Advice from the Pros

Advice from the Pros

Local private school admissions directors share wisdom they’d offer to their own children.

Applying for a slot at one of the area’s top private schools, such as BASIS Independent McLean, can be fraught with tension.

Applying for a slot at one of the area’s top private schools, such as BASIS Independent McLean, can be fraught with tension. Photo Courtesy of BASIS Independent McLean

From interviews to essays to standardized tests to open houses, the season for submitting independent school applications is underway. For families vying for a spot at the area’s most elite schools, the process can be fraught with anxiety, stress and confusion as parents and students wade through the myriad academic options in the Washington, D.C., region.

Admissions decision-makers at several local private schools share advice that they might offer their own children, underscoring the importance of finding the best fit rather than trying to fit into a top school if the environment might not match a student’s personality.

Matti Donkor, interim director of enrollment management at The Madeira School in McLean:

“Enter the process very open-minded. I don’t believe in saying, ‘This is the one school for me.’ I believe in knowing the core things that are important to you like the school’s community, culture and traditions, but also in understanding that you might find those characteristics in a variety of schools. I think students and families should be engaged in the [application] process. I think we do the school visit and that is the only interaction you have with the school. Find out what else is happening on campus, connect with other students and alumni. Really take the time to understand the culture of the school and whether it appeals to you.”

Lisa Knight, director of admission, Flint Hill School, Oakton:

“Take time to learn about the school community. Shadow for day, attend several [school] community events, go and experience the community for yourself. Notice how you feel when you are on campus. Do you feel welcomed? Are current students and teachers greeting you in the hallways and classrooms? Do they notice you? Can you see yourself growing academically, intellectually and socially there? Are you comfortable with the teaching style and methods? Do you value what the school values?”

Richard S. Moss, director of admission, The Heights School, Potomac, Md.:

“Teach your child how to make a pros and cons list. Help him or her thoughtfully consider the options. Ultimately, your child needs to know that he is a valued advisor to the ultimate decision makers: the parents. It's an opportunity for parents to nurture trust. It is a mistake to lead your child to believe that one school is the be all and end all to life's problems. That's a high bar, and, more importantly, you don't want to crush a child's spirit if he doesn’t get in.”

Michael Cresson, director of admissions, Bishop O'Connell High School, Arlington:

“I recommend all students looking at various schools make sure that they are comfortable. Definitely shadow and visit during open houses to get a true sense of the community and school. I tell students to make sure they are comfortable and happy with their choice because they only get to go to high school once.”

Sean Aiken, head of school, BASIS Independent, McLean:

“I would advise students not to get too caught up in their resumes and records and instead work to discuss passions and projects that excite and interest them. How will the school help you explore your ideas in greater depth? In what areas do you want to improve? I’m always impressed with students who are hungry to know more about the world.”

Julie C. Lewis, director of admission and financial aid

, Alexandria County Day School, Alexandria:

“I recommend that families “Take the time to visit a wide-range of schools, not just the ones your friends' kids attend, to really get a feel for what appeals to you as a family and will work best for your individual child. The Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington's website ( is a fantastic place to start your research and may lead you to a school you were not previously familiar with. Once you've created your list of schools, visit each of them and don't be afraid to ask as many questions as needed to really get a sense of the academic program and school community.”