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Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA

The Secondary School Admission Process

The Secondary School Admission Process: What You Need to Know

There are a number of reasons why families might be interested in a private high school experience, ranging from smaller class sizes where students receive more individualized attention, to peer groups that value academic achievement, top-notch facilities, and specialized programs that aren’t available at the local public school.

While the secondary school admission process may seem intimidating at first glance, it doesn’t have to be stressful. The keys are to start early, stay organized, cast a wide net of schools to look at, have a good sense of what schools are looking for in their applicants, and most importantly to stay relentlessly focused on finding the right fit for your child.
At Fay School, we have a dedicated secondary school counseling team that guides Fay’s eighth and ninth-grade students - and their parents - through every aspect of the admission process from selecting a balanced list of schools to preparing for school visits and interviews. We gleaned some of their best tips for navigating the secondary school admission process and finding a school where your child will have a happy, meaningful, and enriching high school experience.

The secondary school admission calendar

It’s important to pay attention to the secondary school admission calendar - and be aware that the schedule is significantly different from the public school registration calendar.

The private secondary school admission process usually starts in the summer before your student’s eighth-grade year. This is when you will want to start researching schools and identifying a list of schools that you may want to look at.  (If you’re in Massachusetts, like us, two good places to start your research are the websites for the Association of Independent Schools in New England and the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association.) Once school starts in September, call the private schools that you would like to look at and set up an appointment for a tour and interview. 

Over the course of the fall, as you start to narrow down your list of schools, you will also want to make sure you complete any standardized testing that the schools require, such as the SSAT or ISEE.  You will also want to ask your current school and teachers to submit your child’s transcript and recommendation forms. Most schools have a due date of mid-January for completed applications and financial aid forms and will notify you of their decision and any financial aid awards in early March. If you are uncertain about which school to choose, you should attend each school’s Accepted Student Revisit Day in the spring, when accepted students have the opportunity to ask questions of current students, visit classes, and take one last look at a school before deciding where to enroll.

Another option to consider is whether you want to work with a secondary school consultant. Good consultants have a broad knowledge of the secondary school world and can provide helpful guidance, particularly if your child’s middle school is not able to provide support during the process.

Generating a list of schools

Most secondary school counselors will advise you to begin by casting a wide net when you start to look at schools. Like the college application process, the goal is to end up with a balanced list that includes a couple of schools that might be considered a reach, some just right options, and perhaps a backup or two. Once you start looking at schools, you are bound to be surprised by what you and your child like and don’t like. Sometimes the child that was certain about being a day student falls in love with a boarding community, or the school that looked great on the website loses its luster after an in-person tour. Fay School’s Director of Secondary School Counseling warns parents in particular against falling into “the prestige trap” and generating a list of schools based largely on name recognition. Your unwavering focus should be on finding the best fit for your child and identifying the school with the community and program that will provide your child with the most enriching high school experience.

The school visit

It’s important to keep in mind that you will learn something from every single school that you visit. In fact, you’ll probably learn more from visiting the schools that you don’t like! While parents and students may dread a long list of school visits, keep in mind that each school visit is an opportunity to refine your understanding of what you are looking for. 

Research the school’s dress code before your visit and make sure that your child is dressed appropriately. When in doubt, it is always better to skew toward the more formal end of a school’s dress code. You and your child should both plan on leaving any phones or other distracting technology in the car. A prospective student who is scrolling through a phone in the admission waiting room projects an image of disinterest.

Be prepared to ask lots of questions during your visit. Not only will your engagement help you learn more about the school, but it will also show your interest and lead to richer and more informative conversations with the people you meet on campus. Whenever possible, look for opportunities to talk to “regular” students and teachers in addition to the tour guide. 

It’s also a great idea to take notes directly after your visit, especially if you’re seeing a number of schools over a short span of time. Believe it or not, they will all start to run together, and you may forget key details that will be important later. Make sure both you and your child take a few minutes to record impressions, questions, and other important details, such as the name of the student tour guide.

The interview

The interview can be a source of anxiety, but a little practice ahead of time can help ease any jitters. At Fay, our eighth and ninth grade students do at least one practice interview with a member of the secondary school counseling team, and sometimes more. In the fall, our ninth graders watch our counselors role-play the interview to learn the do’s and don’ts of interviewing well, and they also have the opportunity to meet in small groups with admission representatives from over 100 different secondary schools. By the time our students sit down for their school interview, they view it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Make sure that your child goes into the interview with a few rich and interesting questions to ask about the school program or the community. Asking a question can also be a great way to bring up an important topic that wasn’t covered by the admission officer. For example, if your student volunteers in their local community they could mention it and ask if the school has any similar service opportunities that they could get involved with there. Finally, parents should be prepared for their interview as well. Think ahead of time about how you will discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses and the questions that you will ask. 

