If you hope to get your son into one of the most prestigious secondary boarding schools in the country, you should start planning as soon as you know that’s what you want.
As Scott Duddy, Associate Director of Placement here at The Fessenden School said in a recent article, “I always encourage parents to explore the world of independent education as early as they are starting to wrestle with the question of, ‘Is my child being challenged, supported, and encouraged at his current school?’”
When your son reaches the application age, it will be one of the first times in his life that you are truly seeking input as to a large life decision. Get him to think for himself. As a parent, you’ll be asked the questions so it is important that to help your son find his authentic and genuine voice.
Here are three ways you can help your son throughout his middle school years increase his chances of acceptance into an elite boarding school.
1. Give him space to manage his own work and commitments.
Top secondary boarding schools—where many students live away from home for the first time in their lives—look for students who can work independently, structuring their days to meet their own needs and goals.
“Every day that students wake up at a boarding school, they are confronted with a variety of different decisions: ‘Do I go left? Do I go right?’” Scott says. “Top secondary boarding schools believe it’s important that students take ownership of the decisions they make. And if their decisions don’t lead to a successful outcome, they should know how to say, ‘I’m going to learn from that and I’m going to move forward from that.’”
Scott encourages parents to give their sons the space to try, fail, and learn from their mistakes.
“While you can certainly stay on top of them, I think you need to learn to balance that and enter into a partnership with your son, where he starts to feel ownership and take pride in the work that he produces,” he says.
That’s the approach the staff and faculty of The Fessenden School take. While they keep a close eye on our middle school-aged students, offering guidance and support when they’re needed, they also allow students to take on tough challenges on their own, even if it means they’ll fail on their first try.
2. Encourage him to try out for sports or choose classes outside of his comfort zone.
The leading secondary boarding schools admire perseverance in the face of a challenge. They seek out well-rounded students who try to develop their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
Scott encourages students at Fessenden not to pass on certain classes just because they struggle in those subjects. As a parent, you should do the same, he says.
“As soon as your son says, ‘I’m not good at it,’ then he’s given up,” Scott says.
Top boarding schools see academic challenges as opportunities to grow, gaining confidence and the ability to take on whatever difficulties life brings.
The same goes for sports, Scott says. Just because your son may not be the team captain, or even a starting player, it doesn’t mean your son won’t learn valuable lessons like teamwork and commitment on the playing field.
Plus, he says, “There’s a huge amount of value in getting out there and playing a sport just to play and learning to be competitive because it’s fun.”
3. Help him become comfortable speaking with adults.
When it comes time for your son’s secondary boarding school interview, admissions officers will be watching to see if he makes eye contact, if he has a firm, confident handshake, if he speaks clearly and directly.
These days, with so much communication done through technology, Scott says, young boys don’t get many chances to practice the art of conversation with adults. But if you want your son to make a good impression at a boarding school interview, it’s important you help him find those opportunities to practice.
“I’m not saying encourage your son to go talk to any random stranger, but I think it’s important he learn to have those discussions, make that eye contact, choose his words carefully to personalize them for the person he’s speaking with,” Scott says.
The junior boarding school students at Fessenden gain these skills naturally as they interact with their teachers, dorm parents, and other school staff members.
“The boys that come through Fessenden know how to shake hands. They know how to look people in the eye. They know how to have genuine conversations with adults,” Scott says. “It certainly comes across when you sit down and talk with a boy.”
The best way to help your son? A junior boarding school.
Where will your son learn to work independently, take on new challenges, and interact confidently with adults? As we’ve written before, a few years at a junior boarding school can be one of the best experiences your son can have as he prepares to get into and succeed at a top secondary boarding school.
If you’re interested in visiting a few junior boarding schools to see if they’re a good fit for your son and your family, take a look at our boarding FAQs page. It includes the examples of the most important questions to ask to make the most of your brief time on campus.