How to Apply to the Top Boarding Schools

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The high school you go to matters greatly when applying to colleges. Some high schools have more resources, provide more opportunities, and do a better job overall helping students get ready for college. Notable among these are boarding schools. While you do not need to go to an elite boarding school to attend a top college, many students from these schools do go on to matriculate at top universities. 

That said, many elite boarding schools have admissions processes that are as competitive and opaque as those of elite colleges. In this article, therefore, we’ll break down the process for you. We’ll cover how the process works, what these schools are looking for, and some strategy for applying. Of course, we can’t cover everything in a single article, so look forward to more on this subject in the future. 

The Boarding School Application Timeline

Boarding school applications are due in 8th grade, in order to enter as a freshman. While you can theoretically apply to boarding schools at a later stage in high school, most students enter as freshmen, with around 70% of each class entering this way. Around 30% of students enter as sophomores, though the exact number who do so varies by school. Here is the general timeline for applications:

  • Summer before 8th grade: the research and writing process begins. This is when we decide which schools to apply to, and begin working on strategy for essays and interviews.
  • Take the SSAT or ISEE. These schools generally allow superscoring, so students often take these tests multiple times. We recommend testing early, so you have time to reevaluate and retest if necessary.
  • Schedule an interview for Fall or Winter, this must be done before you submit your application.
  • Applications are due in Mid-January to early February; top schools have standardized a date between themselves.
  • Results are released after approximately a month and a half, generally in March.
  • Your final decision on which school to attend is due in April. The exact date varies by school, be sure you make your decision in a timely fashion.

How to Apply to Boarding Schools

Top boarding schools all use the same application platform: the Standard Application Online. This consists of the following pieces:

  • A personal information section. Here you answer basic demographic questions about you and your parents. You only have to fill this out once, and it goes to every school.
  • The standard prompts. These are five short prompts (250 words each), which you must answer. These essays go out to all of the schools you apply to.
  • Letters of recommendation. These are from teachers, counselors, and some schools accept a supplemental letter from someone who knows you well.
  • Test scores. All of these schools require standardized test scores, either the SSAT or ISEE most commonly. Like the SAT and ACT, either test may be taken.
  • Supplemental essays. Most boarding schools have supplemental essay prompts you must answer. The number and length of these prompts varies widely by school.
  • Application fee. This must be paid for every application you submit.

During this process, you must also schedule an interview. These interviews may take place in-person or online; we recommend traveling to take part in-person whenever possible. These consist of both an individual interview with the student, followed by a brief interview with the parents. As interviews are so important for this process, we cover them in more depth in a later section.

Boarding School Application Strategy

Boarding schools are looking for similar things in students, though what each is looking for does vary slightly. We elaborate on this in our guide to individual schools. Here are the traits that schools look for in applicants:

  • Academic talent. While it is hard to have serious academic accomplishments as an 8th grader, you should not be struggling in your classes, and should have recommendations from teachers that reflect your capabilities. Boarding schools are academically rigorous, and they want to admit students who will be able to keep up with their expectations. A personal passion project is key here, especially when asked to discuss your interests in an interview. The academic subject matters less than the evidence of your passion for it.
  • Personality. Boarding schools are small and often insular communities, and students spend a lot of time in close contact with each other. Schools want to admit students who will contribute positively to these communities, and who are able to interact with others well.
  • Passion. It doesn’t matter particularly what your passion is, but boarding schools are looking for students who are genuinely curious and enthusiastic about something. Students who are passionate about sports or music may be recruited for those things, and have an opportunity to show off their talents or speak to relevant coaches or instructors when visiting the school.
  • Fit. This is perhaps the most important factor. Each school has their own traditions and idiosyncrasies, and is looking to admit students who fit their ideal mold. Indeed, if an admissions officer gets the impression you would fit at another school better, they may deny your application, even if you are otherwise qualified.

In your application, your essays, grades, and test scores are important to evaluate your academic and intellectual potential. The SSAT is particularly relied upon for its standardized nature, since not all middle schools have the same curriculums or grading standards, especially when dealing with international students.

Boarding School Interview Strategy

Interviews are conducted by admissions officers, not alumni. Indeed, the person who interviews you is the same one who reads and evaluates your application, and who makes the final recommendation on whether you should be admitted to the school. While the final decision is made by the director of admissions, your interviewer is incredibly influential in this decision.

These interviews may take place in person, or increasingly remotely. We recommend participating in the interview in person if at all possible. It is still much easier to connect with someone when you are in the same room as them, as opposed to viewing them via a computer screen. This is especially important since fit is such a key component of what admissions is looking for, and this is much easier to evaluate in-person.

Interviews are scheduled to last thirty to forty five minutes. Successful interviews often extend long beyond this however, stretching to a couple of hours. Having an extended interview does not guarantee you will be accepted by a school, and having a short one does not mean that the interviewer has concluded that you are not a good fit for their institution. That said, in general terms, a longer interview correlates to higher rates of admissions success, but exigencies of scheduling or other circumstances often intrude.

After you interview, your parents will be invited into the room for an interview as well. This is shorter, generally twelve to fifteen minutes, and is less formal, seeking to ensure that the family understands the school, its demands, and its values. The student interview is conducted without the parents present; the goal is for the interviewer and the student to have an earnest conversation, and that can’t happen with the parents in the room. We recommend dressing up for the interview; business formal attire is common.

Here is what interviewers are looking for in a boarding school interview:

  • Fit. Interviewers want to be sure you will mesh well with the school’s community, and that you and the school are good fits for each other. What this means depends on the school, we give advice on specific schools in our guide to specific boarding schools.
  • Sociability. Admissions officers don’t want to admit students who will just sit in their rooms all day; they want students who will actively contribute to and participate in life at the school. You don’t need to be entirely gregarious and extroverted, but you should show a willingness to express yourself, and an ease with others.
  • Passion. You should have interests and activities you care about, and are willing to speak about at length. While they do not expect 8th graders to have accomplished great things, you should still show that you care about things enough to pursue them further.
  • Interest in the school. You should be the one who wants to attend boarding school generally, and this school in particular. Admissions officers don’t want students who are forced into the process by their parents, but ones who are genuinely enthusiastic about the school and what it can offer them.

Note that the interviewer may ask which other boarding schools you are applying to. You do not want to respond with an extensive list, even if you are applying to a full suite of top schools. We recommend saying you are applying to 2-3 others in the area, and name them. These schools should be of a similar caliber (or slightly below) to the school you are interviewing with.

Final Thoughts

High schools are a formative time in a student’s life, and the lessons they learn there will impact the person they become. While a student’s high school does not determine their destiny, the right high school can open many doors for a talented student, and give them the needed support and resources to reach their full potential. 

These applications can be both challenging and stressful. If you want to hear how we can help you with the process, from finding the right school, to drafting your essays, to helping you prepare for an interview, schedule a free consultation today. We have a depth of experience working with students, and are always happy to hear from you.

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