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Private Middle & High School Admissions in 2021


Middle school and high school applications are still changing in light of the pandemic and distance-learning, even with a return to school in the fall, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for them! We sat down with one of our trusted admissions counselors, Mary Folsom, to compare notes on the upcoming process.

Here’s what we know about what goes into a strong application, how AJ can help, and who you can reach out to for support in areas we don’t specialize in.

Private school applications are very involved and require quite a bit of planning. Here’s a quick list of everything you need to do after you’ve narrowed down your chosen schools:

  • Make sure your grades are strong
  • Ask for letters of recommendation
  • Prepare for an admissions exam (school-dependent: we’ll go into more detail later in this post!)
  • Prepare for an interview
  • Prepare for a writing sample
  • Work on the application essay questions
  • Attend open houses, shadow days, and other school-hosted events

This can be a lot of work (and pressure!) for students and families. Luckily, there are a lot of phenomenal resources in the area to help alleviate some of the stress. 

Entrance Exams

Historically, schools have required test scores as part of their admissions process. These include the ISEE, SSAT, and HSPT, depending on school and grade level. We’re seeing a shift this year in testing requirements though. Some schools have gone test blind, meaning they’re not accepting a test at all, others are test-optional, meaning you can choose to submit a test or not, some are requiring tests as normal, and some still haven’t made decisions yet. 

We know that schools that are not accepting test scores will place higher importance on every other component of the application.

Here’s Mary’s take on test-optional schools:

“While there are a lot of good reasons to eliminate standardized testing, keep in mind that schools are still transitioning to the test-optional status. For many years they have used test scores as an objective, standard measure in evaluating students, so if your scores are solid, you should submit them. This gives the schools an assurance about your academic aptitude. At least for a while, standardized tests will continue through middle school, high school, college, and graduate school applications, so experience with test prep (getting familiar and comfortable) and gaining test strategies is valuable. If you can take the test, I recommend you take it. Once you get your scores, you do not have to submit any of them if you don’t want to. If you are unsure about whether you should submit your scores, you can talk over the results with your counselor and decide together. If you have strong scores, submitting them will make your application stronger.”

If you’re applying to schools that require tests, are test-optional, or have yet to announce their testing requirements, it’s in your best interest to prepare. 


We know that grades are always an important factor in the admissions process. A student’s academic performance speaks to their dedication, work ethic, and interest in education―all things that are enticing to private schools. We also know that, like many other aspects of this year, grade considerations will look a little different. Typically, last year’s grades are what schools take into highest consideration, but with the allowances and exceptions made for distance learning, this upcoming semester (or trimester) will be taken into account more seriously. 

AJ has grade-level content assessments to make sure that your student is ready for fall, and we have an excellent team of academic tutors to support students through the crucial first term. Many schools require letters of recommendation from current teachers, meaning teachers that have only worked with students for a short period of time. Mary told us that “For the classes where your teacher will be writing a recommendation, be sure to participate in class, complete homework on time, do any extra credit work that you can, and meet outside of class to discuss projects or homework so that your teacher can get to know you better.” Not only will school performance be important for this fall, it will also play a huge role in getting strong teacher recommendations. We can help your student stand out!


Writing Sample

The writing sample can be submitted two different ways, depending on whether or not you decide to take an entrance exam. If you’re sitting for an exam, the writing sample is usually the last section of the test. There’s no need to sign up for an additional writing sample in this case. If you’re not sitting for an exam, you will need to sign up for a timed, proctored date to write an essay. You will not be given the prompt ahead of time, so working with a tutor to get used to timed writes can be very helpful! Mary mentioned that “Schools that do not accept standardized tests will also be reading your essays more carefully, so be sure to spend time on the application answers and essays. For middle and high school applications, you can practice writing to prepare for the Writing Test.” 

We know the types of questions schools have asked in previous years, and we’ve designed a curriculum that covers organization, timing strategies, mechanics, and adaptable content to set students up for success. 


Every school will hold interviews, regardless of their testing status. The interview is a great time for schools to get to see the students’ personalities. Interviewers are looking at how students interact with adults, what their thought process looks like, how well they communicate, and their levels of intellectual and emotional maturity. Schools want to build a cohort of students that share core values and morals, that are at similar academic levels, and that will interact positively with one another. The interview is a very important piece of the admissions process, because it’s the only time the admissions team gets to see the student for who they are, unedited. While they can be fun and conversational, it’s helpful to go into it with some anecdotes and responses prepared. The more natural and relaxed a student is, the better the interview will go; and practice is the best way to manage nervousness!

Like with the writing sample, we know questions that schools have asked in interviews in previous years, and we have a curriculum designed to prepare students. In designing the curriculum, we consulted with interviewers from Rice and Harvard and built a program around the key components of impressive, successful candidates.

Mary left us with a great piece of advice for students: “Prepare and have fun!” We couldn’t agree more, and we’re here to help you prepare for strong fall grades, the entrance exam, the writing sample, and the interview so you can have fun instead of feeling overwhelmed! For help with any other aspect of the application, we highly recommend reaching out to Mary at Right Fit Admissions Consulting or any of our other wonderful connections!


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