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  • Fiona Farrahi

    Fiona Farrahi is the Director of Admissions at the Ancona School. Located in Hyde Park, one of Chicago’s most diverse and historical neighborhoods, Ancona serves young learners ages 3 through the 8th grade.

    5 school-search tips from a school admissions director

    How to judge a school based on your experience with its admissions process.


    For many families, the admissions process is daunting. Although most independent and private schools have one, all are not made equal.

    When parents ask me about the admissions process, I have lots of advice but mostly I try to get across that every school culture is different and every admissions director handles the process according to their specific school culture. Below are five take-aways for families in the admissions process.

    1. The process and the school are one

    Never separate the process from the school. How your questions are answered, how much time you spend talking to administrators face-to-face, how and if you get to spend time in the classrooms—all of these are direct samples of the interaction you will have going forward. Not getting questions answered or calls returned is a sure sign that what's ahead won't be any different. If you can't seem to get a real feel for the school community through the admissions process, there's potential that things may not change once you enroll.

    2. You should get all access to the school

    One of the most important decisions of your child's academic and social development is in your hands. Every admissions process should afford you the opportunity to talk to teachers, parents, students, alums and administrators. In fact, you should be provided with all access. I personally prefer to hold open house events on school days. I do this because I want parents to see a real day in the life at my school. I want them to get a survey of the students and envision their little one sitting in those chairs or playing that instrument in the music class.

    When I interview families, I always ask if they want to see more of the school or meet with our division head. Our current admissions process encourages parents to visit a classroom, or two. I recently had a parent ask to visit four classrooms, noting that she wanted to get a sense of how the road ahead looked for her 3-year-old. I truly believe that if we did not offer the flexibility to do this, she may not have chosen our school. Any school, no matter how big, fast and strong, should be open to sharing any and everything with you, no matter how many times you ask.

    3. Get a clear understanding of the educational program

    Whether the process takes you to the admissions director, division head or head of school, you should walk away with a sound understanding of the type of education your child will be embarking upon. Is it play-based? What is the high school record? Is there emphasis on a certain type of learning (e.g., project-based, experiential, inquiry-based)? Most importantly, every person you connect with should be saying virtually the same things. The themes should match up, the culture should connect, and your perception and understanding should grow deeper with each encounter.

    4. Understanding and expectations of the process

    Every step of the admissions process should be outlined either on the website or in the printed materials. You should be provided an overview of how long the process will take and all individuals you may be required to meet. Some schools require families to meet with both the admissions director and the head of school. Others require that you meet with members of the school community, such as the advancement officer or trustees. Wherever the process takes you, you should have a clear road map to get you through the process that includes decision letter deadlines, interview dates and all parties involved.

    5. You have the right to choose

    Many of my colleagues will squirm at this, but the need for a school to be the perfect fit for your child and family is far greater than the need for you to meet the contract deadline demands of a school that may not be your first or best choice. Admissions directors are people too, and in most cases if you ask them to provide a modest and reasonable extension on your deadline, they should.

    I once had a family on the wait list who shared with me that the "other" school they had applied to was using intimidating tactics to get them to sign their contract, allegedly going so far as giving this family a time stamped deadline. I know that some schools fill up fast, but this kind of pressure is not representative of the best practices outlined in the national standards and best practices for enrollment management professionals. Bottom line is: You have the right to choose and no admissions professional should intimidate you into thinking otherwise.


    Fiona Farrahi

    Fiona Farrahi is the Director of Admissions at the Ancona School. Located in Hyde Park, one of Chicago’s most diverse and historical neighborhoods, Ancona serves young learners ages 3 through the 8th grade.

    Photo: CDC

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