Students Find Secondary School Matches Despite Pandemic Challenges

This year, like every year, Shore families turned to the Secondary School Counseling Office as they faced the task of finding an appropriate fit for their child’s next school. Unlike every other year, however, Shore families faced doing so in the midst of a pandemic. “Almost everything about this secondary school admissions season was different,” says Director of Secondary School Counseling Sander van Otterloo. 

Fortunately, at least one thing remained the same this year: Shore’s success in finding great secondary school matches for its graduates.

Still, the list of new hurdles brought about by the pandemic was long. For starters, families could not visit campuses to see schools in action, and in-person interviews were off the table, as well. Even counseling sessions with van Otterloo and Head of School Clair Ward had to be conducted virtually. “These factors compounded the difficulty of what is already a fraught financial and emotional decision,” says van Otterloo. 

Adding to the challenge was a flood of pandemic-inspired secondary school applications from the increased number of families in the public school system who became interested in independents for the first time. “Most schools reported a 40% increase in applications over the previous year,” reports van Otterloo. Part of the extraordinary rise was due to another factor unique to this year: the SSAT became optional at nearly every school, after the Enrollment Management Association, the organization that administers the SSAT, tried to move its testing online but faced difficulty with the rollout. The optional test meant that many schools, particularly the most selective, received an additional boost in applications from students whose test scores normally would have been a barrier to entry.

As if that weren’t enough, admissions decisions made by secondary schools at the very start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 brought unintended consequences for this year’s applicants. Given the uncertainties around the early phases of COVID-19 in the United States, many independent schools expected to face unusually high rates of attrition, both among their enrolled students and among those who had just been accepted that spring. To mitigate this perceived risk, they overenrolled incoming classes. When the anticipated attrition never materialized, however, it made acceptance even more difficult for students seeking admission this year.

“All this is to say,” explains van Otterloo, “that all signs pointed to a lower overall acceptance rate for Shore students applying to secondary schools.” And while the overall rate was indeed lower, surprisingly that wasn’t the end of the story: though they may have been accepted at fewer schools, about 75% of Shore students were accepted at their first-choice school, an all-important statistic given the Secondary School Counseling Office’s emphasis on finding the right fit for each child. Says Head of School Clair Ward, “This is a testament to our efforts on behalf of each individual child. To have the resources to successfully advocate for our students with the admissions officers of some of the most competitive secondary schools in the country is an extraordinary advantage for us.”

There was more good news. Some 15 eighth graders chose to return for Shore’s ninth grade program—double the enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year. “It was an easy decision for many families who just felt they couldn’t get an adequate look at other schools this year, and instead chose the strong program they were already familiar with,” says van Otterloo. 

Among those families who did apply out, van Otterloo is pleased to note that students earned acceptances at a wider range of schools than in previous years. Whereas last year, for example, some 60 students ended up at 18 independent schools, this year’s smaller group of applicants found homes at 23. “To see that number increase so significantly in a year is exciting,” attests van Otterloo. “It means our approach to finding a ‘custom’ fit is working.” When families consider a wider range of options, especially by looking outside of the most popular schools in our immediate region, it’s easier for the Secondary School Counseling Office to recommend the best school fit for each child.

Another bright spot this year, according to van Otterloo, was refining the Secondary School Counseling Office’s approach to communicating with families. “Storytelling became a bigger part of the job than ever,” he says. “I have always told families that what I’m trying to do when presenting a Shore student to an admissions officer is tell their story. But this year it was more than that. Because of the pandemic, I had to tell the story of the schools themselves to a lot of families. It’s easy to look at the website and find the numbers. But it’s another thing to know how those numbers are reflected in a student’s daily experience on campus. So this year I spent a lot of time showing families how they could think more deeply about all the different ways a school can support their child.”

Also successful was a series of smaller Zoom conversations with admissions directors from a group of schools, typically two or three. “I invited them to have direct conversations with families so they could get to know the schools better. Families could then just drop into these sessions and ask any questions on their mind directly to admissions directors.” The six well-attended conversations were part of a communications plan that included more touchpoints than ever for families—particularly later in the secondary school search process. “Interestingly, I may have done more counseling after families received their acceptances this year, because there were no in-person revisit days at the schools that admitted their child. It made finding the right fit a real puzzle, and the result was more conversation post-acceptance than I’ve ever had.”

Looking back at what made this year uniquely challenging—but also uniquely successful—van Otterloo is hesitant when it comes to predicting what changes will stick around in the future. One thing of which he is certain: the sense of relief at having faced a one-of-a-kind year and emerged at the end of it with such strong results for Shore students.
    • Director of Secondary School Counseling Sander van Otterloo