Admissions Decisions and Planning for What’s Next

Julian Condo M.Ed.
March 8, 2024
7 min

Key Dates

Sunday, March 10th: Boarding schools announce their decisions

Friday, March 15th: Bay Area schools announce decisions

What does a student’s learning profile predict about how successful they will be next year? This is a question that we at Bay Area Learning Partners consider regularly, but perhaps no more than right now as admissions decisions are released across the Bay Area and around the country. As we celebrate the end of the long admissions journey, we also look ahead to a new chapter, preparing students to thrive within the culture of their new school.

Every year, our families ask us to pair insights from our work with students with insights into school cultures to

a) recommend the very best choice of school for their child and/or

b) recommend learning goals to pursue over the spring and summer to set the foundation for success later.

Here are some of the factors we consider:

We start with our student learning profile

Based on our work with students, we understand with a fine degree of detail which skills our students are excelling at and which skills are still developing. Not only that, we also know how confident they are and how eager they are to engage in certain kinds of learning. Some students, for example, may be highly confident in math but may be reluctant readers. Beyond academic skills and preferences, we also take into account our students’ executive function skills, such as planning and organization. Finally, we consider student passions and interests whether athletics, theater, art, or music. We start with the most accurate snapshot of student skills and interests and map those insights against our profiles of the prospective school, which include teaching and learning culture, curriculum, academic support, student culture, and extra curricular culture.

Teaching and learning culture: how teachers instruct and how students learn

The teaching and learning culture is the sum of teacher professionalism, grading practices, expectations for student independence, homework, and learning support for students with or without diagnosed learning differences. Details about how teaching and learning happens day to day are critical to understand if we want students to learn and develop in an optimal way, according to their interests and learning profile.

Teaching quality

The quality and style of teaching is the most important factor when sizing up a prospective school, and some schools have consistently great teachers from middle to high school across all subjects. Great teachers care about their students and follow teaching best practices. They are skilled professionals with experience. Other schools have gaps in quality teaching to be aware of. Some highly competent students can manage to avoid bad teachers by choosing classes wisely. However, some students, especially those with learning differences, really can’t afford to spend a year with a bad teacher and should not risk being in an environment that would set back learning and confidence. Teachers who care and operate using best practices can make a huge difference in a student’s learning experience.

🔴 Takeway: Learn which teachers are great and which teachers to avoid.

Grading practices

What does it take to earn an A at a given school? The answer to this question varies widely across schools and there are some cultural practices that should be understood well to ensure students feel motivated and not discouraged.

Mastery learning

Some elite schools have embraced mastery grading, which allows students to show evidence of learning over time, regardless of their cumulative average scores. A mastery learning culture can be an excellent system for motivating authentic learning. We also love mastery learning for the way it promotes high standards. However, mastery learning can be a much more complex system to understand, as grades depend on multiple standards rather than on a single numerical score. Oftentimes, students unfamiliar with mastery grading have difficulty understanding that in a mastery system, exceeding the standard can be, well, exceedingly difficult, as these ‘exceptional’ performances on tests or projects require skills that have not been taught in class. If a teacher then assigns a grade of A only to ‘exceeding’ performances, students can begin to feel that grading is unfair.

Face time and participation required

In some teaching and learning cultures, to earn an A, it’s implicitly required that students have regular 1-1 meetings with teachers in class and in office hours. If a naturally reserved student finds themselves in such a learning culture, they could have a hard time showing their learning as much as more outgoing students. Perhaps reserved students may thrive in a more traditional learning culture where performance on assessments is all that is counted. If face time and participation is required, students should carefully assess how they prefer to engage with teachers and make a plan for doing so.

Traditional grading with very high standards

Some schools are also notorious for very challenging teachers who are unforgiving graders. We are fans of high standards and feel that students thrive when they’re appropriately challenged. However, we also don’t want to put our students in an extremely difficult environment that will damage their confidence. Therefore, it’s important to know if a new school has a culture of tough graders, and navigate accordingly.

🔴 Takeaway: Understand the grading culture

Expectations of student independence and homework load

Just as important as grading practices are the norms around how independent students are asked to be, both in and out of class.

