Ask a Private School Admissions Expert: Liz Perelstein

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Liz Perelstein is the Chair and Founder of School Choice International, a leading school placement consulting organization. Prior to starting School Choice International, Liz worked in all levels of education as a teacher, educational administrator, and more. She holds two Master’s degrees from The University of Chicago, one in Educational Administration and one in Public Policy, and is a well-known entrepreneur who frequently speaks on topics related to several areas of education. Along with her team of experts at School Choice International, Liz advises families on the selection of schools for their children all over the world as well as how to successfully take on the respective admissions processes.


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

Liz: The School Choice Group has consultants all over the country and world with knowledge of their region’s private school admissions timeline since the timeline for tours, testing, interviews, and applications differs by region, but each individual school’s may vary. For instance, while once the member schools of the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater NY (ISAAGNY) conducted their admissions according to a fairly uniform timeline, there is now increasing variability according to school and to grade level. There also are a growing number of private schools that are not members of ISAAGNY, and these schools have even greater flexibility when it comes to the admissions timetable.

School Tours: Typically, school tours start as early as the spring before the September in which applications are due. Tours take place throughout the fall semester.

Application Deadlines: At present, most admissions applications are due during the fall semester one year before a child will actually enroll. Some schools distribute unlimited applications while others will accept only a certain number. Schools may have a strict due date in November or December, or may stop accepting applications when they have received a sufficient number. So, applying early is a good strategy.

Testing: ERB or ISEE testing is generally completed during the fall. However, many students are tested during the previous spring semester.

Parent and Child Interviews: Student and parent interviews take place during the autumn one year in advance of admission.

Supplemental Materials: Recommendations and prior school grades must be received while the rest of the child’s information is being assembled, generally during the fall semester.

Decisions: Admissions decisions are announced as early as December for legacy admissions, and in February for non-legacy candidates.

Family notification: For legacies, families must notify schools of their intent by mid-January. For non-legacy students, depending on grade level, families should notify the schools by February or March. 

But, above all, it is important to check each school’s own website to make sure you adhere to their specific timetable. 

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

Liz: If you ask any admissions officer, they will say that they admit a whole child and family rather than a set of numbers. Although most say that they don’t have specific testing cut-off’s, it would be unusual for schools to accept a student whose results fall far outside the range of most of their population. That said, since ERB* tutoring, as well as tutoring for other standardized tests, has become commonplace, many schools are discounting or even eliminating testing as a criterion.

Schools want to get to know a child before deciding to accept him or her. This profile is gleaned from a combination of student and family interviews, the application, and teacher recommendations. They seek families who will make a positive contribution to the school and children who have the personalities and interests as well as academic criteria that show they have something to offer. It is important that all sources of information are consistent – that schools echo what parents say. Admissions officers are extremely good at identifying “red flags.”

In addition to wanting to understand the “whole child and family,” schools are looking for a good fit. They want parents who share the school’s values and who are choosing the school because they genuinely feel it is a good match.

Finally, schools inevitably must build groups of students. They need followers as well as leaders, students who are strong in math and those who are strong in reading, those whose interests lie in athletics and those who favor the Arts. In order to be able to offer a marketplace of programs, they need students to participate in each of them.

*It’s important to know that ERB is not the name of the test itself. It is the name of the testing company, Educational Records Bureau, that gives admission and achievement assessments for independent and public schools. Many parents refer to the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment (ECAA) as the ERB; the ECAA is a test that most private schools use as an evaluation tool and vital part of their admissions process.

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

Liz: Age appropriate understanding of who they are, as well as genuine appreciation for the school and why that particular school is a good fit for the child. Each school has a unique ‘personality’ such as a set of values and attributes that families should take the time to understand, especially as it relates to their own child. 

Our consumer division, School Search Solutions, is developing a unique ‘school matching’ tool that we call LEAP (Learning, Ethos, Achievement and Principles) that is designed to elicit the “subjective” elements of a school culture – as opposed to objective facts like the location, size, and acceptances at ongoing schools or universities.

