Standing in a parking lot adjacent to the Willows Community School, I could hear the anxious din of parents milling about the school's auditorium. It was the Fall 2011 Consortium of Secondary School Admissions Directors (CSSAD) Fair, and I was eager to learn what all of the fuss was about.
Reader, if you were unable to attend the fair yourself, please allow me to regale you with my findings. In this post, I will explain the purpose of the CSSAD Fair, its target audience, my conversations with participating admissions directors, and other 'insider' tid-bits that will be invaluable to you. In addition to a general review of the event, I will also share some poignant information about the 'Do's and Don'ts' of school admissions – we're talking direct quotes from the 'gatekeepers' of private school: the admissions directors.
So what is the CSSAD School Fair and why should I care?
The CSSAD School Fair is a bi-annual event facilitated by the admissions directors of the Los Angeles Area Independent Schools (LAAIS...another acronym for ya). It is designed to connect independent school admissions directors with families who are getting ready to apply for the following school year. The event format is much like a trade show. Each school’s admissions directors are assigned a booth where they may distribute their school’s literature and provide detailed information about their educational program. Typically, multiple admissions associates or administrators will make themselves available to chat with parents and field questions. The 'vibe' of the event is very casual, friendly, and pretense-free. The event is clearly geared toward grown-ups, so parents, do NOT bring your kids along. I could hear the irritated scoffing of admissions directors when fully-fledged-families-of-five would come trouncing through the halls.
So why should you care about going to the fair? This leads me to Insider Tip #1!
Insider Tip #1:
The CSSAD School Fair (and it's elementary school counterpart, the ESAD School Fair) is the only time when all of the LAAIS schools organize as a collective and are able to chat about their specific programs. As it is enforced by LAAIS, all schools affiliated with the consortium must be present in order for the admissions directors to speak with families about their schools. Oftentimes third-party organizations (non-profits, tutoring companies, educational agencies, etc.) will host panels of LAAIS admissions directors and suggest that 'insider details' will be revealed. Due to LAAIS protocol, the admissions directors are only allowed to speak generally about the admissions process; they are barred from speaking about the nuances of their school or the elements of applications that they most heavily value. It is worth noting that these events can be very helpful, however, they are broadly-focused and will not provide attendees with a deeper look into the lives of particular schools.
How can I make the most effective use of my time at the CSSAD School Fair?
In total, there are 32 schools represented at the school fair. For a complete list, please click the following link: http://bit.ly/mUMNDN.
32 schools is too much ground to cover in an hour and a half. Consequently, you should arrive to CSSAD with a game plan. Do your homework in advance. You probably have a general idea about the kind of school that you would like your children to attend. Typically these schools can be categorized according to their respective teaching philosophies and culture. The rhetoric of these categorizations includes words like 'developmental', 'project-based', 'experiential', 'traditional', 'parochial', 'progressive', etc. You will see these words smattered all over school websites and echoed by the mouths of admissions directors. For a detailed review of these categorizations, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Beyond the Brochure by Christina Simon, Anne Simon, and Porcha Dodson (www.beyondthebrochurela.com). Christina, Porcha, and Anne have had ample experience on both sides of the LA private school admissions 'fence' and can help you distinguish the type of private school best suited for your family. Which brings me to Insider Tip #2:
Insider Tip #2:
Come prepared and be focused! The school fair is swarming with parents, which makes it very easy for your adult ADD to kick-in. Rather than dawdling, make a hit list of the schools you'd like to get to know better and engage accordingly. When you've finished meeting the folks from these schools, check out some others that you know little about. We all understand how easy it is to get wrapped up in the zeitgeist of 'name brand schools' or the schools that our friends are obsessing about. Every LAAIS school has a niche and corresponding strengths. Consequently, it is important to be both an educated and open-minded investigator.
I get it – there will be a TON of people there and I need to budget my time. So what should I talk to the admissions directors about?
