Things You Wish You'd Considered/Asked Prior to Committing to a Prep School?

As we sort through acceptances with our daughter, we are having her make a new list of the things that are important to her in terms of fit with a school and what will make her happy academically, socially, etc. Then she will do more research and ask more questions over the next few weeks to see if she can find the best fit for her.

In that vein, are there things you/your student wish they had thought about prior to attending school that would have been helpful in determining fit or just would have made their life easier/happier/more fulfilling if they had considered some aspect of each school before making a decision to commit? She has a good list, but I’m sure there are things she/we aren’t thinking about but should be!

Thanks for any insight!

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If you think there is a possibility of wanting to accelerate in a given area, how flexible is the curriculum in allowing that. I know kids who had to do a summer session to get to a higher level of math while others were at schools that had options to get two years done in one. (This was used both by kids who came from weaker middle schools and wanted to finish calculus in 12th and kids who wanted a few years of post calculus math before college. )

Discipline policy. Varies from school to school. Does it extend to weekends at someone’s home? How many strikes?

Weekend activities. Not only what, but how easy is it to just veg in your room if you need it.

Clearly none has right answers, but these are places where schools can really differ.

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It could be helpful to know the culture around kids going home/leaving for weekends. Does the campus clear out and only those not from in the region stick around or is the campus pretty busy on weekends?

For some children and families, knowing more about the health center and counseling services might be important.

As discussed on other threads, understanding expectations of the advising system could be useful. How are advisors assigned? Is it easy for students to change advisors (and what is the process)? Do advisors reach out to parents regularly, occasionally, not at all?

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It’s definitely helpful to speak to current students as much as possible I would say. My daughter’s first choice of school (she’s a day student) was an all girls school but they did not offer her enough financial aid so she went elsewhere. Her best friend went to the all girls school. Fast forward two years and I can’t get over how terrible and toxic the culture is at the girls school, bullying (in person and online) is so bad it’s almost unfathomable. the students’ lives are filled with nonstop drama (I think in part because they are academically bored, but that’s another story).

Anyway, all this is to say that the shiny admissions presentations and social media sites don’t portray they full and accurate picture. We thought this school was a bastion of sisterhood and women’s empowerment which seems nonsensical now that we have seen the day to day. Speaking to current students whenever given the option I believe will betray the real culture of the school (at least I hope it would have to us!). Also - ask for real data about how many students leave the school each year. There is a lot to be learned there.

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The biggest thing I would look for is culture and community. Is there a social life outside of the classroom? If you child needs support (academic, mental health, etc), is there an encouraging environment to reach out for help? Does the school’s calendar reflect your values and needs (i.e. are there DEI community events? social events? scheduled time and space for kids to be kids)? Is there a socioeconomic divide such that if everyone eats off campus, your child won’t feel left behind eating in the cafeteria each meal? Or spring break means all kids travel together and yours is at home? Can your child be “different” and is that acceptable…or is there a mold they are expected to fit?

I’d also ask parents of seniors what their thoughts are – would they do it again?

Good luck with your decision!

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You’ve done a really good job selecting schools during the application process, and I suspect your child will thrive at any of them. The one thing that would sway me one way or other (if I had to do it all again) is the advisory system. We would heavily lean toward a school that allows students to pick their advisor and stick with him/her for their 4 years. Having 4 advisors in 4 years, all of which were / will be assigned to Kiddo1, not chosen, has been a serious downside to kiddo1’s school.

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I have to agree with you, especially sending young kid to boarding school. Culture and community are more important than reputation. Schools are very different in advisor’s rule.
Will ask how many kids drop out through the years. Lots of time it can tell whether most kids are happy.
I also will add one thing-- check with current students and ask how stable faculty and staff in the school. Not talking about one head of school or one teacher leaving, I meant if a group of faculty and staff left --definitely a red flag.

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  1. Protocols for illness/injuries – both what staff is available at night/weekends (this varies a lot) and what training/protocols are in place when students are off-campus with teachers. I won’t get into details, but sending lots of teens with teachers with zero medical background and no backup to away games doesn’t always lead to great decision making. (e.g. a tennis coach is 2 hours away with thirds and one kid really should be taken to a hospital, but isn’t because teacher has to get other 9 kids back to campus)

  2. Are there lots of young teachers/teaching fellows? If so how many classes do they teach and what is their supervision and training? My prep school had teachers right out of college in a quasi-training program, and some were not so great. (There was a 9th grade English teacher back then who knew far less about grammar than us 9th graders, by far.). I interviewed for it at end of college myself. You needed no experience teaching. That said some turned out to be very good, but as a parent I would be very peeved if I paid for boarding school and my kid had 2 teachers that were 23 with no training. I think most of these “fellow” programs have been upgraded a bit (looked at a couple school’ sites) but something to consider.

