By Andrea Domanick, 15, Harvard-Westlake School
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I look left, I look right. I look anywhere, just trying to escape the piercing stare of the interviewers. I rub my sweaty palms trying to think of a response.

“Um,” is all I can manage. I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

“I’ll repeat the question, Ms. Domanick,” one of them says. “What do you think you have to offer to our school?”

“Well, I, um, that is, you see, I was first drawn to your school because …”

They lean in closer, their eyes boring into me, their blasé expressions slowly morphing into ones of disapproval. I take a deep breath and start over. “Well you see, I have a variety of things that I have to offer to your school. To begin with, I, er, for instance, argh, MOM YOU KNOW I HATE THIS ONE!”

My parents and I all let out sighs of exasperation and frustration.

Maybe I should explain. Those were not actual interviewers; they were my mom and dad. I was not sitting in a stiff chair in a drafty office; I was on a couch in our living room. And we weren’t prepping for college interviews—we were prepping for high school interviews. I know many people will be surprised to learn I had to apply to high school—many students simply attend their neighborhood feeder school without a second thought. However, my local high school, Fairfax, near my family’s house in West Hollywood, just didn’t have everything I wanted.

I may sound picky, but it was VERY important to me to get into a really good high school—one with strong academics, good teachers and because I play guitar and trumpet, a music department. I know it may seem too early to start thinking about the right school this strongly, but to get into a really good college, I’d have to go to a really good high school.

The schools started to look the same

So I looked at other public and private schools. But when I found a public school that had many good qualities, there was always a problem—it would be too far away or would have huge class sizes. While I respected the efforts these schools were making to improve themselves, I knew I had to explore private schools; after all, this is my education.

During my project-filled final year at Walter Reed Middle School, the last thing I wanted to think about was the future. Coming from a really great public middle school, I was looking for high schools with specialized programs and dedicated teachers. I narrowed it down to three public schools—Cleveland Humanities Magnet, North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet, Hamilton Music Academy or Humanities—but I still had several private schools to look at.

After narrowing it down, we moved onto touring the public and private schools. Now, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of touring, it’s good for about one thing—getting out of school in the morning. Actually, touring is helpful in terms of getting an idea what the schools look like and how the people and classes are, but mainly it’s boring. You’re trudging around in a group comprised mainly of parents (if you’re lucky a few people your own age, and if you’re luckier there are some friends from school), while some overzealous student is going on about how “wonderful” and “resourceful” the school is. You’re impressed with maybe the first two schools, but then thoughts like, “OK, kill the act” and “tell me something new” begin to creep into your mind.

For the most part, the special magnets, Advanced Placement courses and accelerated programs became indistinguishable. I was really waiting for a school to stick out. Eventually the only thing that concerned me was the number of minutes left on the tour because it was really a mentally and physically exhausting process. You walk up and down zillions of flights of stairs to strange classrooms, gawking at the gigantic size of everything from the campus to the classes to students themselves. It’s pretty intimidating. I was relieved to get back to the familiar monotonous tan buildings and trashy yards of my middle school. It was so comforting to come back to a school of only 2,000 students.

Though private school tours were a little bit more enjoyable due to smaller group sizes and more interaction with the students, teachers and classes, looking at private schools had its own set of problems. As if the final projects and backbreaking homework loads weren’t enough in eighth grade, I had to do extra studying outside of school. Why? When you apply to private schools, you have to take a test called the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE). It’s kind of like the SAT for private schools, only not quite as challenging, and you have to write an essay in half an hour at the end of it.

Oh, well this is just great, I thought. So now when I wasn’t studying for tests, running back and forth to people’s houses to complete presentations or finishing research papers, I was constantly studying for this test. Whether it was taking practice tests, fine-tuning my weaker areas such as math and speed-reading or endless essay writing on random topics, I’m surprised I had time to breathe.

