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Mendo Lake Family Life

Savvy Strategies for Acing Admissions 

Dec 24, 2019 12:24PM
By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, the only tough academic hurdle was getting into a good college. That’s not the case anymore. Now, many middle and high schools also have challenging admissions procedures. So how do you prepare your kids for them? Here I consider the three most common elements: (1) the letter of intent, (2) the on-site interview, and (3) the on-site essay prompt.

The Letter of Intent
It might sound odd, but applying to middle or high school isn’t that different than applying for a job. Your kids are asking to become members of an organization with certain values and ways of doing things. Schools typically refer to this as their “educational philosophy” (values) and “approach to learning” (ways of doing things). It’s important to keep this in mind when you help your kids write their letters of intent. In the letter, your kids are expected to outline in a page or two why they’re interested in attending a specific school, and to describe their academic interests as well as how those interests align with the school’s curriculum.

Go online to the school’s website and read about its curriculum, educational philosophy, and approach to learning. This will enable you to help your kids make their letters of intent as relevant as possible. Does the school pride itself on collaborative, team-based learning, or does it prefer students who work independently? Is the curriculum infused with lots of digital technology, or does it rely on more traditional, pen-and-paper learning?

I had to deal with these questions when my 15-year-old-son applied for middle school. My son, who has a passion for precious stones, decided to write his letter of intent on that topic and connect it to the school’s strong focus on earth science. We knew, from reading the school’s website, that it had a very contemporary educational philosophy and approach to learning. Knowing that, we made sure that his letter of intent emphasized his interest in collaborative, team-based learning and his ease with different digital technologies. He got admitted to that school, and we believe that this targeted approach and preparation were big factors.

The On-Site Interview
Another common part of the admissions process is the on-site interview, which an admissions officer typically conducts with individuals or in a group context. It’s very important that your kids appear confident and knowledgeable. Like at job interviews, applicants who look like they’d rather disappear under the chair and who know little about the organization don’t impress interviewers. The school’s guidance counselor can often supply examples of commonly asked questions in advance of the interview.

If your kids are invited to a group interview, tell them that it is important that they strike a balance between being too domineering and too shy. On the one hand, you want your kids to speak up so that the interviewer notices them. On the other hand, you don’t want your kids to talk over or interrupt other kids. It’s also important to stress that if your kids are asked the same question as other kids, they shouldn’t respond: “I agree with what that other kid said.” If no original answer comes to mind, it’s best to restate what was already said but in a different way.

My son had many individual and group interviews as part of his high school admissions process. For two months prior to his first interview, we’d daily practice his interviewing skills. I’d pretend to be a high school admissions officer, and he’d knock on the door, enter the room as though it were a real interview, and we’d practice the most commonly asked interview questions until he felt comfortable with all of them.

The On-Site Essay Prompt
Many middle and high schools also require applicants to write an essay on-site before the interview as a way to focus the conversation. Sometimes kids are asked to write one long essay on a specific topic. Other times, they are given two or shorter essay prompts to answer in a limited period of time. Like with the on-site interview, if you contact the school’s guidance counselor in advance you can often get a list of common essay prompts.

When responding to the essay prompts, stress the importance of writing neatly and clearly, and using correct grammar and spelling. The on-site essay isn’t the right occasion to try out new words your kids don’t know how to spell, or to use complex sentence constructions that they have never mastered before. Instead, they should try to write in as straightforward and simple a way as possible. That will impress the admissions officer.

Tanni Haas, Ph.D., is a college communications professor.