By Eric Messinger
As the editor of New York Family, I field a lot of questions about local school admissions. To keep my job, I put in a lot of time to gather good answers. What follows are questions that, for the purposes of this article, are editorialized to reflect areas of deep concern or confusion to parents. To clarify, this isn’t going to be a step-by-step guide. We have those online, at www.newyorkfamily.com, if you need them. Instead, I’m going to focus on some of the hot-button topics. This month I’ll cover private school and nursery school admissions. Next month, I’ll turn to public, charter, and parochial schools.
How many schools should a family apply to?
The short answer is 6-8. The long answer is 6-8, too, if you’ve really done your homework and are not just applying to the most competitive schools. Don’t do that. You want to apply to schools that you’re really jazzed about being a part of, not just for your child but also as a parent. The schools will read you as well as your child. They’ll assess whether they think your family will be a good fit at the school. That’s why you want to truly focus on schools that you really would like to be a part of.
If you don’t already know, how can you learn which schools are the most sought after?
Even though you’re only applying to Kindergarten, the most competitive schools to get into are typically the ones with a really good record for college admissions and very strong academics. Schools like Trinity, Dalton, and Horace Mann, for example.
When do the applications need to be submitted?
I don’t want to freak you out, but the right answer for a popular school is September, or as close to September as possible. The reason is that many popular schools will just stop accepting applications after they receive a certain number—a number which they know from experience can lead to a full class. Beyond that, they don’t really have the capacity to process all of the applications they receive. I remember betting shut out of applying my son to an all-boys private school because I hadn’t gotten the application in on time and it was only mid-October.
Can having a lot of money help?
Yes, but unless you have a lot of money, why worry about it? As it was explained to me, at each school a small percentage of the total number of families donate a good deal of the school’s fundraising monies. And, yes, if you have that kind of money, chances are your child will be a very appealing candidate to almost any school. It’s the same at the college level, so why be surprised that it happens at lower levels?
What about connections?
You might say there are good connections and bad connections, and it’s worth discussing the difference. A good connection would be someone presently affiliated with the school (like an active parent or board member) who knows you (and ideally your child), and would be happy to send in a note on your behalf. But be real here: Is this person someone you like and have respect for? If not, other people might not like them either. A bad connection, believe it or not, would be someone who is famous but isn’t really affiliated with the school and doesn’t really know your child. Like a recommendation from the President of the United States, for example. Sounds impressive, but it’ll mark you as pretentious.
Are any schools “safe” schools?
Well, the safest private schools are ones that are new and have a lot of spots to fill. This doesn’t mean that they are bad schools; it might just mean that, because they are less proven, there are fewer families who are willing to take a chance on them. But you might think they’re great and worth taking a chance on. I should also note that just because an established school might have a reputation for being one of the lesser competitive private schools when it comes to college admissions, that doesn’t make it a “safe” school. It may still attract many more applications than it has seats to fill.
How does one research private schools to determine whether a school might be a good fit for your child and family?
For starters, when you’re still doing research to determine which schools to request applications from, you can look to school websites, Victoria Goldman’s Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools (she has another guide for nursery schools), the Parents League, (which offers some admissions counseling as well public seminars and school fairs), and trusted friends and acquaintances who have children at schools you might be interested in. If you have a child at a private nursery school in the city, then chances are that the school offers dedicated ex-missions support, provided either by the head of the nursery school or another school official. Usually, this is a fortunate thing. The nursery school official will not only help you hone a list of schools to apply to, they’ll ultimately act as a kind of intermediary between families and on-going school applications, helping to insure that the best matches take place. Now, if for any reason you don’t feel like you’re on the same page as the person at the nursery school who is representing you, that’s a tricky situation. You may be justified in thinking that the school doesn’t really get your child; or in fact, they may be giving you good advice but you’re not ready to hear it. In situations like that, it’s probably wise to turn to a private admissions consultant for additional guidance.
What’s the most influential part of the admissions process? The student interview, the parent interview, the applications, or something else?
