Parent Resource

How Many Private Schools Should I Apply To?

by Liz Yee, Director of Admission, Lowell School

Time has flown by—your child is growing up fast, and now you’re looking at schools. (Side note: how did your baby get big enough to go to school?) In addition to feeling like time is slipping through your hands like grains of sand, you’re dipping your toe into the school search process and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You might also be having flashbacks, say, to your own college application process?


As you start researching schools and going to open houses or tours, you might wonder how many schools you should be applying to. Is there a magic number of schools to which you should submit applications to secure a spot for your child? What is the competition like? Are there even enough spots for all the kids who apply? What if we end up only applying to 1-2 schools and then don’t get in?

Yes, it can be overwhelming and your mind can start spinning with all the possible scenarios and variables to consider. There is no magic number of schools to apply to. The good news is, there are some general guidelines and tips that will help you as you embark on the process of applying to schools.

Start with some research.

Especially if your child has not yet started school or you are new to the private school landscape, you will want to do some research before deciding how many schools to apply to. While the process of applying to schools can feel like a full-time job, it’s important to do your research.

– Carve out time to read up on the schools in your area. Most school websites are chock full of information about the curriculum, values, and attributes of their graduates. Read up! See what schools resonate and which ones don’t.

– Talk with friends and neighbors who have children at various schools—public, private, charter, parochial—talk to everyone.

– Visit the schools. This is one of the most important parts of the application process, as it will help you determine which schools feel like the right fit for your child and family. Your time on campus will instantly give you an idea of whether your family values and the philosophy of the school match.

– Need a handy tool to keep the information organized? Download this organizer!

Don’t play the numbers game.

Especially for a math-wiz parent, it can be tempting to quiz admissions directors about the number of spaces available, how many applications they typically receive, and how many students enroll. Don’t get trapped in the algorithm that resolves itself over time.

There are many factors that affect how many students are enrolled in a class, including:

  1. Total number of students currently enrolled
  2. Attrition
  3. Gender balance
  4. Learning styles and balance in the class
  5. Socio-economic balance in the class
  6. School “fit” for applicants
  7. School choices for applicant families (what schools they get in to, what school is top on their list)
  8. Wait pools/waitlists, charter school lottery movement

As you can see, there are many factors that are considered. And, many of them aren’t known by the admissions office at the time of the application process. Don’t let the math hold you back from applying to a school that you think would be good for your child.

Assess your options and risk tolerance.

You’ve done your research, you’ve attended some tours, and now you know which schools are at the top of your list. You might see your child thriving at several different schools, or you might have one school that seems like the perfect fit, and all the other schools fall off your list. Depending on your risk tolerance and which schools are rising to the top, there are two approaches to consider.

1. Submit applications to all the schools that feel right. This may give you more options when the time comes to enroll your child. It’s a bigger commitment of time and energy, but it is the safest approach. Hopefully you will have at least one school choice when all is said and done. It might not be your first choice, however. Applying to multiple schools also gives you additional insights into your child, your family’s values, and the community you want to be part of.

If, as you move through the application process, you have a clear first choice, you’ll want to share that with the admissions office. This will help them get a better understanding of your intent and will underscore your interest in the program.

A word of caution: in addition to submitting applications, it’s important to understand when you should think twice about applying to a school.

– If the school values don’t match your family’s, pause and ask yourself why you feel the need to apply. Take time to understand your motivation for applying to the schools on your list.

– Need a full scholarship but you know that the school does not have financial aid or full grants available? It will be important to have a frank conversation with the financial aid team at the school to get a sense of if and how to proceed with the application.

– Does your child have a learning difference? Are you looking at schools that can fully support him/her/them? If not, spend the time to really gauge what schools will have the resources and support—actual programming and staffing—to ensure that your child can shine and builds the skills needed for the next step.

– Think that the local private school is fine because it’s just down the street? Logistics are important in a school choice but should not be the only factor you consider. Make sure you are putting logistics aside temporarily to find out which program is best.

– Applying to a school because your friends send their kids to the school? Hearing about school options from trusted sources is a great way to get the search process going, but it’s important to find the “just right fit” for your child.

2. Apply only to the one school that is the right fit. Applying to only one school can be a risky approach, especially if the school at the top of your list has highly competitive admissions. This is a viable option to consider, however, if your child is already in a sound educational environment, if there is really only one school that will work best for your child and family, or if you know you have a good back-up plan.

If you end up applying to only one school, be prepared that your child might not get in, so you might have to apply again another year. Sometimes it’s a long game, but if it’s the right school for your child, it’s worth the wait. Especially if your child can continue at their current school for one more year, it is worth exploring this strategy.

Make the decision.

There are several scenarios you might encounter. Here are some tips as you make your decision.

– Accepted: If you have applied to your top choice and have gotten in—move quickly to enroll.

– Waitlisted: If your child was waitlisted, ask more questions about the waitlist/waitpool, keep in touch about how the waitlist is moving, and continue to underscore your interest.

– Declined: If your child was not offered a space and did not land on the waitlist, work with the admissions office to understand why—it will help you determine next steps and find the best school for your child.

– Multiple schools: If you find yourself in the situation where your child has been accepted to multiple schools, take the time to revisit your priorities and determine which program and community is best.

As you consider how many applications to submit, it ultimately it comes down to what you are looking for in a school and your risk tolerance. Do your homework, and the rest will fall in place. When you keep focused on the goal of finding the right school for your child, you won’t go wrong.