#AdmissionsPros: Private School Tips With KEY’s Ben Batt

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

KEY Education is a Vancouver-based firm of educational and admissions consultants, specializing in early childhood support and private school admissions as well as international student placement and university admissions. Co-founder and Managing Director Ben Batt spoke with Noodle Pros about the KEY vision, differences between public and private schools, international admissions, and the importance of cultivating unique talents and interests.

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you provide.

We help students all  across what we call the “education lifecycle,” starting at preschool all the way up to university — typically up to the undergraduate point. We have an early childhood enrichment program, helping students develop their academic and social emotional foundations which we think will have a lifelong benefit, and then from there we have students who are looking to get into private schools at the junior-kindergarten or kindergarten/grade 1 entry points. That is a very popular entry point for a lot of families, especially those families coming from Asia, where students normally have to reapply for middle school and high school.

Of course, a big part of what we do is help students with admissions guidance for admittance to private schools and universities. We also offer a variety of worthy programs within our community to help students achieve their goals. These include things like creative writing, intensive instruction to build up English language skills, and things like coding and robotics; really anything that will peak their interest.

My business partner worked at the private school that we both graduated from, and he was the chair of the alumni missions committee for Cornell University in British Columbia. So he’s done a lot of interviews with all types of students, including international students. No matter the child, we’ve found that it’s often about trying to get students and parents to expand beyond their comfort zones, and to explore some different opportunities.

You work with a number of international students, and particularly many families in China. Logistically, are you working remotely? Are most of your programs online?

Some are and some aren’t. The early childhood education has to be in Vancouver, in person. Many of our classes are designed to help build up students’ soft skills as well. A lot of that is group work, which can be done online, but is much more effective in a classroom. But, generally speaking, the older the student, the more we can do online. So to answer your question, certain services are offered online, but not everything.

You mentioned that you went to the same private school as your business partner (Bryan R. Ide). What school did the both of you attend, and what is the rest of your educational background?

We both graduated from St. George’s School, which is a private all-boys day and boarding school in Vancouver. I went to the University of British Columbia, and have a bachelor of arts in psychology. At KEY, my main focus is on the business as a whole. Then we have educational experts in each of our different pillars, as we call them, to help guide our students to the right place.

Can you elaborate on what kinds of students you generally work with?

We actually work at a variety of students. Most of our students are from Asian countries, but we also have students from the Middle East, and our local Canadian students as well. The families that we work with are typically sophisticated families, with high aspirations to gain admission to the top schools.

Are there three questions that you usually ask in your first meeting with a student?

“What are your goals and why” would be the first one. And this would obviously be at a meeting with the parent and the student. For younger students, this would be a question we would ask the parents.

“What interests do you have outside of school” is a question that I would ask students, because it really gives me some insight into what their entire profile is going to be as it relates to private school admissions.

And then I would typically ask the parents about what type of teaching approaches the student has responded to (positively or negatively) in the past. We do an assessment on the student as well, but the more initial information that we have on the student, the faster and better the results.

Can you share some reasons why your families are drawn towards private rather than public schools?

That’s an excellent question. You know, I tell every student and every parent that comes to us that you do not need to go to a private school to be successful. And even though a lot of people in my organization have gone to private school, it’s certainly not a prerequisite to be successful in life. In fact, one of the reasons I started this company was that there are people who I went to school with, and I received a very privileged education, who haven’t really done too much with it. Whereas in my previous career I worked in the finance industry, and we built a company that we eventually sold to some of the largest banks in Canada; my business partners there were all public school kids. And so part of the reason I started this was to help families see — beyond just the school — what really determines success. And we really see that in our “Six C’s”: creativity, curiosity, character, confidence, critical thinking, and collaboration. So, as I tell parents, you don’t need to go to a private school to be successful.

That being said, there are some benefits to the private school system that may benefit certain students. What you see in a public school here in Canada is just a much larger array of different types of students, from students with learning challenges and learning differences, to students who are ESL. And then beyond specific needs, you see the entire spectrum of underachieving to overachieving students. So in terms of the curriculum that a public school has to run, they’re not necessarily going to be catering to the high-achieving students. What you see in a private school is just a more homogenous environment, where the students are generally given a more advanced curriculum. Additionally, if your child needs more support, a private school environment can be beneficial.

You work with a variety of ages. What’s your perspective on parental involvement? Are there times when parents should step back?

We strive to help our students become independent, active learners on their own. And sometimes, there are different pathways to achieve that result. What we see is that some students need more support, especially in the beginning, to gain the confidence to become independent thinkers. And sometimes that’s something where parents need to be a little bit more involved in the process.

