Two years ago, when we began the search for a private high school for our son, little did we realize how fraught the process would be.

We live in Massachusetts, which offers numerous options for private high schools, including the prestigious Phillips Academy. Unfortunately, having so many options available also meant an extremely high level of competition for admission at the top-tier schools, and we knew we had our work cut out.

It was indeed daunting, but I am happy to report that we did survive the private school application process — my son attends a great day school with a solid reputation.

We learned a few valuable lessons during the process, and I want to share them with those who may be in the midst of private school application season. My recommendations have less to do with the obvious aspects of high school admissions, such as testing — rather, it’s about subtler strategies we may not emphasize.

Here are the 3 must-dos if you are going through the private school application process — and they work, whether you are applying to boarding schools or day schools.

  1. Don’t let anyone talk you out of applying to a school you feel strongly about

As it turned out, for us, even the initial step of developing the list of target schools was not without challenges.

My son has ADHD, and his poor organization skills led his middle school teacher to believe that he would not be a strong candidate for some of the top-tier schools on our list. Hearing her say we should not apply to those schools and instead consider schools that were not even on our radar was indeed a low point.

However, I refused to take no for an answer, because I knew my son was capable of performing well at many of the schools on our list, despite his organization issues. I advocated for him strongly, and we decided to move forward with applications to two top-tier schools — he ended up getting admission in one and was waitlisted at the other.

Moral of the story? When it comes to your child, you know best, so trust your instincts. Apply to all the schools on your list, if that’s what you want, and be prepared to advocate for your child — you have nothing to lose.

2. Thoroughly research the courses offered at each school

You may know a school by its reputation and may be attracted to the niche it’s known for — “sports” vs. “artsy” vs. “STEM” schools, for example — but I must emphasize how important it is to get to the know each school beyond a superficial level.

Talk to current and former students, parents and teachers to understand the school’s philosophy and culture. Coming from a Montessori background, my son needed a school that demonstrated a philosophy of tolerance for differences and failure. I kept my eyes and ears open and used my sixth sense as a parent to get a feel for the environment. I also signed up for the school’s newsletter to stay abreast of the goings-on.

Also take the time to read available literature about courses and delve deep into the school’s extracurricular offerings. This will help you understand if the school offers enough options in the student’s areas of interest.

For example, if your child is into computer science or coding, then some questions to ask may be: How many AP courses do you offer in computer science? Do you have a robotics program? What’s your track record of participation in competitions?

Private school is expensive, and it should provide resources so that your child does not have to seek them outside school. Ultimately, the school must prepare your child in the best possible way in his areas of interest so that he is ready when it’s time for college applications.

3. Make meaningful connections at your target school

My son took the extra time and effort to seek out instructors in his areas of interest — singing and aquatics — at the school that was top on his list. He introduced himself to the music teacher when he visited the school during open house. He then followed up with the teacher via email to schedule a meeting when he returned to the school for his interview with admissions.

He also met with the swim instructor during open house to discuss his interest. The swim instructor later invited him to attend a swim meet and watch the school’s swim team in action. Attending the meet offered an opportunity for us to talk not only to the instructor but also to other parents and students.

To this day, I believe that establishing personal connections with the teachers was one reason my son got admission to his school, as it provided tangible evidence of not only his interest but also his initiative.

In conclusion, when it comes to high school admissions, do the homework, and go the extra mile. While the basic ingredients for private school application — good SSAT/ISEE test scores, high GPA, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations — must be in place, it’s the subtler details that may seal the deal on both sides.

Do you have a story to share about your own experience with the high school application process? What made a difference for you? Post your comments here.

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  • A marketer by training, Radhika has had a diverse career that includes working for consumer products companies such as The Gorilla Glue Company and education services organizations such as Cambridge Network. Radhika considers herself an empathy evangelist and writes to help individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. As mom to a child with ADHD, Radhika wants to help kids with special needs understand that they too can thrive and be successful, no matter the disability.