Eighth-grade year for many brings tears of joy and sadness.
Students must leave the safe cocoon of middle school and spread their wings as high school freshmen. For parents interested in pursuing secondary education in a Catholic school or private school for their children, this process can be formidable. And, to make matters worse, this same process will repeat itself in four short years when it is time to apply to colleges and universities. Many of these tips and strategies will be helpful for both.
Where to begin? Gather as much information as possible. Research the school online, talk to friends who are alums or have older children who attended the school, go to an open house, attend a sporting or performing arts event, schedule a day for your 8th grader to shadow at each school and drive to and from the school during rush hour traffic.
Inquire about tuition, book fees, meal options, bus and/or carpool options, dress code, curriculum, in-house tutoring and especially advanced placement and honors courses. If you have a child with documented learning differences, investigate what programs and resources are available for your student.
After choosing schools of interest, the next step — applying for admission — is equally daunting. Here are some tips to ease into the competitive world of Catholic or private high school admissions.
Every school’s application is different. In today’s digital age, most schools require that you set up an online account to access the school’s application. As soon as the applications are available, set up your account and print out a hard copy of the application. Set up a two-pocket file folder for each high school of interest. On the front of the folder, in black marker, write the important dates for that particular school, such as:
- date of open house
- date of scheduled shadow visit
- deadline for the actual application
- deadline for applying for financial aid
- deadline for applying for an academic scholarship, a performing arts scholarship (some schools offer performing arts scholarships in speech and debate, theatre, music and dance), or a fine arts scholarship
- deadline for teacher recommendations or letters of recommendations from alums of the school
The Admissions Essay
Applications for most Catholic or private high schools require an admissions essay. The purpose of the admissions essay is twofold: It gives the admissions committee a sample of your writing, and it lets the admissions committee get to know you in a different way. Some high schools have a specific writing prompt for the essay topic. Some high schools have an open-ended statement or question to respond to.
Answer the Prompt
First, is there a writing prompt on the application? If so, read it carefully. Decode and analyze the prompt: What is it asking? It is important to answer the prompt fully to submit the best possible essay.
Here are some sample topics that have been on applications for Catholic and/or private schools over the years:
If you were able to get into a time machine and travel anywhere in time or place, where would you go and why?
This is a very specific prompt. It is asking the 8th grader to specifically identify a time and place they would like to visit in person. The essay must be filled with visual images and sensory details. The student must use words to paint a picture in the minds of the admissions committee.
Tell me about the one person that has been the most influential in your life so far.
This essay is an opportunity to speak about a teacher, a coach, a neighbor, the moderator of an after-school club, the parent of a friend or a relative. The entire essay must be an introduction to that person. The introduction should give a physical description of this person and identify some personality traits, as well as how you know this person, when you met them, and how they are a part of your life.
The body paragraph should give specific supporting details as to how this person has influenced you, how you’ve grown as an individual as a result of knowing this person, and what examples of kindness, compassion, courage, faith, knowledge, etc., this person has shared with you. The conclusion should reflect back on this person’s place in your life. Imagine your life if you had never known this person and end your essay talking about that.
Describe yourself using a metaphor.
A metaphor is a literary device of figurative language. It is somewhat analogous to a simile, but a metaphor goes a step further. A metaphor replaces one thing with another. For example, after a long summer, your backyard is covered with a thick layer of green grass. But, after an early winter blizzard, your backyard is a carpet of white velvet.
In describing yourself using a metaphor, pick an object: animal, plant or mineral. Find the strong attributes of that object. Then, match those attributes to your strengths. Talk about how they are the same and how you are that object. A student who dances to the beat of a different drum might describe himself like a salmon, swimming against the current, never following the popular crowd, staying true to himself and what his own goals are. Or, how he perseveres even when things are difficult. This would be a perfect example of using a metaphor to describe this type of student.
We know what our school can give you. What can you give to our school?
This prompt is asking a simple question: Why do we need you? What will you bring to the school that other students can’t bring? Do you have a special talent, are you very serious about service to others, or are you skilled at something that this school does not currently offer as a sport or after-school club/activity? They are looking for something a bit more than “I’m really good at soccer.” What makes you special?
