Education Matters: 13 Tips to Ease School Search Anxiety

Published on: December 30, 2013


This fall, parents of children across the age spectrum will be searching for preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, this is an anxiety-producing experience.

You have to navigate open houses, confusing forms, essays and interviews, standardized tests, boundary changes, waiting lists and sometimes, a recalcitrant child who refuses to cooperate.

Is your child an introvert? A girl?

An athlete or a performance artist?

These factors will come into play. As will friends.

And once the decision is made, there can be fallout.

You choose the school you think is best for your child, but your child may have different ideas. Determining how much say your child should have in the decision depends on the age of the child and how high the stakes are.

There will be judgment.

If your child is applying to a school to which you feel he or she must be accepted, your family may be more than just disappointed if your child does not get in. You may wonder, “What’s wrong with my kid?”

Even kids who say they don’t want to go to a school their parents made them apply to can take a rejection personally.

There are a few things I wish I had known when I was searching for schools for my own daughters — and several things I wish we had done differently, which might have reduced our family’s anxiety.

It will be two or three years before we start shopping for colleges in earnest. So I’m investing the time I might have spent on open houses, applications and worry to put together a list of tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  • The year before you need to, find out when school fairs and open houses are held and what the application process is.
  • Familiarize yourself with testing requirements and schedules. Some independent schools require standardized tests. Public schools often require tests for entry into advanced learning programs, which can impact school and class placement for years.
  • Talk to other parents and students. Ask them what they like and dislike about their schools, but take what they say with a grain of salt.
  • Talk as a family about the qualities your ideal school would have. Are sports or arts programs important to your child? Do you care about class sizes, ability-grouped learning, diversity and the chance to build community? Do you seek single-gender education or a dress code? Asking your child to voice his or her opinions early on can help with the process later.
  • Don’t make your decision based on a principal or particular teacher. Faculty and administrators come and go.
  • Tour schools during the day when classes are in session. Do students seem interested in learning? Are adults and students polite to each other? Does the school offer a welcoming environment?
  • Attend college fairs and informally visit college campuses the year before you need to, so that students can experience the colleges without feeling pressure to make a decision.
  • If your school requires standardized tests for entry, schedule your child for an early test date, so that you’ll have the opportunity for a make-up test, if illness strikes.
  • Provide your child with test study guides so he or she can become familiar with test formats.
  • To reduce pressure, encourage your child to work on application essays early.
  • Trust your gut feeling about a school.
  • However things turn out, wholeheartedly embrace the school your child is admitted to
  • Reassure your child and yourself that if a school is not working out, you can explore other options.

Visit ParentMap's Education Expo portal for school open house information and other helpful education resources and learn about our January 2014 Preschool Previews.

246Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's Education Editor and a former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicled her transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!

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