The Most Important Things To Know: Independent School Admissions In New York City

Wherever you think you are on the spectrum of unfamiliar to familiar, I would encourage parents interested in sending their child to an independent school in NYC to think of themselves as starting from scratch, ready to listen, learn, and adapt. As the editor of New York Family for about a dozen years, I’ve had countless conversations with school admissions directors and admissions consultants, and have moderated many admissions panels. This article is a distillation of what I’ve learned, an overview of the most important steps and best practices in the admissions process, with a focus on the entrance into the lower grades, meaning Kindergarten or thereabouts. For this piece, I want to give a special shout to two outstanding consultants, Roxana Reid of Smart City Kids, and Robin Aronow of School Search NYC.

Though some independent schools have preschools (i.e. nursery schools), the admission process at that level is a bit different, and you’ll find a number of helpful articles on our website on that set-up. Applying to independent schools for the upper grades (middle school or high school) has important similarities to admissions for the lower grades, but added factors as well (namely serious tests). So the general guidelines in this article holds for the older grades, but look to our website in the early fall for more detailed articles on admissions for the upper grades.


Most schools follow the same chronology, welcoming applications in early fall for admission the following fall, or about a year later, and interested parents often start educating themselves in the winter or spring prior to applying. Families who are new to the city really can jump in at almost any point in the process and end up with a good scholastic match for their child, especially at promising newer schools.

In the course of applying, the key points of interaction are the application itself, a school tour, a parent interview, a session at the school with the child, typically in a playgroup without parental involvement, and a special event at the school for prospective parents like a seminar on diversity or STEM or some other hot topic. That’s a lot of time and effort, so plan for a busy fall and early winter. A number of schools now offer tours in the spring prior to formally applying. This could be a great way of lightening your load for the fall, and honing the list of schools you’re really interested in. Almost every school has applications online, some now as early as mid-August. No school is expecting the applications back then, but if parents have more time in August than September, it may behoove them to at least start those applications over the summer. The good general rule to go by is to get the application back to the schools as soon as possible to ensure a child visit, because some schools end up capping the number of families they can accommodate in the touring and interview process early in the fall, even if their website says that they’ll accept applications through December (read that sentence again; it happens). That said, for some children, especially with those making large development gains, being seen in December (as opposed to October) will be of benefit and so these families may want to hold off on at least some of their applications (at least to those schools not known to close admission processes early) to help ensure a later child visit date.

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Every school has a website with the official information on most of the things parents care about, including educational approach, school values, classes, extracurricular offerings, facilities, history, admissions, and costs. You can also find helpful information at the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York, and you can also get some guidance from the Parents League of New York, which is largely devoted to helping parents with independent school admissions, beginning with preschool. There are reputable books like The NYC Private School Admissions Handbook and The Manhattan Family Guide To Private Schools And Selective Public Schools. Families with children in an independent preschool in the city are typically guided through “ex-missions” by their school. Naturally, most people talk to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors with children in independent schools. Any and all of these sources may be helpful as long as you’re ultimately guided by your own priorities and instincts for what is best for your child and family. Which leads us to the most important point in the story.

Best Advice Ever

As one well-regarded and beloved school admissions officer once shared with me, the parents who are most likely to end up with pleasing results are those who really made time for personal reflection and conversation, as well as school research, with the ultimate goal being a clear understanding of your educational and familial values and the kind of school and school community you’re hoping for. This only makes sense, right? The more you’re clear with yourself about what you’re looking for in a school, the more compelling your interest will seem to schools that have what you’re looking for. After all, these are long-term, expensive, and involved commitments, so the schools are thinking the same way: Would the child thrive here? Would the family be a positive part of the community? Is this a good fit? Most of us gravitate to the familiar, and at least at first, our preferences for our children are heavily influenced by our own childhood educations, often more than we even realize. As you explore a variety of school options for your child, you may find yourself considering possibilities that may surprise you—or not. Single-sex vs. co-ed. Religious vs. secular. Traditional vs. progressive. Competitive vs. a welcome acceptance of all kinds of learners. There are many types of independent schools, and the good news is that most independent schools are really good at bringing their mission to life.

