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Admissions Officers Demystify The Private School Application Process

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Charlotte Nelsen, Director of Admissions at The Potomac School
Jonathan Wilson
Charlotte Nelsen, Director of Admissions at The Potomac School

A lot has changed at The Potomac School in McLean, Va. since I graduated in 1998: new buildings, a bigger student body.

Yes, I'm an alum, and yes, that's probably one of the reasons Charlotte Nelsen, the school's director of admissions, agreed to give me just a little insight into exactly what it's like to decide which children are Potomac material.

"We have a mission, and our mission is to be gender-balanced, our mission is to be geographically diverse as a school, to be ethnically and racially diverse, and to be socio-economically diverse," she says. "So those kinds of guidelines really help you... direct you toward the students you're going to assemble as one class."

Nelsen is one of the things that hasn't changed since my time at Potomac. She's been in her position for 23 years, and she says though a clear mission statement helps keep her and her team on task, one part of her job never gets easier.

"Probably the hardest part of the job is disappointing people," she says. "There are many more people interested in a lot of our independent schools than we have room for... from year to year, so, it's hard to disappoint people."

Annie Farquhar is Nelsen's counterpart at Maret, a K-12 independent school with an idyllic campus in Northwest Washington, not far from the National Cathedral.

Farquhar's been at Maret for 24 years, and she and Nelsen know each other well. Both say the supportive atmosphere among admissions departments at the area's competing schools is one of their favorite aspects of working in independent education.

"There's certainly a cone of silence during the time we're making our decisions, but we support one another and talk with one another throughout the year and help one another," Farquhar says.

But what exactly goes on when all the admissions departments at St. Albans, Sidwell, Maret and Potomac, and the other elite private schools in the area, retreat to their respective corners in January and February and start making actual decisions?

It turns out that cone of silence extends pretty far — many schools simply refused to discuss the inner workings of their admissions process for this story.

Maret and Potomac, at least, use strikingly similar systems: admissions committees made up of faculty members, and different committees for specific age groups. Nelsen says anxious parents should remember that these committees aren't simply looking for nits to pick with a child's personality or academic record.

"Everybody's kind of rooting for the kids — it's an admissions committee, it's not a deny committee," says Nelsen. "It's a committee looking to take people."

Farquhar says her job is to present an accurate picture of each child to the faculty members who'll make the final decisions.

"We'll advocate for every kid, and tell them what we think they'll bring to the table, but again defer and work with the faculty," says Farquhar. "At the end of it all you feel really great about the class that you've formed, and the kids you're able to accept."

But the road to those final decisions isn't always without some bumps... Nelsen says it's not unusual for committee members to have strong and opposing positions on a particular student.

"People can get pretty emotional," she says. "Some people have an eye toward a student's academic potential and others have an eye towards their heart and addition they're going to make as a person in the grade."

Decision letters are sent out at the start of March, and the top schools in the area synchronize the timing of these letters to make it easier for parents applying to several schools.

But for Nelsen and Farquhar, relationships with families that aren't accepted often continue beyond the weekend when the letters are sent out.

Both consider it part of their jobs to help families find the right school for their children even if it isn't Potomac or Maret. Nelsen says that process can be rewarding as well.

"That actually feels like — I don't want to say it feels good — but it feels like you're not just stopping shy of completing a relationship and a conversation," she says. "You don't want to cultivate people, show off your school, and just have this verdict that comes down, and not continue the conversation."

"It's listening to what they think their child needs, and what school fits them best, and then acting as a resource for them to help them find that school if it isn't Maret," Farquhar says.

So the job of an admissions director at a selective K-12 school is personal, painful, rewarding and challenging, and both of these women would probably be doing something else if it wasn't all of those things.

Of course, it's probably even harder to be the parent of a child dearly wishing to make the right impression on a prospective school, but Nelsen has a mantra she tries to impart to each and every anxious parent that walks through her door.

"Children are going to really be more resilient than parents think, and children are going to really flourish in a lot of settings," she says. "And it isn't the end of the world that they won't be here for a particular grade in a particular year. And that's one of the things I like to help parents feel better about."

So, parents of young children — stop worrying!

As if it were that easy.

[Music: "School Days" by Santo & Johnny from Best Of]

Photos: Private Schools


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