Pitfalls of picking a high school

Want to find the right school for your teen? Avoid the three top mistakes parents make when searching for the best educational experience.

By GreatSchools Staff

When it comes to your child’s education, the more choices you have, the better, right?

Sure, except that having more choices can make the school-choosing process more difficult as you struggle to answer questions like: Where will my teen be happiest for the next few years? Is the popular public high school near our house or the private one with the stellar scores a better bet? Is this school really as great as it seems?

To help parents avoid common pitfalls when choosing a school, we checked in with Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International. Perelstein, who has worked as an admissions officer, now advises parents on that sometimes crazy-making, but all-important question: which school will be best for my child?

1. Choosing a school as a means to an end.

Many parents are so obsessed with high school as a vehicle for getting into college, that they forget to think about the experience their child will have in those four important years. High school is the time when kids learn to think critically, analyze pros and cons, explore, identify their passions, learn to work independently, learn how to advocate for themselves, and develop relationships with their teachers.

Does the school offer an atmosphere and opportunity for that level of engagement? Check the class size and pay attention to the number of class offerings. Are there lots of extra-curricular activities to make sure your teen will be able to try new things? Check here for more key questions to ask when choosing a school.

2. Choosing a school solely based on its college acceptances.

Just because a school can boast about college acceptances, doesn’t mean that your child will get into a “top-rated” college. Parents should try to find out why children from that school are admitted to those colleges.

Is it because the guidance counselors have great relationships with several top college admissions' offices – an insider connection your child could take advantage of? Is it because of the school's outstanding curriculum and how well students are exceptionally well-prepared prepared for college? Or is it because many parents are alumni from “top-rated” colleges and have a history of making major donations to these universities?

In the latter case, if most of the students are getting into top colleges because of family connections, it may be harder for someone who doesn’t have those connections to get in.

3. Choosing a school without considering the school's culture and tone.

Friendship and socialization is a significant part of the high school experience. Pay attention to how the kids act together. Do they look comfortable with one other? Do kids seem to be mixing well, or do you notice definite cliques that exclude?

Another important indicator of a school is how it's run. A strong, inspiring leader can set the tone for a positive experience, where teachers and students work well and effectively together. So try to check out the school at a time when you can watch the principal in action – take note of how the students act around her. Do they greet her, or shy away? See how the principal greets students. Does the faculty seem comfortable with the principal – and does the staff seem engaged and happy to be there? Find out more tips on how to best assess a high school and the top five reasons to avoid a high school.