Focus the Essay
If there is no specific writing prompt and, instead, the application just asks you to “tell us about yourself,” this is an opportunity to choose a topic that has some meaning to you. Remember that your application already lists all of your activities, honors, accomplishments and grades. You do not need to talk about this. Instead, think about the last three years of school and life, and think about one event or activity or episode in your life that you can write about in a three-paragraph essay.
This type of essay, where you have some freedom in what you write about, really requires you to focus on one specific thing. Make an outline. Write a thesis statement (topic sentence) that states clearly what you are writing about.
Don’t announce it; don’t say “this essay is about.” Then, select three main points that support that thesis statement and have a few supporting details or examples for each main point. This will easily add up to a body paragraph of five to eight sentences. Be sure your body paragraph has a strong topic sentence and a strong transition sentence (now you have seven to 10 sentences in your body paragraph).
Here’s a possible thesis: “Being stage manager of my school’s spring musical made me a better student.” Support this example with the following points: It taught me to manage my time, it taught me how to communicate and cooperate with my peers and teachers, and it taught me how to work well under pressure.
Perhaps you have a relative or close friend with a serious illness or disability. What has this taught you? How have you included this person in your life and made yourself a part of theirs, in spite of the illness or disability? You could discuss gratitude for your good health, a willingness to help others less fortunate, or a desire to choose a career field where you can be of service to others such as medicine, social work or special education.
All good writing starts with brainstorming and pre-writing. Spend an hour making notes about things you would like to write about. You won’t write about everything in your notes, but it will help you organize your thoughts. Make an outline, just like you do for a school essay. The admissions committees are looking for evidence that you can organize your thoughts and explore a specific topic from start to finish. A strong outline will make the writing process much easier.
Remember that the admissions committee for each high school uses a variety of things to decide upon your acceptance such as:
- recommendations from teachers
- clubs, activities, sports, volunteer/service work, religious involvement (if applying to Catholic school)
- honors, awards, achievements
- high school placement test score
- admissions essay
- interview (not all schools have interviews, but those that do are looking for eye contact, a firm handshake, good posture, a good conversation, positive things about your middle school and positive things about their high school)
So, the essay is only one part of the puzzle, but it is something you have total control over, unlike some of the other things on the list of things they use to decide whether you will attend their school. Talk about positive and personal things that show who you are in the best possible way. Talk about school pride and school spirit.
Talk about being a good role model, a leader, a caring friend. Talk about how you connected with your middle school, your teachers and your classmates. If you had a particularly difficult struggle, but somehow managed to come out on top, consider discussing this because it will show that you have determination and character. Don’t brag, but don’t hide your strengths either. If you must mention a weakness, embrace it, but also talk about the positive steps you take to combat it.
Start now. As soon as those applications are online, get your writing prompts out in front of you. Write a first draft and let a parent read it. Edit and revise it. Ask a language arts teacher at your school to read over it. Review the comments from the teacher, and edit and revise it again. Plan ahead and start early enough that you are not stressed to finish right before the deadline, missing the opportunity to have time to send out your very best work. As Aristotle said, “Well begun is half done.”
Do Your Own Work
This is obvious, but it must be said. Do your own work. School administrators are very good at assessing students’ work, and if the admissions essay presented to them feels more like that of a seasoned professional than that of a rising freshman, it will not bode well for you.
Take a Deep Breath
Remember that everyone goes to high school. There are many fine choices among the Catholic and private high schools in this area. If tuition costs are a barrier even with financial aid and/or scholarships, explore your public school options. Visit and/or shadow there. Talk to neighbors. Investigate magnet programs or schools that have a performing arts or STEM focus. Make an appointment to meet with an administrator. And finally, remember: It is not always just about the destination. It is also about the journey.
Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a freelance writer and middle school language arts teacher. She has successfully guided hundreds of students through the high school application process for 12 years. Follow her @michardillo on Twitter or Goodreads or at michelleardillo.com.