  3. What are the board’s priorities? Are there big strategic changes upcoming (particularly if a new head)?

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  1. Rules (and enforcement). Things like lights out, room inspections. (I have a night owl.) Fortunately DC ended up at a place whose rules were agreeable enough - would have been miserable at their second choice.

  2. Laundry. Hopefully not quarters. DC’s first year I had to send care packages including rolls of quarters. Thankfully they have since gotten new machines. Now the issues/conflicts are more about the finer points of laundry room etiquette, such as cleaning the lint trap, or leaving your phone number on the dryer so you can be texted after a cycle is done and someone else wants to use the dryer.

  3. People you and your kid can trust. My kid took a while to warm up to their advisor, but always trusted the school nurse. Both have gone above and beyond.

Not an issue for me, but: storage. You’re an ex-pat, so it might be good to see if there are some reasonable facilities nearby.

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Yes - one of the perks for me at a couple of schools is that they offer storage to international families on campus free of charge.

Thanks for the other suggestions as well!

My two current BS students wish they would have asked more about weekends, how many kids typically stay on campus, etc. Our one child’s current school (transferring for final year) has a decent percentage of day students. That with the combination of many boarders living with two or so hours can make some weekends lonely. They were lucky to have some friends who also weren’t local and they played one of their sports outside of school in the fall, but we were surprised to see how empty it found be. Our other BS student’s school has a lower percentage of day students so weekends are better.

As a parent more questions about individual and meaningful adult interaction would have been important for both current schools. In today’s climate it’s concerning. Our one child’s new school seems to be better about this but it’s smaller.

Just to add to this: Some schools have lots of boarders AND empty out on weekends. Really tough if you are a distance boarder and don’t have this option. There are others that have lots of day students where most boarders stay on campus for weekends. At some schools, day students spend a lot of the weekend on campus. While there is a lot of grumbling about Saturday classes, they are a pretty good antidote to an empty campus on weekends. Then again, there are some students who want down time on weekends and would prefer to less go-go weekend environments, so if you might be in that camp, make sure you can opt out comfortably.

Check to see what is programmed as well as when you can do on your own. (I recall thinking trips to NYC and Philly looked great, but many kids preferred to take a van to the thrift store or walk into town for lunch.) Also ask about extra costs for these.

This is absolutely something to dig into-- especially with current students – because assumptions based on day/boarder or location can be wrong – and because one person’s fun is another’s hell!

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  1. Breathe the air if you can. Connect with as many students, parents, faculty, and just listen to your gut. Assuming you have selected schools that will meet your criteria (X sport or Y activity), you can lean into your gut feel. (Note: for MOST students, the rigor of academics are less of a differentiator than you might think. So I would NOT let that drive the decision here anymore. There is plenty of rigor at most boarding schools that are talked about here.)
  2. Read the handbook. I’ve brought up before the handbook of a school that we read that dictated how to butter your dinner roll as an example of a school culture that for us wasn’t right, but for others, they may well be thinking “oh good! finally someone will manage my kid’s bread-buttering skills.” Read the handbook for sure.
  3. Do a google search on school name + YouTube and watch videos closely. Pay particular attention to the kids who aren’t center-stage. Look at their faces, body language, how they relate to each other.
  4. Consider looking at staff/faculty comments on Glassdoor website…it will give you a sense for the happiness of the faculty.
  5. As much as I DO think great academics can be found at most boarding schools, our experience is that the daily homework level targeted DOES vary. I would ask: “what is the average daily number of hours of homework for a Freshman in a normal (non-finals/midterm) week?” And give that number some real thought. Another way to ask is: Do freshmen typically have enough time to complete their homework in the study hours allotted? (if they have study hours).
  6. Finally – know that you CAN leave after a year if it’s not the right fit. It’s not ideal of course, but it’s good to remember that very few decisions in life are forever. NO school is right for every single person! And NO school is perfect. So even if all signs point to a school being amazing, sometimes things just don’t fit. We realized in my daughter’s freshman year that her school, which had been her amazing dream school – we cried when she got in – wasn’t a fit. She left. The world kept turning. I don’t think there is anything we did “wrong” in our decision process. And I’m sure there are kids who are quite happy still at that school. (And she is quite happy at the school where she transferred.)

It’s an exciting time for sure!!!

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As usual… great info. Thank you!!

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When my daughter was in high school (eons ago?) she was repulsed by the table manners of the other kids. She said they were so disgusting she sometimes had to look away in order to eat. So maybe there should be a course in eating without being gross in high school?

