The Subtle Stresses of School Admissions

I had a conversation with the worried parent of a fifth grader the other day. Word had started to come in from schools about admission for next year. Some places said yes; some said no. But it was less the outcome that was weighing on her child. It was the process that had upset him. The whole application experience had taken its toll. Step by step, family conversations, school visits, application statements, testing, admissions interviews, and then the waiting game, the stages of the process wore on him. They made him feel exposed and evaluated. He started voicing insecurities about his “brains” and his worth that his parents had never heard before. It’s hard enough to put yourself up to judgment at any stage in life but doing so at ten, that’s particularly tough. This was a new insight for me. I hadn’t thought about the costs of simply applying.

So much of our future success hinges on our sense of self-worth. And so much of that depends on the experiences of late childhood and early adolescence, this period of self-formation. We are vulnerable in those critical years, impressionable. As parents, decisions need to be made about where our children will be happiest, where they will fit best, and, indeed, where they will be challenged. Children should be involved in making these decisions, too, to some degree. But it requires delicacy.

Here are some things to do before immersing yourself in the application process, especially in the elementary and middle school years:

  • Get a clear sense of your goals before you discuss schools with your child.  What do you think is most important in your child’s educational experience?  Progressive or Traditional?  Arts emphasis or math/science or humanities?  Dual-language? Neighborhood school or magnet? Location?

  • Consider the realistic chances of your child being accepted.  Just as with applying to college, you need to have some “safety” schools.  

  • When you do bring your child into the conversation, limit exposure. No matter the frenzy that you are feeling, do not subject your child to that.  Allow them the spoils of childhood, so to speak.

  • Think about your child’s emerging skills, interests, and aptitudes when considering schools. What’s important to them? What subjects do they like best? (Try to get beyond pat responses like “recess” or “lunch.”) 

  • School visits are important, but your child shouldn’t go along to every one and certainly not to schools you haven’t visited first. Likely, you shouldn’t take your child to visit any school you aren’t certain yourself you’d be happy for him or her to attend.

  • Remember, there is no “best” school nor is there one that can guarantee the future success for its students. The decision cannot be about pride or status or convenience.  It must be about finding the “right fit” for your child.  

These are difficult balances to strike. And all the more so because the process is stressful for parents, too. But we owe it to our children to remember how garbled the complexities of adult business can get to their ears and how tender their egos are. Things can always turn out well, but how we get there matters, too.


Tags: Kindergarten Admissions, Middle School Admissions, High School Admissions, Stress & Anxiety, Parenting Advice, Independent School Admissions
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