Independent School Admission Consulting


At the beginning of school search work with families, clients often ask, “What is the best school in San Francisco?” or “What is the most highly rated school in the Bay Area?” Many have become confused after searching on Niche or similar websites. As soon as I possibly can, I steer parents away from online school rating metrics. Given the many differences in philosophy, size, structure and willingness to report on various data to online platforms, these do not yield particularly useful or accurate information for K-12 schools. Although this makes it harder to cull a list in a quick google search, there are questions that kick off a great personalized school list. For example:

  • How should our family evaluate a private school? or
  • What is most important for our family to look for in a school?

These questions are juicier and relevant as they are a reflection of who your family is and what programs and traits are important for your child to thrive. A well executed school search will not simply yield a list of the “best” schools, but a group of schools that are the best for your child and family. Since these are more nuanced questions, people sometimes like a framework to start answering them. In order to make sure the list fits an individual child or family, I often guide parents and older kids through a three step process, preferably before they even visit their first school.

Step 1: Brainstorm All Priorities

To brainstorm top priorities it can be helpful to make a very long list of everything that matters to you, from big picture topics, like philosophy or strength of leadership to logistics that are important to you, like transportation or after school programs. You may also include other categories that are important to you like specific programs (language, math) or outside support (counseling, school placement).

Step 2: Identify Top Priorities

For this part of the process I suggest pushing yourself to pick roughly three top priorities from the above brainstorm. This doesn’t mean that the school will be lacking in the other traits on your list, but your top priorities are a reflection of your family values. These priorities will become your school search mission. They should drive your line of questioning, how you articulate what you are looking for and how you will ultimately make a final decision. 

Step 3: Develop Specific Questions 

Good school search questions are specific, non-confrontational and ask something that cannot be found on the school’s website or in their admission materials. Really good questions will help you differentiate schools from one another, inform your decision making later on and even reveal something to the school that you want them to know about your child and/or family. 

For example, if one of your top three priorities is a strong STEM Program, I caution you against asking an open ended “tell me about your STEM program” question. Instead, I suggest you workshop a two step question. The first part of the question should briefly state why it is a priority for your family and the second part of the question should get as specific as possible. 

  • Why is this important to you/your family or your child? Is it a focus you appreciate at your child’s current school? Is it an interest due to your career/the career of a family member? Although this step can be helpful for context, it is important to keep this introduction concise.
  • What do you want to know most about STEM at the schools? Do you want to hear about examples of projects in younger grades and in older grades? How do the projects progress and connect? Which grades participate? If high school, what types of colleges have STEM focused students matriculated to? 

Identifying why you care so much and making all of your main questions specific will allow you to hear about what you really want to learn and not just hear the “talking points” often deferred to in school marketing. When questions aren’t specific enough all of the schools will start to sound the same.

If you take a little bit of time upfront to identify your top priorities, workshop really effective questions and then follow through with asking these questions consistently at every school, you will differentiate your family, have great data to rely on when you are making your final decision and have a much more successful and satisfying search. This will ultimately reframe the question from “how do we find the best school?” to “how do we find our best school?”

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Jamie Moffett

With twenty years of admission and placement experience, Jamie has advised thousands of students and parents at Bay Area Independent Schools. As a mom, she is personally aware of how the right school allows your child to thrive.