The Yield asked three directors from community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide insight into the unique challenges facing students and families new to independent schools and how the adoption of EMA’s Standard Application Online has greatly improved the experience for these families and the organizations that serve them. Our respondents (l-r in photo above) are Neal Kamsler, senior director of placement at Oliver Scholars (NY), Derrick Wallace, director of Wadleigh Scholars (NJ), and Alexandra Boillot, program director, Bronx, for CitySquash (NY).
What are the greatest challenges your students face in the application process?
NK: The path to an independent school is strewn with obstacles for an Oliver Scholar. These include the practical issues involved with managing the process of applying, the social and emotional concerns of entering into a brand new world, and the academic expectations they will face in their new school. Each of these issues are addressed in our 14-month preparation program. The process itself has three main challenges. The Scholars come from a variety of charter, public, and religious schools with differing curricula. This creates a challenge when preparing them for the SSAT and ISEE, integral parts of the application process. Their home schools are not generally familiar with the process of applying to independent school, placing the burden on students and families to manage the required paperwork to ensure that transcripts and letters of recommendation are submitted in an appropriate and timely fashion. Finally the financial aid application is a daunting endeavor, which can seem both all-important and overwhelming. Oliver Scholars staff assist families at every step of the process, be it with our web-based test prep platform, communication with their home schools, or application and financial aid webinars.
DW: Some of the challenges our students face in the application process are making sure that they keep their grades up, dealing with the application questions and essays, and arranging visits and interviews with boarding schools. The students, at times, need convincing that they can succeed at a boarding school. We provide a list of different types of schools and allow them to check which ones would be a “good fit.” The extra work they put in for enrichment and test-taking skills allows them to see their gaps and help improve their test scores. Another challenge is to show the students and their families that, with guidance, they can achieve success in applying to schools. Working with a CBO like the Wadleigh Scholars Program allows the students to be guided and mentored by people who have attended boarding schools, which minimizes the anxiety that the students and families face.
AB: The greatest challenges our students face in the application process are a lack of knowledge and exposure to the many different boarding schools. Additionally, many of our students applying are working through the process without the help of their parents, as most of our families have even less knowledge about boarding schools than their kids, and many of them don’t speak English, so understanding the application and different forms is challenging. Our students also have a tough time with the SSAT since many of them have not grown up in English-speaking households or with access to strong educational resources, like receiving private tutoring for the test.
How have families reacted to your adoption of the SAO?
NK: Families enter into the process with a tremendous commitment to their child’s education and an expectation that the application process will require a great deal of work. When they learn about the SAO and how it works, there is an audible sigh of relief in the room. What they have anticipated as a process fraught with problems now seems more manageable and possible. They have a reaffirmed confidence that they can see the process through to enrollment in a new school. For Oliver Scholars as an organization, the SAO, with its counselor portal, is a godsend. It provides us with the ability to upload documents and test scores, track information, and know which families require the most help. In one admission cycle we are working with 70 different sending schools as well as 70 more receiving applications, and it is incredibly helpful to have a centralized location that contains all the relevant information on each student.
DW: The families have had a positive reaction to the use of the SAO common application. It has saved them much time in applying to boarding schools. Instead of having to review individual school applications, they can feel more comfortable in preparing and completing one formatted application. The cooperation is much greater in getting recommendations and transcripts completed by the teachers and guidance counselors in a timely manner. At first they are a little skeptical about the process of only submitting one application, but we provide a good explanation and show that applying through SAO and using a CBO will save them lots of money because they will not have to pay for each individual application, which eases the mind a bit. If they follow clear and specific instructions, they will be able to get through the process with minimal anxiety and a better understanding of how it will work.
AB: Our families mostly rely on CitySquash to help with their applications, so we have not seen any major reactions from them, but it has certainly simplified our process to have one application that can be filled out online and sent to all schools.
How has using the SAO helped your students find success in the admission process?
NK: The SAO serves as a great stress reducer for families and students. The ability to apply to multiple schools with one application addresses some of the obstacles in the process. Scholars are able to have schools and teachers upload information to one site, reduce the number of essays they need to write, and have a simple means for keeping track of what they have finished and what remains to be done. Their ability to put forward their best selves is enhanced by only having to do an application once and truly refine and craft the best responses to the questions being posed. One of the classes the Scholars take in the summer is ISAP (Introduction to the School Application Process). The SAO and SSAT online resources are extremely useful to help our students ultimately achieve the goal of attending an independent school. We prepare them for every aspect of the process from the application, to the interview and campus tour, to the SSAT. Having the resources available to guide them is invaluable.
DW: In the past the students and their families had to complete one application per school, which could mean having various essays, short answers, and other statements to complete. Sometimes there is a challenge in getting the teachers and counselors to complete different types of recommendations and transcript requests, but the SAO makes it easier. Using the SAO allows the students to concentrate on keeping up their grades, improving their test-taking skills and being a more marketable applicant for each school to which they are applying. They appreciate the fact that there is simplicity in answering questions and more quality in their responses.
AB: The fee waivers provided by SAO for our students to take the SSAT has been a huge help. With unlimited fee waivers, our students can take the test more than in the past, which increases their chance for success on the test and lets them improve between test dates. Similarly, the application fee waivers allow them to apply to all of the schools they want to, rather than having to choose a more limited number of schools because they can’t afford to apply to many. SAO has helped to provide important resources to CitySquash and our students in this process and our students have a greater chance of success in the application process as a result.