baltic, Connecticut, will ask you to download and print application forms which they have on their websites. I recommend that you obtain the forms or download and print them as soon as you can.

Print all information neatly using black ink. If the application form requires an essay or a long answer to a question, do a rough draft of your response first. Then copy the final, corrected version onto the application form. Louisa Zendt offers some valuable advice about the admissions process,


1. Start the application process well in advance, certainly no later than the end of October. This gives you almost 2 months to complete your applications. Remember that two major holidays occur in November and December. Nothing much gets done during those special times when families gather and schools close down. So, don't leave your applications to the last moment. The Teacher Recommendations should be in the hands of your child's teachers no later than mid-November, if not earlier.

2. Request the academic transcripts and principal's recommendation as soon as you can. The earlier the better.

3. Applying to schools assumes that you have visited the schools. It makes more sense to do that BEFORE you apply. Use our Application Calendar to help you organize your school search process. But in the rare situation where you have not visited a school, try to get that done before the Thanksgiving holiday break.

4. Set aside some quiet time for your child to write her essays. Make sure that the television is off and her phone and tablet are in your possession. She should have no distractions while she writes her essays.

5. Likewise, don't rush through the Parent's Statement. Reflect on what the school wants to hear from you and give it your best shot.


6. If you are an international student, read the requirements for international students on each school's website. These requirements will differ from school to school, so do not assume that what one school asks for applies to other schools. You will have to take the TOEFL examination. Allow adequate time to prepare for and take this examination. The school will give you the documents which you need to apply for a U.S. Student Visa or F-1 Visa. Apply for the visa as soon as you can. Some U.S. consulates are booked months in advance for visa interviews. Bear that in mind as you apply to American schools.

Questions? Contact me via Twitter. @privateschl

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