In terms of the way that parents should be involved, I think that they should be encouraging their children, and I think that they should be praising effort, not just the result. Talented students, especially in the younger grades, can sometimes get results without doing very much work. But that kind of comes back to bite them later on, because they develop the habit of leaving everything to the last second and not planning things out. So sometimes these students won’t have as much long-term success as their classmates who really put in the time and the effort, even though they are very talented. We want to set our younger students up for a lifetime of success. And regardless of how smart you are in whatever career you choose, there’s no substitute for effort. You might be able to hide that in school, but you can’t really hide that in your career.

So we encourage parents to avoid doing the work for their kids, to avoid being overbearing with their kids, and to avoid being overly critical with their kids. We encourage parents to really ask the probing questions, and to ask them in such a way that students will come up with their own answers. And that will help develop the confidence for their students to eventually become independent learners.

When students of any age are looking at admissions, there are often standardized tests involved — along with many other factors. What is your perspective on test prep, and how can students balance the tests with their other priorities?

Looking at Canada versus the United States for SSAT and ISEE, test prep is much more important in the US. In the US, SSAT and ISEE are more like the SAT for universities, where you need to be within a certain band to be considered for a school. Whereas in Canada, we’re using the SSAT as more of a guideline, and admissions really depend on the other factors such as your academic grades. So that’s one component of it.

The other component is the information that the school has in terms of the relative importance of the SSAT — in Canada especially. If you’re a student coming from China, and, you know, some of the transcripts in China can be what admissions officers call “decorated transcripts,” where the reliability isn’t quite there, then you’re going to need to depend more on the on the SSAT or ISEE test score.

So my perspective on test prep is, though I know that some schools discourage it — especially for the younger students, because they don’t want to stress the kids out, which totally makes sense — that in my experience the highest correlation between success on these exams is really the child’s familiarity with the examination itself in terms of test structure, different types of questions, and the different test sections. You know I just came back from China, and you see these test prep programs like, “21 days you’re going to ace your SSAT.” I think we both know that’s not really going to work. For our students who had a lot of success this year on the SSAT, the difference was really not just frequency of practicing and studying, but that they spent time on the examination over an extended period. As you know, students who work on the exam for six to eight months tend to have a much better result than kids who have a cram session for one month.

So, while it’s unfortunate that we have to put our kids through this, if you want a result on the test prep component, definitely think about the timing.

When it comes to required application writing prompts or essays, how much help should students be getting?

If we’re talking US universities, obviously essays are hugely important. But even with “student statements” as they’re called on applications for private schools, which might be written or even videos, we never, ever write any type of statement for a student. We see our role as teaching the student, and providing context for the question, so that the school can really understand where the student is coming from. I think that the older the grade, the more important these become, and that the schools can tell if a parent or tutor has written the statement. To me, that’s worse than a statement that is imperfect but authentic to the student.

The students still have a lifetime of learning ahead of them, so this process should really be treated as another opportunity to learn how to write a quality statement.

Is there a common misstep that you see students and parents making when it comes to private school admissions?

Yes; being far too brand name driven. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. Parents will sometimes say, “we’ve never been on campus, but we hear the school is great, so we want it.” But you really need to go visit the schools, you need to talk to the administrators, you need to walk through the classrooms, you need to see the students, in order to understand whether or not this is the right fit for your child. So parents focusing on brand name rather than fit is one of the biggest mistakes I see.

Since you work with a variety of ages, would you say that you have a standard process for working with students? Or does it vary based on the student?

We do have students who are trying to get into all different grades, starting with junior-kindergarten. Generally, no matter the grade, the earlier they come to us the better.

The process that we typically employ with our families is that we meet with the parents first, and give them an overall view of the timeline they should expect. And then we have an assessment with the student, to understand how close they are to achieving their goals and the goals of the whole family.

Next, we map out a realistic path for achieving those goals. It is really a customized process for each student; it depends on where they are currently, it depends on what their parents are hoping for on their behalf, and it depends on the individual student’s personality and interests.

My last question is, what is your top piece of advice for students who are applying to selective schools?

Ultimately, it’s just about standing out and being authentic. If a student wants to take risks and do things that not everyone else is doing, I would encourage parents to support that. Ultimately, it also helps with the admissions process. For example, we have a student who got into St. George’s for grade 8. He didn’t have the best grades or SSAT scores out of any applicant, but he was really into yo-yo tricks. He ended up doing yo-yo tricks in his interview! That was a particularly competitive year, and he got in; I guarantee he got in over a bunch of students with higher test scores and higher academics. Ultimately, it was his uniqueness that really gave him the opportunity to be on a successful path.

So that’s what I would say: There are a lot of kids applying to these schools, so you need to find something that’s unique about you and shows admissions officers that you have a special spark.

Another thing I would add for anybody who is looking at this process, is that you need to examine your reasons for doing it. I don’t think that parents should be pushing their kids to do anything that isn’t something they really want to do. So, I’d tell parents to set the right expectations, be supportive, and just know that it’s not the end of the world if a child doesn’t get in to a certain school. Everything does happen for a reason.


Are you interested in working with Ben Batt at KEY Education? Contact KEY on their website.

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