Application Advice from Wilberforce Admissions Director Christina Keddie
“Wilberforce provides a solid foundation of character-building and faith-building, as well as study skills and a joy of learning.”
—Christina Keddie, Admissions Director at The Wilberforce School
The Wilberforce School is a private, K-12 Christian school in Princeton Junction, NJ, which was founded in 2005. It prides itself on offering a classical education at an advanced pace, at least one grade level ahead. Its director of admissions is Christina Keddie, who kindly took time out of her schedule to share some inside tips on how to apply to, and be accepted by, a school like Wilberforce.
Wilberforce’s foundation and mission
William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was a British proletarian and key figure in the abolition of the slave trade. He was a dedicated Christian who felt compelled by his faith to change the culture around him.
As for the Wilberforce School today, “We’re not interested in being a bubble where we’re protecting our students from the world,” Keddie explained. “We are equipping them to be prepared academically and emotionally to change the world.”
A graduate from Wilberforce is someone who excels by the standards of the world and uses those skills to impact the world, Keddie said.
“We wanted to create an environment where students really grow in their faith as well as academically,” Keddie said.
Wilberforce’s learning model is interactive and discussion-based. All the teachers at Wilberforce affirm the Christian faith. Classes start with a morning prayer and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and throughout the day there are also Bible courses. The structure of this learning environment models a whole and healthy integration of faith and life, Keddie explained.
“We don’t want our students to think of Christianity as just Sunday morning,” she said. “Faith can, and should, be integrated into everything.”
Students are not “tracked” into different academic paths, which may happen at other schools for maths and sciences. All students take one semester of geometry and pre-calculus, then two years of calculus and physics. This is accelerated relative to public school curriculums around the Princeton area.
Small class sizes & Mentorship
In addition to a rigorous accelerated curriculum, students are encouraged to be leaders and be engaged.
The school is able to provide support to those who need it, and the teachers take seriously their role as mentors, Keddie said. Because of the small class sizes, the teachers know their students well. Ultimately, all students are capable of achieving and reaching these high academic bars.
This works out well in college applications, Keddie explained, since teachers are able to write long, personal reference letters, which help students set themselves apart from other applicants.
“We are big on growth mindset,” Keddie said. Instead of saying “I’m not a math person,” they encourage students to say, “I’m not a math person, yet.” Students are continuously learning and growing.
Wilberforce’s learning environment
At Wilberforce, the learning environment is unique in that the faculty, parents, and students are committed to the integration of faith and learning. Wilberforce inspires students to hold on to the joy of discovery and curiosity about the world they might have once had as a toddler. The school fosters a community where students can learn, continue to love learning, and acquire habits and tools to enable them to challenge themselves and take ownership of their education.
At Wilberforce, we are inviting our students into a fully integrated life, Keddie explained.
Four years ago, the Upper School was opened. Like the Lower and Middle Schools, the Upper School continues to provide rigorous classical Christian education, Keddie said.
Wilberforce graduated its first class of seniors last spring. This inaugural class has gone on to strong STEM programs and rigorous college programs; ready, excited, engaged, and equipped to go out into the world, Keddie said.
The Wilberforce School curriculum is built off a network of schools called the Trinity Schools, a consortium of Christian schools across the U.S. which has been around for almost 40 years. The Trinity Schools have a proven track record of success, with many graduates accepted to top universities. Given this 40-year history of Trinity School graduates, Keddie is confident that Wilberforce students will continue to thrive and follow this acceptance record at similar institutions as well.
What are qualities that Wilberforce looks for in a student?
“We are looking for students who will be engaged, who have the potential to be really excited about what they’re learning, and who are ready to dive into a pretty accelerated curriculum and still thrive,” Keddie said.
The student interview for Upper School applicants consists of a classroom visit day, where the admissions committee will assess them in a classroom environment, how engaged students are, and how they interact with peers and teachers. In the interview, students will be asked their thoughts on what makes a good school, and about other things like their leadership experience.
For the Lower and Middle Schools, the focus will be on the parents. Some questions parents are asked deal with their philosophies on discipline, faith, and homework support. Wilberforce believes strongly in having a good partnership with parents, in order to solidify what they are doing at home.
