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Boarding School Applications Expected to be Even More Competitive Than Usual

By Holly McGlennon Treat

The excitement of March 10, when boarding schools announce enrollment decisions, is just around the corner. To help students and families prepare for this big day, we want to update you on how the pandemic is affecting admissions this season: Interest in boarding schools has dramatically increased, making this year's application season more competitive than ever.

For a snapshot of this trend, consider a survey in which The Fessenden School in Massachusetts recently collected data from 50 secondary schools in its region, most of which were boarding schools. A striking 44 percent of respondents reported that applications had increased “significantly” when compared to last year. Another 27 percent reported that applications had increased “somewhat.” In total, 78 percent of schools reported more domestic applicants and 34 percent reported more international applicants.

Through our professional networks at The Bertram Group, we can confirm that this survey reflects a broader trend, fueled by a variety of reasons. Most importantly, independent day and boarding schools nationwide have been recognized for serving students successfully during the COVID era. More seniors are seeking post-grad years to offset disruptions to their academic and athletic development this year. Most boarding schools were test-optional this year, making it easier for students to apply. International applications, which had been lower in the past few years, are rebounding as families perceive the U.S. to be more welcoming. And finally, not being able to visit campuses prompted some families to apply to more schools than usual, representing some increase in applications that does not correspond to a rise in the number of candidates. Furthermore, last year at this time, many schools overenrolled in anticipation of the oncoming pandemic, resulting in fewer spaces available for new students, particularly in the upper grades. And, given the potential for continued social distancing into the fall, schools are even more cautious about enrollment numbers moving forward.

So, what does this mean for your teen, and how can you help them process the decisions that arrive on March 10?

  • Lay a foundation for reasonable expectations. Even before the pandemic, few students were accepted by every school on their list. Most students’ lists include schools that families recognize as aspirational because they have low acceptance rates in any given year. This year may bring more unexpected challenges than usual.
  • Emphasize that students put their best foot forward. An important life lesson from a school search is the confidence that comes from students fully engaging in a process and knowing that they did their best. Outside of that effort, the admission process is beyond any applicant’s control.
  • Keep disappointments in perspective. This is a core theme of life. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and encourage them to build self-awareness and resilience.
  • Embrace each opportunity wholeheartedly. Every school offers unique opportunities—otherwise it would not have made the list!

As pandemic conditions continue to evolve, so will the admission process. Schools are still determining how they will handle the revisit season. Also, it is possible that admission offices will see more activity with their waitlists this spring, as they hear back from first round admits who have honed in on their choice or changed their plans. Some anticipate that the trends fueling this year’s application numbers may continue for several years. At The Bertram Group, we will continue to keep you apprised of new developments. We know from experience that as abstract hopes become translated into real possibilities, the disappointment of rejections is quickly eclipsed by the excitement of acceptances.


Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at