Overseas study is a very serious and important family decision, not simply because of the substantial monetary commitment it requires, but more so the decisive role it plays in shaping the child’s eventual character during his critical formative years. The boarding experience, from academic to social atmospheres, from faculty mentors to peer groups, largely defines the child’s upbringing. School selection therefore must involve careful consideration of each child’s talents and needs to tailor a unique set of requirements for his learning environment to arrive at the best fit. Insufficient intellectual stimulus would undermine the original pursuit of a rigorous overseas education; yet, excessive stretch can backfire and bind the child into defeat and self-doubt. Balance is key.
No two schools, even of the same tier, are the same and generate the same impact for any given child. Like individuals, every prep school was founded upon a particular set of beliefs and upholds a particular character that permeates all aspects of the school experience. What works for one child might not produce the same effect on another. As so much of the boarding school experience is about character building, the quest for best fit must necessarily move beyond comparison of dry statistical data into analysis of softer qualitative factors (atmosphere, culture, traditions), which often in the end hold the key to the ideal match. Numeric rankings should only serve as a secondary reference to the first-hand understanding coming from personal visits to the campuses and direct contacts with faculty, students, and parents.
Competition for the top boarding schools is intense, especially among foreign students. It is not uncommon to find admission rates of foreign students lower than 10%. Nothing can be left to chance. Strategies should be carefully crafted for all parts of the application, from initial display of interest through post-submission follow-up, to the enhancement of one’s prospect of admission. Credentials, both academic and extracurricular, should be delicately positioned to bring out the student’s best. All personal and parental statements and questionnaire essays should be articulate and coherent with a core message, substantiated across the writings. Teachers for the recommendation letters should be selected to further reinforce the core message. Standardized tests should be well timed and prepped; one should also be thoroughly rehearsed before the interviews.
Putting the best face forward is only one part, often the last part, of the race. Equally, if not more, important is a solid foundation, without which even the best presentation can come across fake and unsubstantial. Hard and smart work aside, the foundation should be broad and complete, cutting across the worlds of academics, arts, music, sports, community service, and international exposure. The portfolio should reflect character depth, thinking perceptiveness, presentation prowess, social mastery, and leadership readiness. Credentials cannot be established overnight but are built over time. It is a pity that too often parents and students will have come to realize this truth too late in the race, when there is only enough time to dress up the candidate rather than preparing the candidate from within.
To an extent, school selection and application is an education journey, a time of introspection and discovery for not only the student but also the parents. The role of parents in the final admission success is beyond question. Many times it is only with parents’ active input that counselors can look deep into the child’s upbringing and generate insights about the child’s character, strengths, and gaps, and formulate strategies. It is also from this exchange process that visions and expectations for the child are often crystalized. Parents are instrumental in acting as change agents for the child’s portfolio building years. None of what counselors recommend will matter much if the parents are not committed to consistently supporting and encouraging the change.
The scope of education is far broader than just academics and scores; education have never been about sheer knowledge acquisition, but have always been about the training of mind, the building of character and the grooming of leaders for the world. Through rigors and discipline, students who study abroad learn to think critically and independently; absorb the values of integrity and honor; develop confidence and poise; acquire taste and style; socialize for life-long networks and bonds. Overseas experience serves as a whole-person education that aims ultimately at preparing a child to lead and assume positions of power and authority. From our personal experiences and observations of our students over the years, qualities of great leadership, of which academic mastery forms but a part, are precisely what the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and other selected universities look for among their candidates.