Understanding the Process and Preparation for Attending a Boarding School

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Photo courtesy of St. Mary's School
Students at St, Mary's have a two-hour supervised study hall each night.

Despite the common misconception that boarding schools are for parents who want to “ship their kids away,” campus-based high schools have become increasingly competitive centers of holistic learning, offering rigorous academics and opportunities for enrichment.

Why Boarding School?

Proponents of boarding school recognize many advantages for students — including the gift of time.

“When the school day ends, students can move right from the classroom to an athletic practice or extracurricular activity,” says Jacob Geiger, director of strategic communications for Woodberry Forest School, an all-boys boarding school in Woodberry Forest, Virginia. “There’s no wasted time on commuting.”

Hobbies and studying are encouraged and time killers, like TV-watching, are often restricted. Kim Slade, director of enrollment and financial aid for Saint Mary’s School, an all-girls boarding school in Raleigh, says students there have a two-hour supervised study hall each night, during which time phones are gathered to prevent them from becoming a distraction.

Slade and Geiger agree that the greatest advantage to attending a boarding school is the on-site faculty. When a student’s neighbor is his or her English teacher and he or she eats lunch with a coach, that student experiences a college-like atmosphere with vigilant support and supervision. Educators strive to walk every step of this educational journey with students.

Applying to a School

Most families begin looking at boarding schools in the fall, about one year prior to enrollment. Schools host open houses, ‘student shadow’ days and personalized visits. Applications are often due in January of the year of enrollment.

The application requires involvement from both the student and parent(s). Students will likely have to take the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) and are asked to provide an essay and letters of recommendation.

Choosing a School

Slade suggests that before parents and students start touring, they should make their own lists of what they are looking for in a school. Considerations may include single sex vs. coed, geographical location, extracurricular activities and educational philosophy.

Once parents and students have narrowed down their lists, they take every opportunity to visit a school while it’s in session, paying close attention to interactions that students have with peers and faculty. 

The most important thing to listen to, Slade says, is instinct.

“There will likely be one school that your child feels is the best fit, though they may not be able to articulate why,” Slade says. “Listen to their gut reaction; it is often spot-on.”

Preparing Your Child

Skills like budgeting, time management and laundry are taught and reinforced at school, but parents can give their kids a head start by encouraging independence. Sleepaway camps are a great way to introduce time away from parents.

“Woodberry, like most boarding schools, knows that boys will come from a wide range of academic and personal backgrounds, and that everyone arrives with a different level of preparation,” Geiger says. “The school helps everyone get onto common ground academically and socially in the first few weeks.”

Making a Packing List

Your school will provide a recommended packing list, and touring the campus will give students a feel for additional needs. Uniforms and dress codes are common at boarding schools, so students should give themselves enough time to order any necessary apparel.

Also, almost every boarding school requires that all medications are registered and administered by the school nurse. So if your child takes regular medication, whether prescription or over-the-counter, acquaint him or her with the school’s policy.


Mandy Howard is a freelance writer and mother of three in Raleigh.

Categories: Annual Guides, Education, Education Guide, School

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