The application process was intense

In the two months leading up to the ISEE, I spent anywhere from 10-20 hours a week on ISEE studying, and believe me it got a whole lot closer to 20 as the test day approached. I found the essays particularly excruciating. After feeling as if a great weight (particularly my backpack) had been lifted off me when I finished my homework every night, another large anvil of stress would come crashing down. Every night, for three weeks, my English teacher mom would give me 30 minutes to write a cogent essay about some less-than-fascinating topic. Initially, I was (to put it lightly) frustrated. School hadn’t exactly been a pleasure cruise lately and I didn’t feel like I had the time or energy for something I wasn’t getting graded on. For three weeks before the test, I would write essays on topics varying from ancient Japanese proverbs (the nail that sticks out gets hit on the head) to “What makes a good teacher?” I guess all the drudgery paid off, though. By the time I was done studying, I was an ISEE guru.

When I arrived at Harvard-Westlake (one of the schools I was applying to) to take it, I felt ready to kick some ISEE ass. I breezed through it, free of any insecurities, even the essay. After the test, it was strange coming home and not writing an essay or studying.

Next were the interviews for a couple of private schools. Before each interview, my parents and I rehearsed some typical questions. My parents really seemed to get a kick out of playing the probing interviewers. They would ask me the most mind-racking questions, like “What do you think you could bring/have to offer to our school?” or “Why should we pick you over anyone else?” [deep, inquisitive stare].

Luckily, interviewers are not that mean. And, however tedious and time-wasting practicing seemed to be, it actually made me totally relaxed during the interview, which was a huge help. At first, I would stutter and pause a lot in my practice answers, as you read above—but once I got the hang of it and discussed with my parents how to give a good answer, I felt ready for anything. The questions I got, though, weren’t anything near what I had feared—the interviewers were interested in me as a person, and asked me low-key questions about my hobbies. Finally, all the prepping and applying nonsense was out of the way. It was late December. Now I just had to wait three months to find out if I got in. It was a tense, annoying three months, but at least it gave me a chance to put high school out of my mind and catch up on some schoolwork and sleep.

I was actually really fortunate to get into all the schools I applied to. As someone close to me put it, I had “an embarrassment of riches.” However lucky I was, this didn’t make the process much easier.

I found what I wanted

In the end, I chose the private school Harvard-Westlake because it just seemed to have everything I wanted. It was a tough decision after narrowing the school choices down to Harvard-Westlake and the private girls school Marlborough. Both of them offer superior educations. I ultimately chose Harvard-Westlake because it has a great music department and a wider variety of courses. Finally, it was done.

Now that my first year at Harvard-Westlake is almost over, I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Coming from public school, I didn’t really know what to expect from a private one. Since Walter Reed was a pretty challenging middle school, I didn’t expect Harvard-Westlake to be much harder. That was probably the one thing I did wrong.

The curriculum moves very fast, especially the English department, which is built on skills developed in the 7th and 8th grades that were not so much as touched on at Walter Reed (Harvard-Westlake goes from grades 7-12). Lacking skills they learned such as critical reading or how to write a good analytical essay made my first few major assignments difficult. Although Harvard-Westlake accepts new students with the thought that they would be able to catch up on these skills, it’s not as easy as they think it would be. As one friend describes it, “[Being new] is like trying to run alongside a train that’s already going at top speed, and you’re trying to jump onto it.”

While I never felt that I was behind the other students in any of my classes, I did feel that I had to work a little longer and harder at the beginning of the year on certain aspects of assignments.

Now don’t throw away your application if this sounds too tough, though because teachers, administrators and friends are constantly there for you offering their help and support. Harvard-Westlake is a school that really makes you strive to do your absolute best while still allowing you to have fun and enjoy your teenage years.

Socially, adjusting has been a breeze for me. After my first few weeks, I had already developed a close-knit group of friends of both old and new students. Now it seems like we have known each other all our lives rather just one school year.

Andrea’s tips on applying to high school

• Don’t let your parents do all the work. This is the next four years of your life, and I guarantee that if you’re involved, then it will be more enjoyable.

• If you’re taking the ISEE, do as much prepping as you can. However tedious it was for me to write an essay every day for three weeks, it made it that much easier when I actually took the test.

• Ask people you know, who go to some of the schools you’re looking at, what they think of those schools. It’s often best to get a first-hand account of what the school is really like.

• Stay involved and have fun with it all. Try not to stress out, because in the end, all the hard work is most definitely worth it.