Number 1. Spend time defining your goals for your student and take the time to get their input. Some of the best initial inquiries I receive are from families who are working with their student to articulate real goals that go beyond improving grades or opening up college choices. For example, If you have determined (and your student may even begrudgingly agree) that you are seeking structure as a main feature in a boarding school, then structure can be a great filter in searching schools. In my experience, if the concept of structure doesn’t appear in a school’s mission statement, there is likely to be an environment that can be thought of as “sink or swim.” Take the time to identify one or two main goals and two or three secondary goals for your student and include those key words in your search.
Number 2. I know it may sound painfully obvious, but read the school’s published mission statement (for some schools, you may have to dig around the menu a bit). All boarding schools have them to one degree or another, and it is often the standard by which many schools are accredited. This is where a school goes beyond the marketing of the school–like showcasing the beauty of the campus–and instead rolls up its sleeves and exposes the core values that guide its approach. If your goals for your student are not given a voice by the school’s mission statement, move on. Look for a mission statement that is prominently displayed and well articulated. See https://www.oak-hill.net/mission-statement/ for example.
Number 3. Consider school profile elements such as student body size, classroom size, and boarding vs. day student ratios, as these all can have a profound effect on a school’s culture. The first two may be somewhat obvious, but just because a school is small does not mean it necessarily has a small number of students in every individual classroom. Go beyond the question of school size and ask for specifics on the school’s goals and the reality of class size. Most boarding schools also have a population of day students–local residents that attend during the school day but do not live on campus. Be sure to consider this ratio as it can influence campus cohesiveness (both positively and negatively), and ask questions regarding after-school campus life and dorm life on the weekends.
Number 4. Ask questions regarding the academic support that is available to students outside of class time. This inquiry will yield a lot of information regarding the school’s philosophy and attitudes toward academic rigor. Again, lining up your goals for your student with a school’s mission is key here. If you are looking at boarding school for grade improvement and growth in college-ready habits, a sink-or-swim environment may not be for you, as there is likely a need for as much coaching as instruction for your student. Ask how learning differences are addressed and if learning styles are taken into account in the classroom.
Number 5. A campus visit should be about “feeling” the mission of a school as much as hearing about it. Ask to tour the school building and pop into classes (applicants may be self-conscious doing this, but trust me, having tours come into your classrooms is as much a part of boarding school as eating in the dining hall). Some schools allow applicants to audit classes, and that is great if there is a passion for a particular subject, but I believe here is where quantity counts. Try to visit as many classrooms as feasible on your tour because each classroom, even at Oak Hill Academy, has its own personality and vibe. Getting as broad a view of the whole as you can is more important than having your socks knocked off by one all-star teacher. Additional tips to keep in mind on your campus visit:
- Ask to see a lived-in dorm room. This will communicate much about a dorm’s culture and acceptable standards. Look for a good balance between relaxation and comfort and a dedicated area for schoolwork.
- If possible, have lunch in the dining hall. The cafeteria is a great place to take the pulse of a school and see kids in a social environment with their guard down. Notice the make up of lunch tables and the evidence (or absence) of cliques. You’ll also get to form your own opinions on the food. I often say, “a meal is worth a thousands words” when it comes to questions regarding the food on our campus.
- Insist on meeting current students during your tour. In boarding schools with a positive culture, this is no problem at all as current students will likely approach tours themselves, as they do at Oak Hill Academy. We have many students here who have been trained and coached to give effective tours, but just as often, the organic interaction with an encountered student is the difference-maker on a tour of our campus. I am very intentional in having current students join tours for lunch or handle the dorm portion of a campus visit. It’s a good sign when a school trusts current students to handle parts of the tour without the Admission Officer.
- Take a look at a school’s social media prior to a visit. It provides current material for visitors to ask questions about and, to a degree, gives an unfiltered view of the campus culture and day-to-day campus life. See Oak Hill Academy’s Instagram account here: https://www.instagram.com/oakhillacademy/ or Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/oakhillacademyva/
I hope these tips will help make your boarding school search more intentional. Each boarding school has high aspirations for meeting their particular mission, and with research and a clear sense of your goals for a boarding school fit, a match can be found. Please contact the Admission Office at Oak Hill Academy to learn more about our very unique position on the college-prep boarding school spectrum and how Oak Hill Academy has, for generations of students, been a Turning Point.