Skip to main content

Boarding School Admissions (Podcast)

Gino Riffle, Director of Admissions at Northwood School in Lake Placid, New York, talks with John Maher about boarding school admissions. They discuss what sets boarding school apart from public and private day schools, and Riffle explains how boarding school prepares students for success in college and beyond. He goes over the admissions process and describes new students' first reactions to Northwood School.

Listen to the Audio Interview Here

John Maher: Hey, I'm John Maher. I'm here today with Gino Riffle, the new Director of Admissions at Northwood School in Lake Placid, New York. Today we're talking about boarding school admissions. Welcome, Gino.

Gino Riffle: Hi John, how are you today?

Boarding School Vs. Public or Private Day Schools

John: Good, thanks. So Gino, what does a boarding school offer to students that maybe they can't get at a public school or even a private day school?

Gino: I think the number one thing that a boarding school offers students is the sense of independence. The smallest things of getting up on their own in the morning, taking care of their own meals in terms of picking what they need to eat to properly fuel themselves for the day when they're in the dining hall, to getting into class on time, to doing their own laundry.

And to be able to understand that they're going to be living in a residential setting, where students come from 25 different countries, 28 different states; their roommate could be from a completely different country or part of the United States. They learn how to be able to adapt and work together with a group of people that have similar interests, but then also others that don't have similar interests that might live in the same hall as you.

That really sets you up for that next step which would be college, where most students get that opportunity to learn those sense of independence and residential living when they're 18, 19 years old, when they step onto a college campus. But in a boarding school setting, you get introduced to that at a younger age with a layer of support that's not there at the college level.

And what I mean by that is having a group of faculty and staff that live on campus with you that are part of your daily life, who you see eating breakfast, or you may even eat breakfast with, and then you're taught by, and then you might be coached by in the afternoon. And then that person also might be your advisor who's your first connection to your home and your parents.

So, you're going through that whole new set of personal responsibility at a young age of independence and understanding how to live with others, but with a really strong support staff behind you that you don't get when you leave campus at 3:00, 3:30 in the afternoon and go home to your parents.

Co-curriculars at Boarding School

John: Northwood School is known for having a really good athletic program and especially your ski team and your hockey team, but not every student is involved in those activities or other activities like dance, or art or things like that. Do students really need to have some sort of focus like that, like a sport or another activity in order to get the most out of a boarding school?

Gino: Yeah. I think the one thing that we do at Northwood and most boarding schools do as well is they have a co-curricular offering. What I mean by co-curricular is that every afternoon once classes are done, whether it be the fall, winter or spring, every student needs to participate in a co-curricular offering.

And for Northwood, our co-curricular offerings are the ones you mentioned, hockey, skiing, soccer, your more interscholastic programs. But what we also offer is we offer opportunities to take advantage of our surroundings in the Adirondack Park area. We partnered with The Dance Sanctuary in Saranac Lake this past year to create a dance program where we had about 13 or 14 of our students participate in that on a daily basis.

We've had a relationship over the past few years with the Lake Placid Art Center where our drama productions now take place. And we also have started reinventing our outdoor program with the hiring of Bobby O'Connor for next year, where our outdoor program will be able to take more advantage of the surrounding areas, whether it be rock climbing, ice climbing, whitewater rafting, life skills and leadership skills through the outdoors programs, overnight trips, camping trips, those type of things.

But there's options out there for every student that we have and those students that might not be interested in soccer, hockey, and skiing, we have a variety of options that they can participate in. It's just a matter of personal choice, what they want to take.

Guiding Students to Their Passions

John: How do you guide those students who might not have an obvious interest like soccer or skiing or something like that? How do you help them to sort of figure out what the things are that they're passionate about?

Gino: Sure. And I think that's part of our job is to try and engineer a passion in our students that might not have one at the time that they arrive at Northwood. So opposite of hockey, skiing and soccer, the other programs we offer, I mentioned dance, I mentioned drama, and I mentioned our outdoor program.

We also have community service programs in the spring. We have lacrosse, tennis and golf. We have a whitewater activity. We have an opportunity to get on Mirror Lake and do all kinds of different water sports. In the fall, again, we have rock climbing, but we also have a crew program and we have a drama program that goes in the fall and winter. We give our students the opportunity to choose what they want to do, but we also give them a lot of different options so that they can kind of create their own path.

For example, if a student does not have a passion for hockey, they can choose two co-curricular activities in the fall. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, they would do one and on Tuesday, Thursday, they would do another. So, they'd get to experience more than just one thing in the afternoons at Northwood that are run by different people. They get to create relationships with adults in a way that is outside the classroom. It's not just their teacher, it's not just their advisor. But we do have for a very small school, a lot of opportunities and options for kids who get to try things out that they might have never done before, or that might not be a norm for them on a regular basis.

And just for example, this past year we had a couple of kids who showed up and wanted a mountain bike in the fall in our mountain biking program and they didn't have mountain bikes, but the faculty member that ran it went to the local bike shop, worked out a deal where they could rent bikes. And next thing you know, come the spring time they had bought their own bikes, and we couldn't get them off the bike trips.

So something that they had never tried before, but something that's unique to Northwood in the sense of everything that we have around us, they took advantage of it. And it probably now found a lifelong activity that they can do well into their 50s, 60s even.

Balancing Academics and Athletics at Boarding School

John: Right. Absolutely. For those students who are athletes, how do they balance academics and athletics at a boarding school like Northwood?

