New independent high school application seeks to ease stress for 8th graders

This year, the independent high school application process is getting a much-needed makeover. For the first time ever, independent high schools in the Bay Area have agreed upon a common essay question to include in their applications, enabling applicants to only write one essay for the multiple schools to which they might be applying. 

The two prompts that independent high schools decided on asking students to write about are “a time when [they] had the courage to try something [they] weren’t sure [they] could do,” and something they’ve “learned from someone who has a totally different perspective or background from [them].” Only the high schools whose applications can be accessed through Ravenna, an online portal that helps with the scheduling of admission events and provides online applications, are using the common questions. Some of these schools include Urban, University, Drew, and Lick Wilmerding. 

8th grade stress in relation to the application process was addressed this summer when high school counselors from various middle schools in the area attended the annual Bay Area admissions directors’ meeting. 

Betsy Brody, Director of High School Counseling and Co-director of Diversity at San Francisco Day School, said they went into the meeting with this question on their minds: “How can we, as a group of counselors who are here to support kids, help high school directors see we all want the same thing?” 

The counselors explained the large number of essays that their students were required to write, and proposed a solution by having one or more common questions among independent high schools. Their request was promptly accepted by admissions workers at each school.

 Traylor Smith-Wallis ‘21, a member of Urban’s Student Admissions Committee, said this would make a huge difference for applicants. “It’s a ton of work to write four or more different essays for each school they’re applying to, and causes students a lot of extra time and stress.” he said.

“It’s always important to have the eighth graders and their families in mind,” Urban Admissions Director Lauren Byrne said, “Continuing to alleviate stress in the application process is such an important goal to have.” Urban’s application has also undergone additional changes to make it shorter, such as cutting down the longer question that asks students to create their own holiday into a one-sentence response. 

Speaking to the student experience, Smith-Wallis said, “I do think a common application is a step in the right direction,” as there are so many other important components to applying to a high school in the Bay Area, such as interviews, prospective student visits, testing, and teacher recommendations. 

Accessibility is also a huge issue in the admissions process. Multiple factors contribute to this application inequity, such as language, access to counselors and tutors for testing, ability to pay application fees, and familial support. “As a parent,” Brody said, “if you’re not an English language speaker, your child has to do translating for you… and that’s a lot to put on the child.”

However, multiple high schools are working towards offering events to showcase their values of diversity and inclusivity. This fall, the Drew School will be one of the first high schools in San Francisco to hold an open house in Spanish, with participation from their Spanish-speaking head of school and student-led LatinX affinity group. 

Every November at Urban, the admissions department, members of the MultiCulti Leadership Team, and the Dean of Equity and Inclusion organize Diversity Night, open to all prospective families. This admissions event allows applicants and their families to engage in conversations and explore what it’s like to be a minority student or parent at Urban.  

“The idea was to bring in families to see Urban’s different affinity and ally spaces and how important those are to the community, culture, and values of the school,” Byrne said. 

“I think each school just has a different way of showcasing their diversity,” Smith-Wallis added. 

Even so, Brody acknowledged that language and cost are still significant areas that have yet to be explored in the application process in the way many counselors feel they should be. Counselors like Brody hope that the common application questions can be a first step towards reducing stress for applicants in at least one aspect of the process. “Everyone in the end wants to do the most for students and families,” she said.