5 Tips for Getting Into NYC’s Public High Schools

Even New York City parents who’ve survived pre-K, kindergarten, and middle school admissions are shocked by how much more difficult the high school application process is. That’s because NYC has only a handful of public zoned high-schools, and while several more offer District or Borough Priority, the majority of public high schools  are citywide, meaning anyone can apply, which ups the competition factor considerably.

Then there is the fact that there are many different types of public high schools:

  • Specialized: require the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) for admission
  • Screened: consider grades, state test scores, attendance, interviews, and other factors
  • Unscreened: students assigned by lottery, based on where you ranked them
  • Limited unscreened: take expressed interest–such as attending an open house–into account
  • Audition/arts (only one of which is specialized): factor in student performance in drama, music, art, dance, etc.
  • Educational option: accept set percentages of low, medium, and high-performing students
  • Career and technical education schools: offer vocational training alongside academics

And that’s not even counting charter schools, private independent schools, and parochial schools (plus don’t forget Hunter College High-School, which doesn’t even start in the 9th grade, but the 7th).

Families would be forgiven for feeling utterly overwhelmed, especially since so much needs to be done in so little time. For 2017 admission, public school application forms are due on December 1, 2016. The Specialized High-School Admissions Test (SHSAT) is even earlier, on October 22 and 23.

These five tips won’t make the process easy–nothing can do that–but they will make it easier.


Start the NYC High School Admissions Process Early

It may seem like there is nothing to do for high-school admissions until fall of your 8thgrade year, but that’s absolutely not the case. Many schools offer spring tours, and the more schools you visit in the spring, the fewer schools you’ll need to visit in the fall, when you are also preparing for tests, writing essays, and going on interviews. Some schools make attending an open house (and writing your name–legibly) a prerequisite for admission. Registration for the more popular schools’ open houses fills up within hours. Schools frequently post the day they’ll start accepting registration on their websites during the summer, so skip surfing the waves and surf the web, instead.


Think Different

Going into the process, parents and teens have a pretty good idea of what sort of learning environment–traditional or progressive, big or small, teacher or student directed–they think they want. Nevertheless, try to visit at least one school that’s the opposite of what you’ve got your heart set on, too. Some parents who were certain they didn’t want a single-sex school were stunned when they saw the benefits it offered both girls and boys. Kids nervous about a rumored academic pressure-cooker instead found it stimulating and surprisingly supportive.

Don’t let reputation–or gossip–form your opinion of a school. Always go and see for yourself. If nothing else, it will let you cross off your list a school where you otherwise would have wasted time applying, only to learn after the fact that you don’t really want to go there.


Do Your Own Research Into NYC High Schools

In a perfect world, the NYC Department of Education would not release a high school directory with errors or arbitrarily change their own due dates while you are in the middle of the process. In an equally perfect world, your 8th-grade guidance counselor would keep you appraised of every upcoming deadline, check in to see how your child is doing with her application, call high-schools to make sure your materials arrived safely (and talk up your candidate while they’re at it).

However, we do not live in a perfect world. That is why, ultimately, it’s up to you to double-check every fact that’s in the high school directory, keep an eye on deadlines, and follow up with the schools to confirm they have everything they need from you.

It’s your guidance counselor’s job to make sure every 8th grader ends up placed in a high-school. It’s your job to make sure your child ends up placed in the high-school that’s right for him.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Despite the DOE urging students to “Keep up with schoolwork. It is the best possible preparation (for the SHSAT),” the truth is that standard NYC middle-school curriculum is not synched with what is on the SHSAT. Neither are the state tests. Even if your child aced her 7th grade ELA and Math exams (which will be important for screened schools), and even if he is currently getting straight As in every subject, odds are, she will still need to do some sort of prep, if only to become familiar with the SHSAT’s unique format.

You can get ready by using prep books, or you can take a prep course for a few weeks, a few months, or for up to a year before the exam. 


Apply Realistically to NYC High Schools

You have 12 slots to fill on your public school application. (That’s not counting the SHSAT schools you ranked on a separate application, LaGuardia’s audition process, charter schools, private, or parochial schools). Use them all. In 2016, 97 percent of students who listed all 12 options got into one of the schools on their list. 86 percent got into one of their top five choices. And getting into your last-choice school–assuming you visited and liked it well enough to list it–still beats getting into no school at all and being sent to second round, where you again list your remaining choices and might still not get any of them. You would then be assigned to a school you didn’t rank at all.

Be realistic when you apply. If a school says it only wants “A” students (and has only accepted “A” students in previous years) and you are a ”B” student, sure, go ahead and list it–you never know what the application pool might be this year–but do not list exclusively “A” schools. Because if you don’t get into any of them and go on to second round, not only all the “A” schools, but also all the “B” schools might be filled, leaving you with fewer and less attractive options than if you had listed several “B” schools along with your “A” schools on the original application.

Good luck! 70,000+ families go through this process every year–and live to tell the tale.

RELATED: Our top tips on choosing a NYC private school.

How to Get into NYC High Schools 
See more in Alina Adams’ new book.