3 Things the Most Selective Boarding Schools Look for in Applicants

From the perspective of families and students, the process of applying to some of the nation’s top boarding and day schools can be inscrutable, and at times the decisions rendered can feel arbitrary. With schools continuing to champion record breaking numbers of applicant pools and increasingly shrinking percentages of acceptances offered, families struggle to unpack the admissions algorithm of interviews, standardized test scores, weighted vs. unweighted GPAs, and extracurricular involvement. Prospective students and families are often left to navigate these uncharted waters alongside the tidal wave of public opinion that accompanies this very public process.

Wouldn’t it be great to have some idea what’s going on inside their heads? That’s not possible, of course, but we have the next best thing.

As the Associate Director of Secondary School Counseling at the Fessenden School, Scott Duddy, and the Secondary School Counseling team have helped hundreds of middle school-aged boys find a perfect fit for their secondary education. Every year, Fessenden’s matriculation list includes top boarding schools like Andover, Choate, Deerfield, and Exeter, along with some of the best independent day and public schools in the Boston area. Perhaps equally as important, every year, alums and parents of alums reach out to the office to express their gratitude for helping them to navigate the challenging and uncertain waters of the secondary school search. So Scott knows as well as anyone what admissions officers at the most selective boarding schools are looking for.

Finding the Best Fit

If you are committed to getting your son into a selective secondary boarding school, Scott cautions families to avoid the proverbial “bumper sticker” mentality. Even if your son is accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, he may not necessarily have the best experience there. As Malcolm Gladwell recently hypothesized, the happiness quotient derived by being at the top of one school far outweighs the value of being at the bottom rung of Harvard despite the disparity in name recognition.

At Fessenden, Scott and the Secondary School Counseling Office focus on a process that encourages the boys to reflect upon the decisions they make and how these decisions impact their lives. Scott encourages families to “focus on the growth and development of your son during the course of his search process, rather than the name brand of the school. What matters most is making a perfect match between a school and your son’s personality, background, interests, and learning style. This focus will enable you to make the most informed choice in the end.” Fessenden eschews a time tested Secondary School Counseling process that serves to strengthen the boys self-advocacy, enabling the boys to better engage with adults and develop critical problem solving and research skill sets. As a direct result, Fessenden families are making informed choices and enrolling at schools where their sons continue their upward trajectory of academic and social growth.  

Whether you plan to apply to some of the most selective boarding schools, hidden gems that are a perfect fit for your son, or a mix of both types, here are three of the things admissions officers will be asking themselves about your son.


1. How engaged is he during his interview?

“Admissions officers are skilled in helping families to navigate the best fit. Families often approach these encounters with the same mindset that they do when buying a car. There is the belief that the admissions office is looking to sell you something and it is the family’s job to unpack the truth. The reality is that an admissions office is looking to help you better understand the relationship that you as a family and as a student will be entering into for the next 4-6 years of your lives. The last thing that an admissions office wants is to enroll you for one year and then find that you are unhappy and looking to transfer. Thus the more genuine you during the interview, the better the admissions officer will be able to help guide you as to the relevance of the ‘fit’”, Scott explains.

For example, when an admissions officer asks an applicant, “What classes are you taking?”, they’re usually looking for a bit more than, “English, math, science, and history.”

“Boys who can bridge the gap by articulating the connected nature of their school curriculum really set themselves apart. An interview is less about what you are doing than it is about how think about what you are doing and how effectively you are able to articulate your views. The really skilled answer is when students start to talk about not only what they’re covering in their classes, but making connections between that and what they’re learning in other classes,” Scott says.

The questions your son asks are also important.

“Asking questions specific to your interests will help to distinguish you from the pack and will also help you to decipher whether or not the school is the right fit,” Scott says. “Avoid asking questions that can be answered by looking on the webpage, rather use this time to ask questions that will help you to decide between schools later in the process. It is important to remember that while these schools are deciding on you, you too should be making a decision about them.”

2. Does he take ownership and responsibility for his failures?

Selective boarding schools are looking for applicants who have learned to “take ownership” for who they are and where they are, Scott says. Achievements are important, but just as important is a willingness to understand and learn from failures.

Maybe your son didn’t make the basketball team or flubbed an audition for the school play. That doesn’t mean those experiences are without value.

“A boy can say ‘Well, I failed,’ or he can say, ‘Well, I didn’t achieve the goals that I had initially set out to achieve, but here’s what I learned along the way,’” Scott says. “The result may have been the same from an outside perspective, but those are two dramatically different ways of looking at it.”

Most schools see the ability to try and fail and keep moving forward in the face of tough challenges as a sign of character.

3. Will he help the school maintain its prestige?

Selective boarding schools are very aware of their national standing and are always looking to stay on top in as many different areas as they can. When they enroll a student, Scott explains, they’re “trying to maximize their return and get the most out of the student.”

“Obviously, the more multifaceted a student is, the more schools are going to be interested in him,” he says. “A well-rounded student offers more opportunities for success because he’s not just one-dimensional.”

So while a student who excels in sports, academics, or the arts may catch a school’s attention, it’s really the well-rounded student, who has experiences in all those areas, who will have an edge in the admissions process.

How can your son become a well-rounded, engaged individual?

How can you help your son engage with his education, learn to relish a challenge, and become a well-rounded individual? One way is to enroll him in a junior boarding school. At a junior boarding school like Fessenden, your son will spend his middle school years gaining many of the character traits prized by the best secondary schools in the nation.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are a few articles about how junior boarding schools prime students for success in secondary school and beyond:

Are you hoping to get your son into a selective secondary boarding school? If you have questions about the process, we would be happy to answer them. Ask your questions in the comments section below.

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