The thing with private school admissions, unlike public school admissions or even nursery school admissions, is that it’s a really involved process. It entails a number of visits to each school, because in addition to the school tour and the interview, some schools will host special nights to highlight specific virtues—one occasion I remember, for example, was a parents’ panel to discuss a school’s commitment to diversity. And here’s the thing: It’s all evidence gathering for the schools. They’re trying to figure out whether your child and your family would indeed be a good fit for their school community—and they put a lot of time into this because these are long and expensive relationships. They want them to be good relationships. That said, obviously, the interviews are of primary importance. Children should not be overly prepped for them, but you may want to include some encouragement about being polite and enjoying yourself. Parents should come prepared and be on good behavior. Come with a few of your favorite anecdotes to share about your child; better to share those than just generalizations about their intelligence or charm. If you’re part of a couple, make sure both parents take turns sharing.
How does the demise of the ERB change things?
The ERB was shorthand for the IQ test that private schools used for many years to get more evidence of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s been dropped because so many parents started hiring private tutors to prep their kids that it no longer seemed like a reliably objective measure, and its use became a source of much anxiety among parents who didn’t know whether to play by the rules or not. In its place, a few schools are adopting another IQ test, but most schools are formulating their own tests. “Test” is a funny word though, because the assessment often will amount to a series of activities that most children will recognize as fun, such as telling a story about a picture they are shown. Should you provide your 4-year-old with formal prepping in the hope of preparing them for the kinds of activities they may encounter? This doesn’t seem like a necessity to me. I always liked that idea the young children who grow up being read to and exposed to all sorts of play and amusements are probably as ready as they should or can be.
In the end, should you send a first-choice letter?
It’s recommended that schools not require them of parents. Still, it’s a good idea for a family to give a very strong indication of their interest to the schools they are most interested in. That message may be conveyed by your emissary from your nursery school, but if that option is not available to you, you may need to convey it yourself.
Ultimately, how should you decide which school is your favorite?
You’ll probably start the admissions process with certain ideas about what kind of school you’re looking for and the factors that are most important to you. Then you’re going to see a bunch of schools and hear from other sources, and your priorities may change—or not. But if you do the work, by the end of the process you will almost certainly have a gut feel for which schools, all in, are on the top of your list.
Do all these questions about private school admissions apply to nursery school admissions?
Yes, for the most part. But let’s also be real: If you’re applying for a nursery school spot for when your child is 2, that means he or she is only a 1-year-old at the time that you’re submitting the application and going on nursery school interviews. Usually there’s a parent interview, which may be conducted as part of a group, and a play session in which the child is observed by the school’s teachers. Try not to stress out too much about any of this; the schools don’t expect 1-year-olds to act anything other than the way 1-year-olds act.
Is nursery school worth the money? Is private school worth the money?
Only you can decide that for yourself, of course. But I can share my sense of what’s valuable about these experiences. Chances are, a nursery school will provide your child with his or her first regular group of friends and will help him socialize with others and discover lots of fun interests. For these ages, play is learning and learning is play, and most nursery schools work their fun magic in ways that also make sure that their children have an age-appropriate familiarity with letters and books, and numbers and patterns, readying them for kindergarten. For many new parents especially, a nursery school also provides their first community of parent friends—which can be quite wonderful. With their community of trained and nurturing educators, I’d also say that nursery schools are often a kind of early-alert system for picking up on your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and the presence of any special needs that may not be as apparent to you. As for private school, since I can’t speak from experience, I would share that most parents I know with children in private school are very pleased with their education; I myself have children in public school, one in a good neighborhood school and one in an elite G&T school. My sense is that private schools, with their smaller classes and student-teacher ratios, are more likely to not only understand the nuances of a child as a learner, but also be able to nurture that child in a more dedicated fashion. Then again, I will tell you that my children have literally always had teachers who got them, who cared about them, and who did a good job of moving them in the right direction—and so far, I feel very good about their experience with public education in the city. With one big caveat: There really is too much class time spent on prep for standardized tests. That needs to be adjusted in a big way.