Top Secret: An Experienced Admission Professional Reveals the Secrets of a Great School Open House (from a Parent Perspective)

Steve Salvo




The traditional private school Open House event provides an excellent opportunity for prospective students and families to visit campus, observe facilities, speak with school personnel, and ask the all-important question of, “Can we see ourselves and/or are child(ren) being successful and happy here?”


As someone who has planned and executed such events for 13+ years, I’d like to highlight what you, as prospective parents, should look for when attending school Open Houses. These should be events that emphasize the school’s mission, vision, and educational philosophy. If you witness the following traits at an Open House, and they resonate with you, you have likely found a good fit for your child/family.


Trait #1: Differentiators on Display

My advice to parents: Aim to uncover what makes the school unique.


Most private independent schools have more similarities than differences. Some of the most overused phrases in a school’s marketing toolbox include:


  • We have a “tight-knit” community
  • We offer rigorous academics
  • Our class sizes are small


Prospective customers want and need more. They should be able to easily and readily recognize which, if any, true differentiators enable a school to stand apart from its competition.


These unique attributes of a school’s program, community, or culture should not only be highlighted in speeches by or discussions with school leaders or parent volunteers, but clearly on display around campus. Ideally, these mission-driven traits should be noted by a casual observer via the school schedule, classroom layout, hallway displays, and most importantly, the interactions they notice between various school constituents. For example, a school that purportedly distinguishes itself through a deep commitment to character-building educational programs and outcomes should provide access to program leaders, engaged students showcasing such skills, and perhaps alumni and/or parents who can testify to the life-changing results that this program had in their development.


Trait #2: Students are the Stars

My advice to parents: Determine how student-centric the school is by closely observing constituent interactions, especially when students/teachers may not realize they are being watched!


National surveys conducted by Independent School Management (ISM) routinely show that student safety is the top trait that parents are seeking when choosing to enroll or re-enroll at a school. Physical safety is just one component. Parents also want to know their child will be known and cared for, and that they will see return on their investment of time, energy, and financial resources. How should you as parents gauge this key metric at an Open House event? You want to see students in action—experiencing the program with focus and enthusiasm while not appearing stressed out or disinterested. Students should feel safe to take chances in their learning. Just as impactful is observing students interacting with passionate and knowledgeable teachers who not only understand best practices, but also how students grow, develop, and learn.


Trait #3: Process and Product Highlights

My advice to parents: Try to forecast your child as a graduate of the school—what type of person have they become?


While the process each student experiences is important to observe, it is essential that schools also highlight their end product, which is essentially the promise they are making regarding student outcomes. While high school (for schools that conclude in Eighth Grade) and college acceptance placement lists are wonderful to see, it is also beneficial for you to see specifics regarding next-level successes such as leadership roles attained, scholarships earned, and career pathways.


Some schools include marketing descriptors of the finished product they hope to produce. For example, Trinity’s website features the Trinity “Portrait of a Graduate,” or five specific attributes of a graduating student. Schools with strong alumni involvement in an annual giving fund or alumni programs can show a strong connectivity between a school and its community.


Trait #4: Communication is Key

My advice to parents: Recognize your experience during the admission process as your introduction to customer service at the school.


Visiting campus is a big moment for your family. Be sure to take it all in. How is your communication with the admission office and other school personnel? Does the school take an interest in getting to know your child and family? If you run into any questions or difficulties during the admission process how are they handled? It is a great sign when schools make efforts to minimize potential inconveniences. After all, your experience during the admission process sets the tone for what’s to come should you enroll.


I hope these observations assist you during Open House events this admission season!