Instructor Laura Hoffman teaches a science class at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Md. Independent school officials say interviews with applicants and their families help identify students who fit “the personality of the school.”
Photo courtesy of St. Andrew's Episcopal School
Mark Fischer sat with his parents in the plush reception area of one of the region’s elite independent schools, biting his fingernails and tapping his left foot while waiting to speak with an admissions officer for the interview portion of his application.
“Yeah, I’m a little nervous,” he said.
Admissions directors say the interview is a chance for both students and their parents to get to know the schools and for the school to become familiar with the applicants. But what do admissions teams want to learn from interviews with applicants and their families?
“We really just want to get to know you better and hear what you have to say about your school year and thoughts for next year,” said Ann Richardson Miller, director of admission and financial aid at The Madeira School in McLean.
“We like to see that the student is curious about life, what he or she is interested in and what they are passionate about,” said Diane Dunning, director of admission and financial aid at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria.
Tim Simpson, director of admission and financial aid for Bullis School in Potomac, Md., adds that schools value sincerity. “Does the student talk about things that are important to them? Do they go into detail so that I don’t have to dig? If I ask about a physics class, does the student go into detail about their own personal experience? It is always exciting for me to hear different layers of a student’s experiences,” he said.
“The interviews and teacher recommendations offer multiple perspectives and wonderful opportunities to learn more about each applicant as part of the whole admission process.”
— Julie Jameson, director of admission and financial aid at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Md.
COMPETITION TO GET INTO independent schools can be fierce — some school admissions teams accept only one out of every 10 applicants — so parents may wonder if they should hire education consultants or coaches to help their children prepare for interviews.
Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, says it’s not worth it: “A school is trying to get … an understanding of who that student really is,” he said. “They’ll try to get past any planned or scripted answers.”
Richard Moss of The Heights School in Potomac agrees. “It is often easy to tell when a student is not interested based on their knowledge of the school and the reasons for wanting to attend,” he said. “The interview with the parents is important because you get a sense of the kinds of people you’re going to be working with. We want to make sure our parents are on board with what our instructors are trying to do.”
Admissions directors say parents often ask how their families should prepare for interviews. “This is an opportunity to soul search about why they are interested in the school,” said Moss, adding he notices a lot about a prospective student during an interview. “Does a student present well? Does he look sharp? Does he have a firm handshake? Does he thank you for having him? Does he look alive and engaged? Does he mumble?”
Sklarow says that while students should not over-prepare, they should know what to expect. “Every school is not looking for the same kind of student. Every school is not looking for the same answer. They are trying to figure out whether that student fits the personality of the school. They want to know if this is a student who will find friendships within the school and fit into the school community.”
WHAT ROLE do the teacher recommendations play in admissions decisions? “Teacher recommendations give us a broader perspective on student effort and attitude, and often provide us with a different perspective than what the application alone might show,” Michael Cresson, director of admissions, Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington.
“Families would be surprised by the thoughtful and insightful comments most teachers make on the recommendations,” Miller said. “Trust the teachers. They have your child's best interest at heart.”
Charlotte Nelsen, director of admission for the Potomac School in McLean said, "Potomac School takes a particular interest in the current teacher's recommendation for the applicant. We recognize a teacher has known the student far longer than we have.”
Some experts say that reports from a student’s current instructors can raise red flags as well. “Teacher recommendations can shed light on the difficult aspects of a student’s personality that you don’t see on a report card,” said Moss. “Report cards don’t necessarily tell you how hard a student is working, how generous he is or what his true abilities are.
“We realize that teacher recommendations are subjective, but they are important,” Moss continued. “If a student is required, for example, to get a recommendation from a current English teacher and they have a terrible relationship with that teacher … they should … ask the previous year’s English teacher to write a supplementary recommendation, just so they can balance out the negative one. The one thing you don’t want to do is get a bad recommendation and say, ‘Well this is a horrible teacher who doesn’t like my son.’”
Julie Jameson, director of admission and financial aid at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, concludes: “The interviews and teacher recommendations offer multiple perspectives and wonderful opportunities to learn more about each applicant as part of the whole admission process.”