What does it mean to look for “differentiators” during the high school admissions process?
If you ask a child who is about to enter kindergarten what a “school” is, she will tell you that it is a place you go to learn. But a school is so much more than this – or at least it should be – and over the course of that child’s academic career she will discover all the things that make “school” an enriching, formative place in her personal history.
A school, at its bare minimum, is an institution of learning. As you research high schools you should look for qualities and offerings at each school that set them apart from one another. Some schools may provide families a list of their unique offerings. But if what they offer is the same as other schools in the area, what sets them apart? You will need to look for evidence of differentiators outside of what a bullet-point list in a brochure may tell you.
For instance, many schools say they offer rigorous academics and at Trinity Hall we certainly do. What does that actually mean, and how is that claim realized? Proof of this claim should be found in more than a school’s admissions brochure. While some schools have honors classes, focused academies or specialized programs, are these options available to every student attending that institution?
At Trinity Hall, our classes are all taught at the honors level. This means that if a student is accepted into Trinity Hall, she is accepted as an honors student. Her high school transcripts will reflect honors-level classes. The expectation, then, is that the caliber of academics will be higher than an average high school, and this level is school-wide. The priority on high-level academics is shared by the entire student body, not just a sub-set of honors students. When the school community agrees that academics are of great importance, students are able to focus and push themselves – and each other – to reach their academic potential.
Another differentiator is community. Many schools list their community as a special, unique offering… but again, how can this be measured? A sense of community is important to many students, especially as they make the jump from 8th grade to high school. Does the school’s faculty and staff participate in nurturing its school community? Is there a system of student support, such as Trinity Hall’s advisory program, big sister/little sister program, or daily student support period? Look for the effort a school takes in maintaining its community. That effort indicates how the school truly values its community, rather than using it as a brochure buzzword.
School community and student culture are things that should be experienced rather than explained. I find it nearly impossible to explain the intangible aspects of an all-girls environment. To discover if a school’s community is the right fit for you, it is important to have opportunity to be on campus. Trinity Hall offers Open Houses with lots of student interaction, workshops for middle school girls, and student visit days for applicants. I strongly recommend first-hand experience with each school a student is considering, especially if the school considers community to be a differentiator.
If you are someone who appreciates a good pro/con list (that’s me) keep track of the things you like about each school during your high school search and note what makes them different from each other. While some may say that the high school years fly by – believe me, they do! – these years are critical for students and don’t seem to move as fast when spending hours in the classroom. Try to come up with two or three school differentiators that are essential for you and the rest will fall into place. The best schools will help you discover your potential and allow you the room to grow.