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How to Assess School Culture and Fit in a Virtual Admission Season

by Audrey N. Ludemann

Despite many procedural changes this year, the foundation of a school search remains the same: Success depends on finding the fit between school culture and the priorities of students and families. Ideally, a school search will generate a list of 4-7 schools to which candidates feel excited to apply. When families first begin exploring schools, however, they often have difficulty distinguishing what makes one school different from the next. One solution is to hone in on each school’s unique culture.

Culture is a puzzle pieced together through a myriad of choices in curricular and extracurricular programming, layered with intangible qualities about how faculty and students interact with one another. Yes, there is common ground—independent day and boarding schools are known for their elevated academic standard and enriched student life that translate into leadership opportunities. Subtle shifts in emphasis, however, make a big difference in a school’s personality. Some schools approach intellectual growth through an established sequence of coursework that builds upon itself step-by-step. Other schools emphasize out-of-the-box thinking and a more individualized program. Some student bodies tend to be highly self—directed and motivated by healthy competition. Others rely more on faculty encouragement and support to try new things.

None of these paths are better than another. What is most important is how a school’s culture matches up with a student’s hopes and expectations. Fortunately, the process of learning about schools is a chance for students to also learn more about themselves. As students consider each school’s unique culture, they try it on in their imagination. In doing so, they recognize more about what is important to them. This ongoing reflection is why school searches correspond with such impressive personal growth. Often a candidate’s top priorities will shift over the course of a school search as they discover new facets of themselves and expand their vision for what opportunities schools offer. 

An excellent starting point for understanding culture is to visit a school’s website. Read the mission statement and Head of School’s message, and then target your research on academics, arts, athletics, and student life offerings that are most of interest to your student. Also, listen closely to clues about culture when meeting with admissions officers, students, faculty, and coaches (whether in person or virtually). Questions that invite discussion on this topic include: 

  • What do you think this school does best?
  • What really bonds students together?
  • What are three words that especially describe your students?
  • How do faculty mentor students?
  • What about your school’s experience builds character?

The teen years are all about building identity. The feeling of being understood and valued is critical to this process, as is the inspiration to take on new challenges. This is why a focus on school culture is the evergreen key to a successful school search in this year—as in any year.

Don't miss our panel discussion with admission officers:

Title: Boarding Schools Offer Tips to Assess School Culture and Fit

Moderator: Audrey N. Ludemann, The Bertram Group


  • Jenni Biehn, Director of Enrollment Management, Western Reserve Academy
  • Kimberly Caldwell Loughlin, Assistant Head of School and Director of Admission, The Bement School
  • Scott Eckstein, Director of Admission, Solebury School
  • Sarah Quinn, Director of Admission, Miss Porter’s School
  • William Richardson, Dean of Admission, The Lawrenceville School

Click Here to Watch Now!

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, including day schools and boarding schools, from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for addressing different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at​