Gino: Sure. The thing that is great about Northwood is that many of our coaches also teach. So they understand that there is a balance and they understand that if a kid comes up to them and says, "Hey, Coach Cassidy, I really need to meet with Mr. Roy to talk about physics. I know we have practice, but it's the only time that we can meet. Any chance that I can meet with him? And then Mr. Roy will drive me over to the rink for practice." And I've never heard Coach Cassidy say no to that once or any of our coaches.

So our coaches are part of the academic experience. They all teach something as well. So they understand the importance of that. And most of them were student athletes in college too. So they understand that it's not an easy balance and that you have to take care of your academics first or else the athletics don't get where they want to be.

Our students balance it through long days through a lot of hard work, through a lot of structure that they create for themselves. But at the same time, they have a faculty that stands behind them and that is there to support them whenever they do need something. If they help at 9:30 at night because that's the only time that they could connect with a teacher, that teacher will meet with them at 9:30 at night. It doesn't happen at day schools, it doesn't happen at a public school in that sense, but it's just the ability of the faculty not only to, or I shouldn't say the willingness of the faculty to be there for the students whenever they're needed.

How Boarding School Prepares Students for Success

John: And how does that boarding school help to set up a student for both college and what comes after college?

Gino: Sure. I think that the beginning piece of it is just the initial move-in day. There's a lot of trepidation, there's homesickness, there's just the fear of the unknown. And because of that, a student figures those things out at an early age so that when they do go on to the next step of college, they've already done that either one year, two years, three years or four years, depending upon how long they've been at Northwood. So that's old hat to them.

I think the other thing too is that we create a day that is pretty structured for our kids. Our kids understand that no matter what their day is like, once they get to college, they have to figure out a time to study.

And the one biggest thing I hear from our graduates is how many of them use the 7:30 to 9:30 PM time at night to study once they leave Northwood, because that is the study hall time at Northwood. For some reason, something goes off and it just clicks that, "All right, it's 7:30, I got to get to the library, or sit at my desk or go to my study group."

But it's something that's just kind of ingrained in them because of what they experienced at Northwood. The structure that we provide allows students to understand the importance of being able to succeed academically, succeed athletically and succeed in your social life. It does take planning and we sort of give them a roadmap for that.

What to Expect With Boarding School Admissions

John: You were just recently named the new director of admissions for Northwood School. Can you talk a little bit about the boarding school admissions process at Northwood and what prospective new parents and students can expect?

Gino: Sure. We typically will engage in families through a couple of different ways. Either families will come to us through an inquiry form that we have online, or one of our coaches will introduce a family to Northwood. But the first step is getting into our system and getting the inquiry form filled out. Once that form is filled out, then the admission staff will communicate with the family on the next steps.

And the next steps include filling out the application, getting teacher recommendations and transcripts from their current school and current teachers. And then also setting up an interview, which in non COVID times occurs on campus. The nice thing about Northwood is that for our athletes that are interested, they can come and practice with our teams, whether it's a skier, or a soccer player, or a hockey player. As part of their tour, they can come and, say, skate with us.

And then they'll take a tour of the school with their family. And then they'll do an interview process with one of our admissions officers. From inquiry through the full application process, that can take anywhere from four days to two months. It just matters on how the family proceeds. But throughout the entire process, our coaches and our admissions offices are in touch with the family answering questions, helping guide them to get the application.

That application due date is around January 15th for us. And then in February we meet as an admissions office and we discuss each individual candidate and then we send our decisions out in the beginning of March with a beginning of April deadline for families to either tell us they're coming or tell us that they've decided as a family to make another decision. The whole process can take from September till March for some families. Some families get involved later in the process.

And then once that first round of admissions decisions are made, we become rolling admissions where students can still apply if we have beds available or spots available and go through the process later on in the year. And we see that typically at Northwood where a number of our students do start the process late for many different reasons. And we walk them through that same sort of process, maybe in a quicker manner, just because there's less on our plate because it's more of a first-come first-served type of situation when you get past that April deadline.

Student's First Impressions of Northwood

John: What are some of the first initial reactions that you get from students, maybe when they come to Northwood for the first time and they visit the campus and they see your location, where it is and what the school looks like. What are some of the reactions that you get?

Gino: I think for the people that have not been to Lake Placid before, the drive in is what they talk about as soon as they step out of the car. Whether it be driving in from the Wilmington area or Wilmington direction and you're passing Whiteface and driving through the notch or coming in from the Keene Valley direction, which means you're passing through the ski jump and the Horse Show Grounds, and you really drive through the middle of town. That's the first reaction, just the beauty of the surrounding areas that we have.

And then what people notice right away too, once they get on campus is just how small and intimate it is. When they're going on a tour with a student or with a faculty member and that student or faculty member knows every kid's name when they pass them in the hall or every teacher when they pass them in the hall, it's just that intimate setting that is created by being a smaller boarding school.

When you're 185 kids and 50 staff, you get to know each other really quickly. But our visitors see that within the first 10 minutes that they're there. And then I think the other thing that our visitors talk about is the friendliness of everybody that they meet. The pleases, the thank you’s, the hi's, the how are you's. It's pretty impressive. And that's our kids too that do a great job of being ambassadors of our school on a daily basis.

John: All right. Well, that's really great information, Gina. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Gino: John, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Contact Northwood School for More Information

John: And for more information about Northwood School, visit the website at