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The first step is to look for a school that's a good match for your child, not to aim just for the big names. "Admissions directors are matchmakers," says Diane Johnson, head of admissions at Redwood Day School in Oakland, California. "We match families with our school's mission."
Do your homework by reading up on the schools that interest you. Learn how each one is distinct from the other schools in your area. (For more tips, read our articles on choosing the right school for your child.) Once you've narrowed the field, these strategies may help you boost your child's chances of getting in:
Meet the deadlines
Timeliness is crucial, says Johnson. "At crunch time, we're working with lots of paper and people. We appreciate it when parents are respectful of that." Thorough follow-through helps an admissions office be your best advocate, and it implies the relationship you'd have with the school.
Laura Wolff, head of admissions at Black Pine Circle, a private school in the San Francisco Bay Area, puts it this way: "We try to be understanding, but if a parent consistently forgets to send in relevant paperwork when it's due, forgets to fill out important documents, or is otherwise disorganized, it raises doubts in my mind. We look for parents who are easy to work with."
Show your interest
Visiting the school is a great way to get to know the teachers, parents, and administration. Attend more than one type of event (for example, a tour and an open house), and if the school has a concert, art show, or science fair scheduled, stop by to get a feel for the school community in action. "Get to know us in as many ways as you can," says Johnson. "See if this is a community you think is a match."
But don't burden the administration with special requests for multiple drop-in visits at the school. "If a parent keeps asking to come by for one more visit, I know they haven't quite made up their minds about us, despite their assurances that we're the number one choice. Plus," says Wolff, "arranging the visits is time-consuming and can be disruptive to our staff."
Ask questions during interviews, but not from a prepared list
Some parents' groups put together lists of "must-ask questions" that they encourage parents to use during school interviews. Don't make the mistake of relying on that list alone. If you walk into an interview and simply run through a checklist, the admissions officers will know you haven't done a lot of thinking about your own needs.
Be honest about your child's strengths and weaknesses
"Most parents think their children are gifted," says Wolff. "Instead of telling me how bright your child is, I'm more interested in hearing about some of the things he likes to do or even that he may be shy." Why is this a good thing in an admissions director's eye? Because it shows that you have real insight into your child's personality, that you take the time to see your child as an individual, and that you're looking out for what's best for her.
Fill out relevant financial paperwork
If you need financial aid, apply for it. "For whatever reason, sometimes parents won't tell us they need extra help," says Wolff. "If we admit your child and only then find out that you need financial aid, we may have already allocated that money to other families. Don't assume a school will be prejudiced against you because of your financial situation."
Call when you have a specific question
Most admissions directors are happy to answer follow-up questions you may have about the school because it shows you're interested in making the right match for your child. What they don't appreciate are the persistent weekly phone calls from you trying to check on your child's status or keep yourself on their radar. "When you call, ask 'Is this a good time?' " suggests Johnson, who also advises that making specific appointments for discussions will help the admissions office give you their best attention.
Skip the resume and portfolio
Submitting a prepared package of your child's work – a growing trend in some parts of the country – will only have the admissions officers rolling their eyes. Because a portfolio is clearly something you put together for your child, it doesn't help the admissions team evaluate your child. It can also peg you as an overly ambitious parent. And no matter what you've heard in the media about the pre-admissions efforts of some parents at a few schools, don't assume that sending chocolates or offering a donation will work – it's far more likely to insult the administration.
Admissions officers are savvy people. They know when you're trying to portray yourself or your child unrealistically. If you work full time and can only volunteer occasionally, don't pretend that you'll be in every week to help out in the classroom. If your child has a behavior problem, don't portray him as an angel. Even if the admissions staff doesn't see through your sugarcoating, you're not doing yourself or your child any favors. If your child gets in under false pretenses, he may not get the support and guidance he needs later on.
Write a letter when it's appropriate
When Mollie Hart's 5-year-old son was put on the waiting list at their dream school, she wrote a letter to the director. In it she reiterated why the school was their top choice, mentioned their relationships to other families in the school, noted their ties to the community, and offered to provide any other information the school needed. While she can't be sure the letter swayed the director, her son was admitted to the school. Some parents report that enclosing a similar letter with the application seemed to get good results, but keep in mind that not all admissions directors give such a letter much weight, and if it reads like a form letter, it may backfire entirely.
Take a shot even if you think you're too late
Don't panic if you weren't able to apply to the school of your choice during the regular admissions "season," either because you've moved to a new area or had to make a switch at the last minute. Even the most popular schools develop unexpected openings by early summer after they've run through their waiting lists and parents have made their choices.
Waitlisted? Don't take it personally
Getting a letter that says your child is in the waiting pool for your preferred school can lead parents to wonder why their bright, shining child wasn't the school's "first choice." Keep this in mind: The school does want your child, or she wouldn't be on the list.
"Being in the wait pool doesn't mean the child was second choice," says Johnson. "Often, it can be about balancing community. Let's say there were six great, similar kids in that pool at that moment. Maybe we needed more boys, or another active girl. Some criteria had to be used – we just had to choose."
If the school is truly your first choice, contact them to say thank you for their consideration and that you would eagerly accept a place at the school if one became available. Above all, remember that things change – right up until the last moment. "If you're in the wait pool and we can offer you a place," says Johnson, "We're saying 'choose us even though we didn't choose you.' It can be awkward on either side." But the choice may certainly be yours in the end.