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Secondary School Applications: Choosing the Best Path

The Common App vs. the Shared Portal vs. School Specific

By Holly McGlennon Treat

For candidates applying to independent schools for next year, months of preparation are about to come to a crescendo as application deadlines approach. Thus, now is a fitting time to decide how to navigate the various application options in order to optimize a student’s potential for admission.

These days applications are submitted online, mostly through three avenues:

  1. Standard Application Online (SAO)

Hosted on the SSAT website, this common application is used by hundreds of schools nationwide. Candidates fill in biographical information once, submit one primary essay and four short answers that are shared among all the applications, and request one set of transcripts and faculty recommendations from this portal. This is truly a common application whereby one application satisfies the requirements of multiple schools. The site is user-friendly, with webinars that guide families through the process. Any individual school requests for supplemental materials—such as a graded essay or additional essay questions—will be specified on the student’s dashboard, where information about all applications is aggregated in one place.

  1. Gateway to Prep Schools

This website portal, with 63 members, was created by a group of independent schools to streamline the process, yet retain some ability to customize applications. Candidates supply biographical information, transcripts, and faculty recommendations only once to be shared among all schools to which they are applying. Essays are not shared. Rather, each school has its own set of short- and long-answer questions reflecting that institution’s mission and identity. The idea is that these more tailored responses will help the admissions team best identify students who are a strong fit for their school.

  1. Individual school websites

With this approach, students must complete each application as if it were a stand-alone. In addition to crafting different essays, this means creating multiple accounts and logins, submitting standard information several times, and asking for transcripts and faculty recommendations to be sent to each location.

Choosing one among these options depends on the candidates and which schools they are considering. Some schools offer all three paths on their website, while others specify one. Even schools that accept applications through more than one route, however, may have a preferred approach. When in doubt of which path to choose, the best way to clarify is for the student to inquire with their interviewer. A student’s time and personality are also factors. Prolific writers may find moments to shine by writing more specialized essays, but must accept the challenge of making every response of equally high caliber. Meanwhile, other candidates may optimize their applications by focusing on one common set of essays and making them the best they can be.

As always, we at The Bertram Group are here to support you during this exciting time. While the next few weeks may be hectic, I hope they are also celebratory. The application completion milestone represents much research, self-reflection, and personal growth coming together as students commit to their goals and put their best selves forward. It is truly wonderful to wrap up each passing year and start each new year with a heartfelt sense of pride and anticipation on behalf of all of our candidates.

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.