Independence and grading of homework: completion grade vs. scored

Some teachers assign homework but do not consistently check the work or provide direct feedback. This can put students in a much more independent position regarding learning from their mistakes. If a teaching and learning culture requires students to grade their own work, then students need to practice taking initiative early and often to get the most from their learning environment.

Self-directed learning or independent study

How independent are students expected to be in-class? In a self-directed learning environment, students are in charge of deciding how to allocate their time, choosing who or what material to engage with, and asking questions. For some students, especially those developing executive function skills, this environment can be quite challenging.

Some schools also ask students to engage in more independent study programs where learning is almost entirely self-directed with infrequent meetings with a teacher advisor. These independent study programs can be very engaging for some students, but may be a big challenge for others.

🔴 Takeaway: Know how independent students must be

Homework load

Almost all students feel overloaded with homework and activities at some point in the K-12 experience, and it’s important to understand how much nightly homework is generally given at your school of choice. We know that all students benefit from executive skills and academic coaching to varying degrees, so they can make the most of their time in and out of class, and achieve balance and well-being across their entire academic journey.

Academic support

Learning support for students with learning differences

Most private schools pride themselves on offering high-quality academic support teams for students with diagnosed learning differences. Each of these teams has a particular culture and philosophy that guides decisions around accommodations–the modifications to learning and assessments available to students. We have close relationships with many academic support teams, coordinating directly to ensure students are supported in and out of the classroom. We can say from experience that highly competent and caring learning support staff can make an incredible difference in the learning experience for students with learning needs. For students with learning differences, it’s important to build strong relationships with learning support teams, and it’s critical for families to start work with these teams early on.

Advocacy and peer tutoring

Many schools also provide advocacy periods, periods with a single teacher advocate who can be the point person for supporting a variety of student needs. Whether or not a school offers advocacy support is an important factor to consider, as these periods can offer valuable in-school mentorship.  Additionally, some schools offer robust peer tutoring support, and the quality of these programs can vary.

🔴 Takeaway: Get to know your learning support team

Curriculum and courses

The next factor to consider is curriculum and courses offered at a school. Some elite schools, for example, offer AP courses, while others do not, opting instead for high-quality in-house curriculum free from the structure of AP. Some schools offer non-standard courses resembling a college or university-level course offering.

Placement testing and grade requirements for advanced courses

It’s also critical to understand whether there are criteria for entering advanced math and science courses. At some schools, students must earn an A in certain courses Freshman year to be allowed into advanced courses later on.

These factors are critical to understand now so that students can set goals and develop their learning practices appropriately if they expect to have the chance to take advanced courses

🔴 Takeaway: understand what classes are offered and what steps are required to get into those classes.

Culture among students

Academic Culture, competition, and comparison

In some schools, it’s cool to be a bit nerdy, in others it’s cool to make work look effortless, and in others, the student culture is more balanced and accepting of all kinds of learners. Some schools have highly competitive cultures, where students overtly compare grades. Whatever the dominant culture is, it’s guaranteed to make a big impact on a student's sense of belonging over many years. Some students benefit from targeted coaching around how to participate in the learning community in a productive way for their personality.

🔴 Takeaway: understand how students may compete for grades in a given school

Extra Curricular Culture

It is wise to place students at a school where they can pursue their interests. Each school offers a unique culture of extra-curriculars. Some schools, for example, host highly enthusiastic sports cultures, while others don’t have a highly athletic culture. We’ve seen well-meaning and high-achieving students lose motivation when their school does not embrace sports as much as they do. After transferring to a school where they could pursue their sport at a high level, there was newfound energy and enthusiasm. This enthusiasm for sports carried over into academics. Extracurriculars, therefore, can be an important factor to consider, especially when students are very passionate about a certain sport or other pursuit, such as theater.

🔴 Takeaway: Don’t discount the positive impact extracurriculars can have on the overall school experience.

Equipped with this information about the new school and with the student learning data, parents and students can start to plan wisely for the years to come, setting the stage for a truly enriching learning experience that promotes wellness and success for years to come.

If you have any questions about how your student is likely to succeed at a given school given their learning profile, we encourage you to connect with informed educators to learn more and to set the right goals, so your student is in a position to thrive in the next phase of their learning, or you can reach out to us at Bay Area Learning Partners