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A lovely fall day found us in a suburban part of New England visiting two very different schools, both of which are viewed as very desirable. The outcome has posed a family challenge and one we’ll be grateful to have the consultant aid us in resolving. Our daughter liked the first school and had a strong aversion to the second while her parents had the opposite view on each school.

The first has a decidedly academic bent with strong arts and weak athletics and a large day student population. It is a school where a student takes the prospective student on tour and a current parent tours the prospective parents. Our daughter really enjoyed the international student who gave her the tour. The parent who showed us around had an infectious enthusiasm for the school, and indeed I can see how our daughter might thrive there. However, the adult tour guide said two things that gave me pause. The first was that she didn’t understand what people meant when they talked about the fit of a school as she thinks every child would fit at this school. Well into my third year of touring prep schools and having had children in both public and private schools for the last twelve years, it has become clear to me that schools have distinct cultures and personalities and every school isn’t a match for every child, so this comment baffled me and made me feel she was perhaps naive. The next shocking comment was in response to my question about disciplinary policy to which she responded, “Well my son says that if you get caught smoking dope, you get spoken to; but if you’re not nice to someone, you really get in trouble.” Perhaps I’m too provincial, but this approach to discipline captured my attention. This was later explained to me as high achieving kids are terrified of getting in trouble, so they need to be able to make mistakes and learn that adults will still love them and that their lives aren’t over. Framed that way, the policy made more sense and I am now open to a “multiple strike” approach. A friend touring this same school with her daughter was told that the school is better off without strong football and hockey programs as they would only attract aggressive students. As luck would have it, our friend’s son is a hockey player at another school.

Next we visited a movie-set traditional and lovely school at which children of close friends are very happy. Despite no offer of coffee, tea or a cookie for which we were desperate having had not time for lunch after our first interview, we had a good tour with a lively and enthusiastic guide and our daughter’s interview seemingly went well. My husband and I were thrilled at having another solid school on the “to apply” list. Our bubble was burst when our daughter got in the car and announced she hated the school. She felt the lovely fa├žade masked a school where boys only want to be “jacked” (very muscular and fit for those of you who don’t have teenage boys) and seen as cool jocks and the girls are pressured to be pretty and not seem smart. (For those of you who are interested in gender differentiation in prep schools and wealth communities Perfectly Prep by Sarah Chase is a fascinating book.) This was apparently triggered by a photo in a year book of a dorm with its male residents lined up outside without shirts yet wearing ties and by the tour guide who was expensively dressed but admitted to not being a very strong student. While we are sure the academics are competitive enough at this school that our daughter is probably somewhat mistaken in her read of the culture, she will not be swayed.

While at this last school, my heart went out to a small eighth grade boy touring with his father. Throughout our tour we noticed this child tagging along behind the tour guide while his father kept wandering off in search of cell reception. Back in the reception area, I began chatting with the boy as the father was still off on the phone. It turns out he is a second cousin to some friends of ours. When the time came for the admissions officer to interview the father, he was still out on the campus talking on the phone. I can only hope he had an emergency at home as an excuse as I have since found out this parent is retired. It seemed to me disrespectful of both his son and the admissions officer.

An interesting difference I’ve noticed this year from prior years of school visits is that the schools seem to be wooing us much more. All but one school interviewer has sent a follow-up note or e-mail to our daughter, and they seem to be much more in sell mode. While I thought this was because they feared fewer applications this cycle due to the economy, admissions officers deny it. At one school we heard that they expect applications to be up, however the admissions’ process won’t be as need blind as in previous years due to the reduced value of the endowment. Whatever the reason, it is very nice to have our visits and interest in a school acknowledged.

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under
the pen name “Boarding School Mom” and all family, child consultant,
and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ’s
Boarding School Mom at boardingschoolmom@admissionsquest.com.