When the goal is university entrance

Private schools prepare youth for post-secondary challenges

One of the most common reasons parents give for choosing private and independent schools over the public school system is to better prepare their kids for post-secondary education.

And for good reason. Studies show a higher percentage of students from the private system go on to university after Grade 12. A greater proportion of them gain acceptance into the institutions and programs of their first choice.

Moreover, once at university they actually do better and go further than their publicly schooled classmates. A report from Statistics Canada in 2015 found that 35 per cent of private school students graduate from university by age 23, compared with 21 per cent of public school students.

This achievement is especially applicable to those private schools that consider themselves primarily academic schools. (Some even include “preparatory” or “prep” in their names.)

Academic schools take as their credo that all students have what it takes to pursue university studies — with the proper encouragement.

Parents for whom this is important must examine prospective schools to determine of they would be a good fit for their college-bound children.

Some of the signs to look for — factors that help make the academic mission statement a reality — include the following:

  • A school culture of university preparation is shared by all staff and the student body — instilling confidence in all students, regardless of background, economic status and past academic record.
  • Smaller class sizes, allowing greater attention for each student.
  • Programs and styles of teaching that emphasize effective communication, research skills, individual initiative, and collaboration on projects.
  • Counsellors focusing on university admission. How much time do staff spend on college-related counselling compared to other counselling on other issues? In general, academic private schools spend about twice as much time on university admissions as their public school colleagues. Many private high schools actually have counsellors designated specifically to advise students on university admissions (something that few public schools can afford). Moreover, three-quarters of private high schools employ a counsellor who is solely dedicated to matters of college admissions, something very few public schools are able to offer.
  • Past success. Schools should be able to tell you how many of their graduates in recent years went on to university or the post-secondary institutions of their choice.

One school’s approach

There likely are not too many people who know more than Nick Van Herk does just how busy this time of year can be for a Grade 12 student.

Holding the unique title of director of university counselling at Royal St. George’s College, an all-boys school near Bathurst Street and Bloor Street West, his schedule is jam packed with classroom meetings and one-on-one counselling sessions, not only with the 68 students in this year’s Grade 12 class but with introductory sessions for Grade 9 students and increasingly in-depth guidance for those in the grades in between as well.

Van Herk took some time between meetings with students to explain how his school prepares pupils as they apply for admission to university.

“I’m just trying to get a sense of where they all are in terms of their research and planning and getting ready to apply,” he said. “We’ve had a couple guys who have already started applications, and we have a guy who already has an offer in hand, actually.”

While the deadline for applications to university isn’t until January, Van Herk said they like to have their students finish before the holidays in December.

Starting early, it would seem, is a common theme at Royal St. George’s College. As a university counsellor, Van Herk starts reaching out to students as early as the ninth grade.

“Grade 9 is really just an introduction, so I go through and meet with all the Grade 9 classes and introduce myself and try to explain in Grade 9 terms why we have a university counsellor at St. George’s and a little bit about what university is,” he said. “In Grade 9 they’re really focused on what’s for lunch so it’s hard for them to see what’s coming four years down the road.”

Without “hitting them over the head” with volumes of information, Van Herk explains to the younger students some key factors, such as the difference between Canadian schools and American schools,.

“Most schools and programs in Canada it’s your Grade 12 marks that really determine whether you’re in or not, and there’s not a whole lot more to the application than that,” he said. “But the American application is marks throughout high school, SAT scores, community service and engagement, and reference letters and essays.”

About 60 percent of the Royal St. George’s graduating class will go to universities in Ontario, while the other 40 percent will head off to schools in other parts of Canada, to the U.S. and, in a few cases, overseas.

“A couple years ago we had 11 apply to the U.S. and 11 to the UK — all of them successful in their admissions, but they didn’t all go,” he comments.

Regardless of where students plan to go to university, the planning starts in Grade 10. Van Herk said it has to do with a series of prerequisite classes.

“If you decide not to take physics in Grade 11, well you’re not taking physics in Grade 12 and you’re not going into engineering as a result,” he said. “So those decisions have to be made in Grade 10, now.”

Van Herk said he goes class to class to help the students make sure they’re picking the right courses for Grade 11 so that they can be prepared when they need to apply to university two years later.

Once in Grade 11, the students begin having one-on-one sessions with Van Herk.

“They have to sit down with me and talk about what their goals or hopes or aspirations are so we can help them in fine-tuning their research,” he said. “In Grade 12 is when it gets really serious.”

He meets every Wednesday with the entire Grade 12 class, and then holds individual sessions with students.

Those final year one-on-one sessions begin as a progress update from the previous year’s meetings, where any changes in the student’s goals are discussed before focusing on more personal and specific points. They provide a place for students to ask questions “they wouldn’t feel like asking in front of 67 of their classmates,” Van Herk said, and also make sure the student is up to speed on how to complete the actual applications.

This may be a very lengthy and thought-out approach to the university application process, but does it fulfill its goal of ushering high school graduates into university? Van Herk is confident that it does.

“Historically it’s virtually 100 percent,” he said.

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