“No school is neutral,” Keddie said. “Formation is happening no matter where you go.”
As for application advice, Keddie recommends that Upper School applicants come with a solid foundation in algebra. She also encourages students to be themselves in the application and at the interview.
“Come in to visit, come and see what the classes are like, come see what the culture is like,” Keddie said. “Decide if you’re excited by the idea of being in a small class and really getting to know your peers really well, being in an environment where you can grow and take ownership of what you’re doing.”
A common misconception about Wilberforce as a classical Christian school is that it is all about the rigor and everything is rote memorization. This is not true, Keddie said. “We want students who are engaged, gaining the skills to be lifelong learners,” she said. “In aiming to do this, we happen to also have students with good marks and scores.”
To that end, teachers will support and challenge students throughout their Upper School career.
“Wilberforce is a place where you can find out what you’re passionate about, and you’ll be in a community that supports you,” Keddie said.
Misconceptions about admissions in general
Sometimes, parents are too focused on what school will get their student into an Ivy League college, and only ask “return-on-my-investment” type questions, Keddie said.
She advises that parents and students should instead focus on questions like: Where will I thrive? What will be a good fit for me? Where will I learn how to learn?
“It’s so important in high school for students to get experience being engaged, thinking beyond the test grade and padding of resumes,” Keddie said, adding that there is value in seeing education as an intrinsic good instead of an instrumental one.
The application process
Wilberforce follows the timeline of the Princeton independent school cycle, with the admissions application deadline at the end of January. The first wave of decisions went out on Friday, March 9, 2018.
Although the school continues to accept applications on a rolling basis until classes are full, and still accepts applications through the summer, there are higher chances if you apply early, Keddie advised.
Part of the application asks students what they do in their free time and what they value. This is a useful exercise for students to understand how to present themselves and figure out what really is important to them, Keddie explained. She advises prospective students and their families to take this portion seriously and really think through how to best answer the questions to give the admissions committee “a good understanding of who you are and what makes you tick.”
In addition to the online application, the student must take the Wilberforce Upper School entrance exam. If the student has taken the SSAT, the student will still need to take this in-house assessment.
Can non-Christians apply to the Upper School?
The Upper School is certainly open to non-Christians, Keddie said, but the school is still a very Christian environment, implicitly in the culture, and with theology classes built into the day.
“By the time you’re in high school we want the student to be exploring those questions for themselves and deciding for themselves,” Keddie said.
Nevertheless, parents should understand that this will be the environment of the school, and Keddie encourages families to visit and see this culture, and read the Statement of Faith.
International students at Wilberforce
International students are welcome to apply to the Upper School, which distinguishes Wilberforce from other schools in the area. The goal of this program is to bring students from other cultures, and to serve as a stepping stone for students from other countries to improve their English and go to college in the U.S., Keddie said.
Since this is meant to be an immersive program, there is no separate track for the international students, and they are joined in the courses with all the other students. ESL and one-on-one tutoring is available.
Wilberforce is an I20 visa-issuing institution, and will help the students find host families during their studies here.
Wilberforce has accepted students from China, Taiwan, Korea, and Chile, and currently there are three international students at the Upper School.
“We want international students to be fully integrated and involved with sports and classroom discussions,” Keddie said. She noted that they have seen that this type of integration really helps the students grow and improve their English, compared to other school systems that might have a whole class of just students from China.
In an effort to commit to a fully immersive experience, there is a cap of two students per language group per grade.
With the small classroom sizes, teachers will get to know the students very well, and Keddie emphasizes the importance of having many mentors to ease the students’ transition.
Is there anything not conveyed on the website that parents should know about?
“Nothing replaces actually coming to see it for yourself,” Keddie said. During a visit, families will get to tour the facilities and sit in on classes in session.
Like What You Read? Learn About the Other Private Schools in the Princeton Area
Check out the other posts in this series:
- In-depth school profile: The Lawrenceville School
- In-depth school profile: The Hun School
- In-depth school profile: The Peddie School
- In-depth school profile: The Pennington School
- In-depth school profile: The Stuart Country Day School
You may also be interested in a related series about student perspectives: