Private School Admissions Can Be Testing for All

You can see them huddled together near the basketball court at Rose Park. Catch a snatch of a conversation between two moms on N Street. Watch them fret over iced tea and poke at salads at Patisserie Poupon. Parents. Fretting.

It is private school admission season, and tensions are running high.

“It is a tragi-comedy,” mutters one mother, whose son is in kindergarten at Georgetown Day. It certainly generates a lot of anxiety, and a great deal of discussion among a certain set. It is also time-consuming. All those school tours. All those parent coffees, Q and A’s, and child visits. A lot of bother for the privilege of paying $25,000 a year for something you can also get for free.

“It is a long process,” says another mother. “You go look at the school, at yet another posh art room, then you apply and write essays about your kid’s strengths—painful—and then, worst of all, you take the kid in and the school decides she ‘has trouble with transitions’ and they don’t let you in!” Then, there are the standardized tests for four-year-olds with questions like “Can you name a vegetable?” Then there are SSATs for the bigger ones. “Boat is to ship as log is to...” The tests mean more appointments, more fees, more stress, and more time spent away from schoolwork, running around outside, or sanity.

Parents complain the process can make you crazy. All the rumors and “helpful” tips have a famous parent. Okay, then, know any famous people? Hillary Clinton wrote for one kid. He got into Sidwell. Or do you have a lot of patience and a lot of dough for myriad $50 admissions fees? Another family applied to 13 private schools—13! That girl got into Washington International School. Got private-plane kind of money? One school is rumored to have let in both its richest and the dumbest class during the first year of a massive capital campaign. “All the rooms in this building,” the mother of an 8th grade boys says, “are named after the families in our class.”

Annie Farquhar has been the director of admissions at Maret for 24 years. She says applications come in at a healthy clip, despite the economic downturn, and she recommends a relaxed attitude toward the whole process. That’s probably because she is in the enviable position of gatekeeper, when demand for spots is high and supply is low.

“If parents are nervous about applying,” she says, “their child will pick up on it, so try to relax and enjoy this discovery process as much as possible.”

Of course, the best way to approach it all is with a big worldview. How much does it really matter? Perhaps less than it seems on that March day when the letters fall through the mail slot? Perhaps admissions directors know what they’re doing when they don’t let little Tommy in because he cannot sit still? Maybe he would not thrive at school X, despite what his parents want?

Megan Gabriel is the mother of three kids—one in college, one at St Albans and another at NCS. She says perhaps private school parents ought to “jump ship, save our money and put the time, effort and thousands of dollars into public schools. After all, as far as colleges are concerned, an A is an A, no matter where it comes from.”

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