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

Liz: Parents, in particular, often go into an interview trying to impress a school or identify the “right answer” to questions. There really only are tworightanswers based on two important concepts:

  1. Families should look for a school where their child thrives academically, socially, and emotionally, leading to a love of learning.
  2. Families should disclose any issues or concerns that the school will have to address in partnership in order to ensure that the child’s experience is successful.

With these two principles in mind, everything else should flow easily. Parents should also use the interview as an opportunity to learn more about the school than what is on display on their walls and website. Thoughtful questions help parents determine whether or not a school is a good fit for their child, will give them important information, and will be appreciated by the admissions staff.

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

Liz: Talking with other parents or former parents is useful, but always should be taken with a grain of salt. School is a very personal experience and what works for one child may not work for another. 

The best way to get to know a school is to spend time there. Go at drop-off time and observe. You’ll want to see whether the other parents share your values. Notice how children get to school and who they come with, as well as who greets them and how adults interact with them. Is the head of school out on the steps in the morning or is it an aide? Do children run to or away from him/her?

Going to a play, concert, school fair, or sporting event speaks volumes. You can see how happy children are and what the school values. If you want your child to attend a school with a good sports program, be sure to attend a sports event. Do you want a school where every child plays and the coach’s goal is to teach sportsmanship? Or do you want your child to be on a team that wins, even if a kid is carried off in an ambulance at every game? Being there helps clarify what you are looking for and whether or not your family’s values and your child’s learning style fits with the school’s practices.

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

Liz: This varies according to school. As tutoring has become more ubiquitous among families who can afford it, test scores have become less important in the admissions process, with many schools talking about abandoning the ERB standardized testing altogether. While it used to be one of a number of indicators of whether or not a child would be successful in a school, schools now realizethat testing may have limited value.

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

Liz: Increasingly, students are being tutored by professional organizations. When choosing a test prep company, recommendations of friends and colleagues may not be best for your child. Just like when looking for a school, a successful test prep experience is a matter of fit. Students will work harder for tutors they respect and with whom they have rapport. Interview the tutor, with your child, to ensure that they are compatible. Some children will do their homework and others won't. It is useful to work with a tutor who can address your child's study style.

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

Liz: The following three mindsets – 

  1. That they are eager to partner with the school for the benefit of their child and all children, whether this means being a class mother, accompanying the class on trips, or financial support (if that is feasible for the family).
  2. That they are objective about their child and will be open to feedback, both positive and negative, as well as able to collaborate with teachers to provide their child any help and/or resources that will be beneficial.
  3. That they will respect teachers and administrators as professionals and will not try to overturn policies and practices for the benefit of their child.

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

Liz: We work with thousands of students each year and are certain that connections of this nature are not necessary to gain admission. On the other hand, there are students whose families do utilize board or high-level connections with successful admissions outcomes. Unfortunately, these students do not get the benefit of having experienced admissions officers who understand which children will thrive in a particular school as part of the decision process. As a result, many of these children are unsuccessful once they enroll in school; some may be asked to leave a school if they cannot perform.

A letter from a parent of an enrolled student who knows the family well can be advantageous in letting the school know that this is a family who will be an asset to the school. 

Letters from people, no matter how eminent, who are not well acquainted with a child, are of no value.

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

Liz: Before the interview, a parent should explain to his or her child that this is an opportunity for the school to get to know them and for them to get to know the school to be sure that it is a good, mutual match. Explain that there are no right or wrong answers. 

Parents may coach a child to look an adult in the eye, shake hands, and talk in an audible voice, which will serve them well for the interview and for years to come. 

It is useful for a parent to role-play some simple questions with a child to make him or her more comfortable when s/he arrives at the admissions office. Asking questions about what s/he likes and doesn’t like, strengths and weaknesses, and helping the child frame weaknesses as strengths in ways that aren’t contrived, can be useful. Making sure kids are familiar with the books they’ve read, the music they listen to, the movies they’ve seen – and their reasons for each – can give the admissions officers an entrée to a conversation. 

Finally, ask your child what he or she wants to know about the school and encourage him/her to ask this/these questions in the admissions interview.


Visit School Choice International for more information.

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