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In reply to how to choose a school. I think it is important to remember that all these schools are putting their best foot forward - kids are instructed to bend the truth when asked certain questions - homework load, drugs on campus, etc. BUT, it is also important to remember that your kid will probably be fine with her gut decision. This board is filled with people agonizing and very few of us have reported everything as smooth sailing - we are a tiny sample size of BS parents and kids - the smooth sailers are not here because they don’t need emotional support to make it through high school. I am kind of joking, but I am serious in that this board makes the decision seem more intense than it really is.

Take all the advice and ask all the questions but keep in the back of your mind that there are positives and negatives at every school and your kid is most likely going to be fine with whatever decision she makes. There is not one right choice when it comes to BS.

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kids are instructed to bend the truth when asked certain questions -

I never heard anything like this at our school! We did apply to one school where contact with students was highly “managed”, which took it off the list.

I would simply say "listen carefully ". It’s easy to hear what you want to hear/think you’ll hear.

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I would agree with all points above - we also went through the Instagram accounts of all of the teams/clubs that my child would have been interested in joining at each school. While some were “officially sanctioned” Instagram accounts most were actually not - they were ran by a team manager, captain, or team members themselves. Although we realized that an Instagram page can be carefully curated, we found we could still pick up the vibe of each team by looking through their posts, watching their stories, etc.

I don’t think I can agree with this. There were certainly kids at my kid’s boarding school that made the wrong choice, some left, some still hanging on but far from thriving. And we know kids from other schools that were unhappy and either made a change or wished they could. There are certainly ups and downs for almost all kids no matter where they go to high school, but there are regular bumps vs major challenges cause by either choosing the wrong school, or making the decision about going to boarding school to begin with. That’s not to say there is one right choice, but there are certainly wrong choices for any particular student. So things I would recommend to seriously consider:
1/ If you are entering as non-repeat freshman make sure the school has supports in place, not just on paper, but double and triple check by talking to current families. If you are considering one of the high academic ‘sink or swim’ schools, you need to make sure you are very mature, independent and have great time management skills. This is doubly true if you live far away and won’t be able to visit your family regularly (and vice versa).
2/ Trust your gut and listen to what people are trying to tell you. I don’t think kids are instructed one way or another but they tend to focus on the positives when talking to prospective students (or anyone really), ask questions and talk to as many people as possible, ideally students with profiles similar to yours.
3/ While reading the handbook may be interesting, a lot of the handbooks are outdated and most of the stuff in there is not at all followed or enforced at a lot of schools. So if anything is important to you ask questions do not rely on what’s in the handbook.
4/ Housing - while in theory having a roommate can be really good for your social life and integration at the school, it can also be a source of major stress if the match is not good or if there are other issues. Find out how proactive school is in resolving roommate issues, and how likely it is you could have single room should you so choose.
5/ Injury/sickness handling - this is especially important if you live far away. Often schools address this by calling the parents, and most parents will come if their kid gets injured in a game and needs surgery or other medical attention or if they is serious illness. If you can’t what does the school do? How good is the health center? But we have had a ton of garden variety sickness too, kids coughing and congested for months at the time. If one of those kids is your roommate, odds are you won’t be able to escape the germ pool either. Now this is happening at all schools post covid but being a boarding student makes it harder to shake as you do not get the parental TLC and your own room to sleep as much as you need/want to.
6/ While the move away from Saturday classes is great for reducing the stress level kids have, it does seem to lead to more kids leaving campus on weekends, be it for extracurriculars, family or social stuff elsewhere or just some fun off campus. Great if your kid is doing the fun stuff, not ideal if your kid is the one left behind.
7/ Be realistic about what you/your child needs academically, great academics can be found at most if not all of them. Some have way more driven high achieving kids than others, but that also tends to make them way more of a pressure cooker. Some kids thrive in that environment but not all do by any means. And if your child will have major extracurricular commitments, they may be shooting themselves in the foot by trying to seek highest academic classes on top of that. Most of them think they are superstars coming in, but in reality only a few actually are.
8/ Think long and hard why you want to go to boarding school, and choose accordingly. If your main motivation is admission to Ivy league college or similar, do your research and talk to people, and look beyond the numbers given. If you play a sport and want to get recruited, again talk to the coaches and team and be realistic. Much easier to know where you stand if you are coming as repeat junior than as a freshman, and you need to think whether you can handle riding the bench for a year or two.

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I just want to add to this athletic point - of course this is sport and school dependent but many varsity teams rely in recruiting in Juniors, Seniors and PGs and do not actually have any meaningful “in house” development. Listen carefully to what coaches tell you and don’t think it is going to be different once you/your child gets on campus. Read other threads on this topic - if the goal is college athletic recruit, then going to BS as a freshman may not be the best approach.

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