Ask a Private School Admissions Expert: Dr. Fran Walfish

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Dr. Fran Walfish is a top leading child and family psychotherapist located in Beverly Hills, California. She was a clinical staff member at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 15 years and served a 4-year term as Chair of the Board of The Early Childhood Parenting Center founded in Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles. Dr. Walfish runs her own private practice where she counsels and consults young children and their families through many events including private school admissions processes. She has been featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNN, Forbes, and much more.


VT: What is the typical timeline for private school admissions? For example, outline a sample timetable of applications, interviews, decisions, etc.  

Fran: There are 1,533 private schools in the Los Angeles County. In California, applications for private schools are in October and November. Acceptance/rejection/wait-list letters go out the second week of March. Interviews are held at various times in between. Parents experience a great deal of anxiety going through the process. In turn, they put their children through high levels of stress preparing, studying, taking classes and sample exams, getting ready for the Day of Judgment.  

VT: What is the typical process admissions officers go through to evaluate applications?   

Fran: There is no typical process. Each admissions officer has their own way of evaluating applications. This is partly why parents’ anxiety goes through the roof. They ultimately have little to no control over how the process and outcome will go. Most schools look at whether there are one or two working parents, ethnicity (to include diversity), income, how many kids are in the family, references from previous preschool teachers/directors, and the child's medical and psychological (if applicable) history.

VT: What are the most important things children need to have represented on their applications?  

Fran: Flexibility is the most important thing a child should represent, both on their applications and in the personal interview. Flexibility includes how easily the child separates from parents, how well the child manages transitions/change, and how the child wrestles with conflict. Naturally, schools are looking at basic intelligence. Some schools place IQ higher on the priority list than others. Basically, schools want happy, healthy, energetic, motivated, well-behaved, wholesome children.

VT: What are common mistakes parents and/or their children make when applying to these programs? 

Fran: One of the common mistakes parents make is neglecting to evaluate the parent population in the school. You are not only evaluating the children as potential friends but moms and dads are also signing up for the next six years. Be sure there are other parents at the school you can relate and connect with. Too many times, children go to a school in which their parents feel on the outs with other families. Evaluate your happiness – as well as your child's. 

VT: How should parents go about determining the culture of a private school, and whether it would be a good fit for their children?   

Fran: Parents should observe the school at a number of different times during various activities. Parents should also inquire with other parents whose children currently attend the school. Ask, ask, ask! 

VT: How important are standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?  

Fran: Standardized test scores vary in importance from school to school. Scores must be reasonably high, but many schools understand and factor in test-anxiety. Some good schools evaluate the total child, meaning they look at test scores along with community service, sports endowment, and athleticism, math and writing skills.

VT: What tips do you have in regards to ISEE prep, SSAT prep, and preparation for other standardized assessments that private schools might require?

Fran: Tip #1: Take the prep classes. Prep tutors are extremely helpful, too. Don't think just because your child is naturally smart he or she will ace the exams. These tests are very specific. It helps to be prepared for the type of questions and to practice speed. Encourage your child to eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest during the preparation and actual testing process. Offer relaxation techniques including visualization and breathing exercises. These help your child relax and do his or her best. 

VT: What are the most important things parents need to have well represented about themselves when meeting with admissions officers?  

Fran: It is very important to represent that both parents are on the same parenting page and united. Admissions officers are well practiced at observing non-verbal cues that communicate whether parents are together or not. Also, moms and dads should listen respectfully without interruptions during the meeting. Everyone's nerves are high when there is only so much time to get your ideas across. Both parents should position themselves as searching for the best fit for their child. Finally, the parents should declare that "this" school is their first choice. If the school thinks you are shopping for a backup acceptance and are likely to take another offer, they would prefer to avoid dealing with you. It is too much trouble for the school to wait-list another family and then when you accept an offer elsewhere they must reach out to the waiting family as a second choice.

VT: How does networking and having in-school connections affect one's chances of admission?

Fran: Networking and having in-school connections can have a positive effect if the in-school family is wealthy, powerful, and has given generous contributions to the school. It is very sad but real. Rich families carry more weight in private schools. Fact. 

VT: How can a student best prepare for admissions interviews?  

Fran: Parents should enlist the help of a kind, benign, adult who can role-play the interview process with your child. I have done this with many children and families in my private practice office. The reason it's best to not be the parent is because the results usually mean too much to parents. We do not want any child to feel they failed or disappointed their parents. Parents can, however, play the "What if's" game. This means to stimulate your child to think about unexpected situations. Ask questions like, "What will you do/say if you have to use the bathroom during the interview?"; "What will you do/say if you don't know the answer to a question?"; and so on. See what your child comes up with. Offer that there's nothing wrong with saying, "I don't know." Administrators respect a person who can admit not knowing.

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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.