The fine art of applying for high school

Concerned mom (i.e., me, getting flustered): “Honey, it’s just terribly inconsistent to do it that way.”

Fed-up 13 year old (i.e., my daughter, getting impatient): “It’s my portfolio, and I’ll do it my way!”

Should she have followed my advice? Who’s to say? In any case, it was her portfolio, about her accomplishments, and her future was on the line. This explains both my concern that the thing should be perfect, as well as her legitimate right to tell me to butt out.

She made the portfolio in preparation for an interview for a high school specialty program. Here’s the news to those of you who have not overseen a child taking the step to high school: it ain’t a cakewalk. The guidance department advises that students apply to at least three high schools.

And then there are the specialty programs. I’m telling you, don’t be a deer in the headlights when the deadlines loom. Roll up your sleeves and get involved to help your child navigate the waters of applying to high school. Though this adventure might be but a shadow of the university application process, it’s still quite complex and requires a whole boatload of persistence.

First, you have to check out the schools. There are multiple specialty schools, from arts to afro-centric, and specialty programs as well, such as International Baccalaureate. When my elder daughter was applying, we went to information evenings at four or five different high schools. Yikes! Here’s a hint: spread the pain around by going to the information evenings for some of the possibilities in your child’s Grade 7 year.

Some of these info nights are deadly boring, but you have to go to them just to get your bearings, and to get the papers you’ll need to apply. A minority of the evenings are actually pretty interesting – current students might perform a musical piece or a skit, and the administrators might have a slide show to help you get a feel for school life. What I particularly like is when a current student tells about their experience at the high school.
What you don’t hear at the information nights are the school’s weak points. Does its student population compare poorly academically? Does the school have a gang problem? Does it have mouldy classrooms? Low school spirit? How do you find the answers to these sorts of questions?

This is where your contacts within the parent community can do you service. Just think of the teenagers who are a few years older than your own child—the girl next door or a former babysitter, perhaps. Give his or her parents a ring or corner them at the supermarket. Finding out about a school’s strong and weak points from the perspective of the parent of a current or former student can help you and your child make a more informed decision.

The guidance counsellor can be incredibly helpful, too, especially in getting your child informed about the process. You can call the counsellors directly. Most elementary schools do not have a full-time guidance counsellor, but they’ll respond to messages quite readily.
If your child would like to apply to a few specialty programs, find out the requirements and deadlines well ahead of time. In some cases students must produce a portfolio, attend an interview, or perform (for an art school).

And some programs still request letters of reference. Thank goodness this requirement is beginning to be discouraged – the collection of such letters is onerous on students, parents, and the instructors being asked for the letters. Besides, I’m not sure they’re really worth all that much – won’t they all say wonderful things?

Here’s a final tidbit of advice: make sure, in the early fall of Grade 8, that your child is doing well in class. If there are teacher-student conflicts, or any other issues that might threaten your child’s grades, get the problem fixed pronto.

Why is this important? The teachers who select students for specialty programs will be looking at the fall interim report cards. A bad report card can prevent your child from getting into the specialty program. Your child cannot get better marks in the spring or next year and then apply again – this is a one-shot deal. Thus, the Grade 8 fall report card can have ramifications that affect your child’s whole high school education. So stay on top of that one!

Margaret Hoogeven is a local writer, editor, and mother of two school-aged daughters. She can be reached at

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