Admissions: The Real Deal On First Choice Letters

Whether or not to write a first choice letter to a school that you’ve deemed your top pick (whether sincerely or not) is one of the biggest debates on the private school admissions scene. On one hand: A sincere expression that a school really is your first choice seems like it couldn’t hurt your chances nor could it harm the integrity of the process. On the other hand, many schools have policies against asking for them and make a point to not consider them when making admissions choices. The definitive answer is different depending on the school—so do be sure to ask if it’s a question of interest. To help break down the factors on both sides, we turned to admissions directors at nursery schools and private on-going schools, as well as local education consultants to get their take on the questions parents should be asking themselves throughout the process.

Are they worth the stress?

“Writing a first choice letter can cause a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety for a family, and, honestly, many families feel pressured to send such a letter to multiple schools. I do encourage families to express their genuine interest, however, in a letter or email. Including specific anecdotes about your experience with the school or staff indicates to the admissions director that a parent did not simply copy and paste a generic letter of interest and send it to several schools. Include reference to why this school is a great fit for your child and your family. What about your interactions with the school community made it a top choice for you?” –Elizabeth Carey, Director of Admissions, Grades 7-12, Dwight School

Are you certain that a school is really your first choice?

“Parents should carefully read school websites (including FAQs) to see if first choice letters are accepted. If they are, parents should decide if they have a first choice school, and if so, if their encounters so far have gone smoothly and their nursery school director felt that school was a viable option. If parents write first choice letters, then they ethically have to be prepared to go.” –Robin Aronow, Founder, School Search NYC

Have you considered the ISAAGNY guidelines?

“The Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) prevents admissions directors from asking a family if their school is their first choice school. However, ISAAGNY cannot prevent families from sharing their feelings with a school. If parents are 100 percent certain that a particular school is their top choice and they can say with complete confidence that they would immediately accept a place, it makes sense to write and let the school know their feelings. Throughout the admissions process, schools are looking to identify families who are in agreement with their mission and it is certainly helpful for the admissions committee to know the interest level of a family.” –Erica Papir, Educational Consultant, Smart City Kids

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Are you engaging with the school outside of just writing a letter?

“First choice letters give helpful information to a school about your seriousness in attending. From the school’s side, it is useful to know, in a more objective way than conversationally, a family’s level of commitment. In the letter itself, you can keep it simple. The main thing you’re doing is formally indicating your level of interest and commitment. Outside of the letter, it’s important to be connected—the letter shouldn’t come out of the blue; the staff should know through your interactions with them that you’re very excited and why.” –Matt Bateman, Director of Research, Polis Montessori World School

Does the school offer an Early Notification Process?

“It’s always nice to hear from families that we are their first choice. However, for equity, these letters are not included in the applicant file. If a family feels strongly that Léman is their first choice, they may apply through our Early Notification Process.” –Paige Murphy, Head of Admissions and Communications, Léman Manhattan Preparatory School

Are you taking care to use the words “first choice” with only one school?

“It is hard to determine just what to do, and there is a feeling that people will write such letters to many schools at the same time. On the other hand, a letter sometimes indicates a sincere desire.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with first choice letters, most admissions officers can get a sense of how interested a family is in other ways.” –M.P. Harrington, Headmaster, Saint Albans School