Last but not least: the thank you note! Make sure your child sends a handwritten note to his or her interviewer expressing thanks for the time spent and reiterating interest in the school. It’s these small touches that will make your visit memorable for the admission officers.

Completing the application

While your student may need your help to plan out when and how they will complete their portion of the application, parents should resist the urge to help too much. Admission officers see a lot of applications and are seasoned in identifying the essays and questions that sound like they were written by a forty-year-old rather than a fourteen-year-old! Keeping in mind the goal of finding the right fit for your child, you want their application to be an authentic representation of who they are as an individual and a student. By all means, help with some suggestions and grammatical pointers, but resist the urge to rewrite answers.


After being accepted to a school or schools, your child should winnow their choices down to the schools that they are seriously considering and attend their Accepted Student Revisit Day. Often, visiting a school as an accepted student feels different than visiting as a prospective student. Instead of being nervously preoccupied with the impending interview or tour, your child can start to picture what it might feel like to be a member of the school community. We suggest that families pay attention to the intuitive reaction that a particular school may elicit. If you have a gut feeling that your child will be happy, comfortable, and ready to accept all that a program has to offer because his or her emotional well being is solid, that’s a response you should pay attention to.

Your child is on the waitlist: now what?

After the long wait for March decisions, it can be difficult to hear that you are going to have to wait even longer! However, some students will, unfortunately, be placed on a waitlist for a school they really want to attend. Students usually do not hear about any movement from the waitlist until after the accepted students have started to notify schools of their decisions in mid-April. However, there are a few things that you can do in the meantime. The first, and most important, step is notifying the school that you have a strong interest in admission and would like to remain on the waitlist. You should also have your child write a letter to either their interviewer or the Director of Admission that expresses their strong desire to gain admittance. This outreach can sometimes make a difference.

Focus on "best fit"

It’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is not a successful conclusion to the admission process but a happy and fulfilling high school experience. You will encounter a variety of people who are eager to give their opinion of each school during this process, but seldom are those opinions helpful or meaningful. “I’ve had two different families visit the same school on the same day, and one will think it’s great and the other will say it's awful,” says Fay's Director of Secondary School Counseling, adding that it’s frustrating when parents allow themselves to be influenced by another parent’s opinion. 

Stay focused on your child’s goals, interests, and instincts about each school, and you stand the greatest chance of finding the school where your child will be happy and successful.

To see a list of the Top 25 schools where Fay students have matriculated in the past five years, and to learn more about the secondary school counseling process, click here.

More Articles About The Secondary School Admission Process

List of 6 news stories.

  • The Do’s and Don’ts of The Parent Interview

    When parents think about secondary school interviews, they tend to focus on prepping their child for the all-important, anxiety-inducing applicant interview. The parent interview, which usually takes place during the same visit, can seem less significant, and parents often neglect to prepare for it in the same way. However, with a little planning, the parent interview can be a real asset to your student’s application.
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  • Why Work With an Educational Consultant?

    Stressed out by the school application process? You’re not alone. For many families, the prospect of researching, visiting, and applying to multiple schools in the hopes of finding the one is simply overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why an increasing number of families are seeking the assistance of an educational consultant.
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  • Secondary Schools: What to Consider When You’re Looking for the Right Fit For Your Child

    Parents embarking on the secondary school admissions process frequently hear school counselors and consultants talk about the importance of finding a school that’s  the right fit . As advice, that’s hard to argue with, but as a goal, it’s frustratingly short on specifics. What does that really mean, and how does a parent stay focused on finding the right school while navigating the flood of information, conflicting opinion, and emotion that accompanies the secondary school admission process?
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  • Don’t Miss the Boat – Five Things to Know about Private School Admission Deadlines

    Did you know that January is the most important month in the private school admission calendar? Though September feels far away, now’s the time to think about what school will be the best fit for your child, whether your child is starting school for the first time in kindergarten or considering a change of schools for the next grade. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
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  • Six Tips for Acing a Secondary School Interview

    Few things in the admissions process cause as much angst among parents and students as the interview. With the right kind of preparation, the interview can be a real asset to your child’s application. Here are some tips for sending your child into interviews ready to make a great impression.
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  • Insider Tips: What Private High Schools Look for in Their Applicants

    For middle schoolers around the world, admission to a top American private high school—otherwise known as a secondary school—is a key goal. But what does it take to get in?
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About Fay School

Fay School was founded in 1866 and is the oldest junior boarding school in the United States. Our 66-acre campus is located in Southborough, MA, just 25 miles from Boston. Our community includes 475 students in kindergarten through grade nine and includes 150 boarders in grades 7-9  from across the United States and over 20 countries. Fay is recognized around the world for its superior educational program, and our graduates are accepted to top secondary schools. Fay's program empowers students to discover their talents, develop their intellectual abilities, establish essential academic skills and knowledge, and define their moral character - all essential to living a life of meaning and making a positive difference in the world.

Learn more about Fay School.

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