The fair is the perfect opportunity to get a more concrete 'feel' for the schools to which you are applying. Ask 'bigger' questions about the school's curriculum, administrative structure, culture, financial aid offerings, student composition, etc. These are comfortable questions that can often be addressed to multiple individuals standing at a booth. Due to the format of the event, you probably won't be able to make time-consuming inquiries that involve the particular details of your family - this can be accomplished during school visits, admissions interviews, or private meetings with admissions directors.
Intuitively, I'd like to think that admissions directors are hired because they approximate the ethos of their institutions. They are ambassadors of their communities, and a lot can be inferred from your interactions with them. As a caveat, I should emphasize that admissions directors are a single component of a school's complex landscape. An imperfect conversation with an admissions director should not prevent you from applying. If I had a nickel for every awkward conversation in my life...
Insider Tip #3:
The CSSAD School Fair is not the place for leaving that perfect, indelible impression on an admissions director. The event is not conducive for intimate conversation or private eviscerations of the soul. At a previous fair I had attended, I saw a mother who was peddling her daughter around with sprigs of lavender to hand to admissions directors. The girl was wearing a lavender t-shirt, and I have little doubt that her name was also 'Lavender' (clearly, mother had been planning this for some time). I'm sure the lavender ordeal was incredibly memorable to admissions directors, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was judged as hokey or inappropriate.
Rather than giving out handicrafts or those miniature topiaries you've been pruning all year, grab a cookie, coffee, and help yourself to the fruit platter in the foyer – take it easy and converse with good folks.
So who did you meet, Matt? What did they tell you about 'best practices' for applying to private school?
An hour and a half was hardly enough time to meet everyone. However, I did get a chance to chat with some admissions directors who told me a bit about their schools AND gave me some application tips. It's worth mentioning that Launch Education spends an incredible amount of time getting to know the curriculum, culture, and community of the schools that our students attend. This makes our academic tutoring and ISEE test preparation programs even more exceptional.
Archer School for GirlsDirector of Admissions: Beth Kemp
“Don't rely on the chatter of other parents when making admissions decisions. Do the investigation yourself – get to know the school and take a tour. I would also recommend that if you attend an Open House, pay particular attention to the teachers. You can tell a lot about a school's community and the quality of its education based on the attitude of its faculty. Are the teachers happy, excited, and engaged? We take pride in the fact that our teachers are thrilled to be a part of the Archer community, and it shows. This is particularly important at Archer, because our teachers are deeply connected to the lives of their students.”
The Wesley SchoolAdmissions Associate: Brenda Stump
“Please be concise with your application. I would also recommend that you come to an open house as soon as possible. Get a taste for the school – it will help guide your approach to the application. Lastly, be yourself. There's no need to change in order to fit the image of our school.”
Windward SchoolAdmissions Associate: Lisa Walker
“Don't procrastinate and wait until the last minute to submit your application. We're fresher at the beginning of the season (laughs)! I also know that in terms of the ISEE, Windward places particular importance on a student's Reading Comprehension scores. The Reading Comprehension section says a lot about a student's critical thinking abilities, which underlie a student's capacity to learn across different subject areas.”
Sinai Akiba AcademyDirector of Admissions: Marla Minden
“Obviously, make sure that your application is timely and totally complete. I can't tell you how many times we have to make phone calls because a major component of the application is missing. This will impact your application process as unless all forms and required documentation is in place, the child’s file will not move into the next phase of admissions, which includes parent interviews, student assessments and finally, the all-important presentation of the applicants file to the Admissions Team. Also, year after year, everything bottlenecks around tuition-assistance. If you're hoping to receive financial aid, the tuition-assistance section needs to be immaculate. This is particularly crucial at Sinai Akiba, because 25% of our students are given some sort of tuition-assistance.”
So that's all folks. Hopefully this blog post will be of service to you when you consider attending future CSSAD and ESAD fairs. If you have any questions about the event, please don't hesitate to leave a comment or connect with me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Launch takes pride in its robust professional network, so I'd also be happy to connect you directly to admissions directors or educational consultants who have a firm grasp of the private school admissions process. Take care and best of luck as you navigate this exciting process with your children!