When parents approach Lydia Hawkins about applying to Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School near Calgary, there's a bit of advice to which she always turns: Get to know, and be honest about, your child.
"So many independent schools are amazing environments, and we're all different," says Ms. Hawkins, director of enrolment for the Grade 1-12 school in Okotoks, Alta. "See which environment they thrive in. Some need and want to be in a high academic-achievement environment. Some want more support. Some want co-curricular participation; some don't.
"Try to have them be a part of the process. And when it comes to acknowledging your child's strengths, challenges and overall characteristics, be honest about it. We know not every single student is a straight-A, best athlete in the world, lead of the play."
Picking a private school is a frustrating process for parents and students; getting in is a whole other matter. Each school's admissions criteria is embroiled in a world of nuance. There is no one-size-fits-all school: applicant families both have to investigate each prospective school and do some soul-searching of their own, lest students find themselves bored, overwhelmed, or frustrated from a bad fit.
In cities flush with independent schools, such as Calgary, Ms. Hawkins recommends looking at the school's mission statements and educational philosophy, as well as the balance of academics and extra-curriculars. While many schools take pride in pumping out the best, most well-rounded students, the programming they offer can tell a different tale.
"We want to see a strong academic potential and a strong commitment to co-curricular participation," she says. "We provide space for students to do the arts, and sports, and outdoor education, all of it. ... We look for the well-rounded student. Here in our market we believe that's something different from the other schools around."
About 400 families inquire about openings at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School each year. Usually 100 spots are open, with major entry points in Grades 1, 7 and 10.
With more than a dozen independent schools in the Calgary area serving a variety of demographics and philosophies, Ms. Hawkins suggests parents ask questions about learning styles. Does your child enjoy the stress of thrill and deadlines? Which schools provide that? Or perhaps your child needs more academic support or flexible learning environments to succeed – another factor that will determine a school's fit.
"Admissions offices try to authentically reflect that school," she says. "Talk to teachers, students and families to get a really authentic experience."
Trying schools out – with a visit, perhaps even an overnight stay if it's a boarding school – helps with the decision. "Do your research, and know that fit goes both ways," says Sarah Milligan, director of enrolment management at Lakefield College School, a Grades 9-12 school north of Peterborough, Ont. The school, which is about two-thirds boarders, gets about 700 inquiries a year and accepts about 135 new students.
While most independent schools look for high achievers, their definitions for that, and their support structures, may vary. "Most families who are discerning researchers will visit schools. The admissions process is a window into how things run in the rest of the school," Ms. Milligan says.
She echoes the need for two-way honesty, too. "We can't start a relationship together with parents if there's information hidden about how to best support a student," she says. "Especially when you're thinking about boarding, and having a child live in the care of a school, they need to know information up front."
In smaller markets, families looking at private schools have less immediate choice, pushing students to more boarding schools. "In Atlantic Canada, especially rural Nova Scotia, your option ... is a boarding school or status quo," says Chris Strickey, director of admissions at King's-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S. And most prospective students apply with King's-Edgehill as their goal, he says, rather than applying widely.
Established in 1788, it brands itself as Canada's first independent school, with students from Grades 6 to 12. It gets between 175 and 200 applicants a year.
Knowing yourself – or knowing your child – remains key, even in the different market dynamic. "It's really important to be genuine, because that will show itself through the process," Mr. Strickey says. But they still look, as many independent schools do, for driven students. "I don't believe it makes sense to go to a school like King's-Edgehill and do what you've always done. ... [We look for] students who want to push themselves and want to be challenged."
The smaller market does have an effect, Mr. Strickey says, of skewing the demand among age groups. "The advice from someone in Ontario might be different," he says; high demand at certain grade levels there may force students to "queue up earlier."
Age is something schools have to consider when comparing their values to applicants'. At Strathcona-Tweedsmuir, the admissions office expects middle- and high-school-aged applicants to demonstrate academic leadership, participate in class, show good character and want to be part of the school community. Those demands shift a little for the prepubescent cohort.
"For Grade 1, we're looking for students who are starting to have that 'pre-readiness' skillset," Ms. Hawkins says. "They're showing an engagement with reading, with writing, with learning in general, following rules and structure – to want to be at school, and socially ready to be in a Grade 1 classroom."
Parental understanding is even more important for the elementary crowd. "We're going to be an incredibly supportive environment, but we're also going to push the students academically to reach their potential," she says. "So we want to make sure we have a partnership with families at home, to get homework done, to support the students when learning gets harder, to encourage them to love being there."