By Michael Corbelle and Alex Ince of Cairn Educational Consulting

The past eighteen months have dramatically changed the world and how the majority of us live and operate in it. Working from home and attending school remotely are two of the most significant changes to life as we once knew it. Exceptions in the education realm are independent boarding schools, which were able to retool to protect health and safety while providing a similar pre-pandemic experience. When students returned to campuses last fall, families were happy and relieved to see that boarding schools were fully operating and able to deliver the same qualities and programming that led them to seek boarding school in the first place: small, in-person classes, robust athletic and club offerings, top notch facilities with idyllic quads, etc. 

While boarding schools operated as normally as possible, admissions offices did have to recalibrate because of Covid-19. Standardized tests such as the SSAT, a long-standing mainstay of applicant assessment required by most boarding schools, were either not available or practical for families to access. Interestingly, many boarding schools were already monitoring how colleges and universities were reconsidering the role of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT in the college admissions process with a growing number becoming “test optional.” Colleges like my alma mater, Bowdoin, made the SAT optional more than fifty years ago.  

Professor Richard Weissbourd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has long advocated for a more holistic approach to college admissions which would focus on a student’s character development rather than game-able tests. A similar shift at the boarding school level would ideally create greater equity based on students’ achievement and moral development. Admissions offices would place a greater emphasis on interviews and letters of recommendation in order to understand a student’s personality and potential. Demonstrated kindness and empathy would take precedence over math and verbal scores. 

Consistent with Professor Weissbourd’s approach, a number of boarding schools have been tracking student outcomes and finding that higher SSAT scores were not as accurate in predicting student success as other measures such as teacher recommendations, especially comments pertaining to strength of character, empathy, kindness, and engagement. The pandemic fast-forwarded this conversation, necessitating admissions offices to find alternative ways to assess student aptitude. As a former Director of Admissions, my Cairn Educational Consulting partner, Alex Ince, welcomed this shift away from SSAT scores as an opportunity to focus on character and “mission-alignment” of applicants. 

For families thinking about schools for their children in the upcoming years, a more holistic application process is in store. Based upon our survey sent to admissions offices, the number of schools no longer requiring the SSAT has grown exponentially, and we expect that trend to continue. We have concerns about such a system and the ways in which it would provide an added advantage to students applying from independent schools, where smaller classes inherently provide more opportunities to foster relationships with faculty that lead to success in the admissions process. As a former Outplacement Director and a former Director of Admissions, we understand the importance of advocacy for a student. Having advocates who can write genuinely about a student’s strengths and who have relationships with admissions offices can make all the difference in whether a student is accepted to their school of choice. In a post-SSAT world, one letter or phone call has the ability to change a student’s future to a greater extent than ever before.  

So what does this mean for students headed back to school this fall? If your child is going to boarding school, it means that they are likely to find themselves in a school that believes he or she is mission-aligned, surrounded by students who were similarly-assessed for academic aptitude as well as character. But as I write this, the Delta Variant of Covid-19 is causing schools to reconsider their approach to reopening and masking policies. Truth be told, schools still have no idea what the next year will bring. While the transition back to campus may be once again fraught with rule changes and restrictions, one constant remains: supported students are resilient students; if they are connected to peers and faculty members, they will persevere through whatever challenges this fall presents. However, the pandemic has made school placement all the more important to ensure children are in the right school.

There are trade-offs that must be weighed as families weigh potential choices for the next years of their children’s lives; some children simply fare better with closer attention. The pandemic and its consequent disruptions of students’ social lives have made the next few years that much more delicate and crucial to students’ development. Making sure they feel connected and supported is more important than ever before.

As a former teacher, advisor, and dormitory head whose work focused on ninth and tenth graders in those important transition years, I have seen students find many versions of success through various means. Some found connection through athletics and activities in which they were introduced to peers and teachers who shared their goals. Others found connection more serendipitously, perhaps in the dining hall or dorm. Given the uncertainties of this fall’s protocols, those spontaneous meetings that provide such a sense of community and belonging may be harder to find, once again putting into high relief the need for a constellation of adults providing attention and connection. 

Many families enter the boarding school search process with several schools in mind, usually based on what they read online or absorbed over the years. We all know those schools, and they have rightly earned name recognition by being exceptional. Such prestigious schools can be the perfect fit for certain students: those who are not only bright and hard-working, but highly independent and self-motivated. Not every fourteen year-old checks all of these boxes — I certainly didn’t at that age! While some students are capable of thriving in a large, rigorous environment, others fare better with more and closer support typical of a smaller, more intimate boarding school environment. Across the board, students whose abilities and aspirations aligned with the schools’ mission ultimately found their place and thrived within it. 

We have both long advocated that “fit” should guide a family’s quest for the best school where their child’s academic, extra-curricular, social, and emotional development will be maximized based upon alignment with a school’s mission. Finding the right fit ensures that a student will not only benefit from what a school has to offer, positively contribute to a program, and meet academic expectations but also can make a contribution that is both tangible and significant to the community – simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening the school’s culture.

With that in mind, our mission is to expand access to fantastic boarding schools by helping families find the right fit and tell their students’ stories in a genuine, compelling way, then leverage our years of relationship-building to ensure that those resumes and records are seen in the best possible light. 

About the Authors:

Michael Corbelle is a co-founder of Cairn Educational Consulting. Michael spent a decade teaching at independent schools across the country, including Taft School and most recently Aspen Country Day School, where he also served as Director of Outplacement. He holds a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University.
Alex Ince is a co-founder of Cairn Educational Consulting. Following a legal career in public service with the United States government, Alex was most recently Director of Admissions at Frederick Gunn School (formerly The Gunnery) in Connecticut. She holds a J.D. from The Vermont Law School.