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Keeping the Search Private: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Public Opinion

Beginning in their children’s infancy, parents find peers to be a valued source of information and encouragement. Yet one of the most valuable pieces of advice that educational advisors can offer families is to keep the details of their student’s school search to themselves.

“I often joke with parents that they shouldn’t go to the grocery store for the next year,” says Erika Chapin, Director of College Counseling at Hopkins School, for grades 7-12 in New Haven, Connecticut. In Chapin’s experience, parents and students discussing college searches with peers increases stress, whether the conversation is about schools of interest or whether application essays have been completed. “It’s human to be vulnerable to feelings of comparison and judgment,” Chapin says. “Limiting the discussion helps everyone stay true to the goal, which is helping each student reflect on what they want out of this next educational experience.”

Finding the best fit for students is a common mantra in our field, and successful school searches inspire families to focus on the unique qualities of each candidate. With that in mind, the experience of a friend’s neighbor’s cousin’s child may have no relevance to the potential match between a school and a current candidate—the students being compared may have nothing in common. The parent pipeline is often a source of judgements based on only one or two stories about a school. Those stories may be unrepresentative or outdated, points out Juliana Pecchia, Director of Secondary School Advising at Indian Mountain School, a junior boarding and day school for Kindergarten through 9th grade in Lakeville, Connecticut. “Schools are constantly evolving their programs and incorporating new trends,” she says.

This issue is exacerbated in college searches. “Many parents carry opinions based on their own college years,” Chapin says. “It’s important to remember that those experiences are filtered through personal lenses. Colleges are always changing and given the range of options available, people can have a range of experiences within one institution.”

While avoiding the court of public opinion is ideal, it is also challenging. Parents encounter each other through work, socializing, on the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, and running errands about town. As with other life milestones, people enjoy bonding through shared experiences, so the topic of a school search is likely to come up. Some practical advice for families is to listen to others, but avoid offering details—particularly naming of schools of interest—from their own searches. Offering specific school names can act as an invitation to others to weigh in about those schools. Sometimes parents hear completely unsolicited stories about schools on their lists. Professionals in this field—educational advisors and in-school counselors—are the antidote to misinformation. The time we devote to visiting schools and knowing their current offerings, as well as the time we devote to knowing each student, gives us a broader perspective to balance out anecdotal stories.

With such volume of opinions in the airwaves and on the internet, the first-hand experience at any school or college is of greatest value. Pecchia strongly urges families to visit campuses to form their own impressions. Another good idea is for parents to not pass on the anecdotal information that they hear to their children, who might then second guess their choices based on hearsay. “Students are very impressionable throughout this process,” Pecchia says. “I wouldn’t want a student to feel uncomfortable sharing their own excitement about a school because of someone else’s negative experience.”

When we as consultants help families create the space to prioritize their own knowledge of a student and understanding of various schools, we give them the confidence to truly achieve their goals.

This column is an article that is being reprinted from Insights, the newsletter of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Holly McGlennon Treat is a principal with The Bertram Group, based in Connecticut. She specializes in advising families about independent junior and secondary boarding schools.