School Tours

You can go online and discover a long list of school qualities you should look for during a tour. But when you tour, don’t get lost in a checklist. You’re really looking for an overall impression of the school, the few things that really jazzed you, and the few things that maybe you didn’t care for so much. The more tours you take, the more your preferences will come into focus.

Applications & Parent Interviews 

For those of you who went through the process of applying to independent preschool in the city, this next step may feel similar but it’s more personal and intensive. After all, you now have a lot more material to share about your child in the applications and in your parent interviews than you had when your child was a baby or young toddler. But now, like then, you want to find a way of conveying your love and affection for your child without seeming overly and unrealistically boastful. Instead, aim to share a few charming anecdotes that illustrate some things you love about your child’s personality and interests. Perhaps this next bit goes without saying, but I hear that it’s worth repeating: In almost all interactions you have with a school, from a phone call to clarify basic information, to your school tour and parent interview, be your best self, courteous and considerate and attentive, and come prepared (meaning that if you have a question to ask, let it address a topic that’s not fully covered on the school website).

The Child “Interview” & “Test”

A difference between preschool admissions and lower school admissions is that the schools will now make more of an effort to get to know your child by observing them in playgroups or assessment situations that don’t involve the parents. You want to avoid over-preparing (and over-whelming) your child for their “interviews.” But they do need some context and encouragement, so you should explain in age-appropriate ways that these playgroups are a chance to have some fun at a school that they may end up going to next, so they should be nice to the other kids, show the teachers what they know, and have a good time. Whatever explanation works best for your child, make it clear that Kindergarten is a long time away and they’ll be going back to their own nursery school after the visit or the next day!

Very few schools require standardized testing for Kindergarten admission—the few that do, require the Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners (AABL) given by the Educational Records Bureau (ERB). All schools do their own assessment for Kindergarten admissions which is often a combination of observation (like in the play group) and more structured activities to elicit information about a child’s skill set. For admission to grades 2-4, most schools still require the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI), which is the old ERB that used to be required for Kindergarten and grade 1 applicants. Down the road, schools require Independence School Entrance Exam (ISEE) or the SSAT for grades 5 and up. And at that level, there are separate interviews for students and parents.

References & Connections

The best reference is from a family with a child presently at the school who really knows your family, even better if the person happens to be on the school board or has some kind of active role at the school. But be prudent: only ask someone who really knows your family and who you truly have high regard for (under the assumption that they feel the same way about you). Name-dropping references like the Dalai Lama look laughable. Don’t send those. In truth, for those of you with a children in preschool, your best “connection” is the person at your school who handles ex-missions, for they are likely to be having conversations with the admissions officers at the independent schools, in some cases comparing notes on the children who the school is interested in, in some cases advocating for children who your ex-missions representative think the independent school is overlooking. One of the hardest situations in this process is when you feel you’re not aligned with your ex-missions representative. If that’s the case, it may be time to discreetly seek out a private admission consultant for additional guidance.

How Many & How Much?

How many independent schools should you apply to? If you do your research and formulate your list wisely, including a few schools that are not only a good fit for your child but also aren’t extremely competitive, then 8-10 schools should be a good enough number to land a spot at a school you like. Now get out your calendar: If you’re applying for a Kindergarten spot in September of 2018, many schools have the official cut-off date for age as turning 5 by that September, but many schools, preferring older children, have an unofficial date of around May. The awkward topic of what makes one independent school more competitive to get into than another can spin your head because it’s mostly based on later success: A school’s reputation for educational excellence and its track record for getting its students into great colleges. But you’re applying for Kindergarten! And your child’s academic interests and needs will be unfolding in the years ahead. In fact, many children don’t end up graduating from the independent school they started at. So the moral is this: Really do favor the school that seems most appealing to you right now. The other moral is, as with college admissions, don’t just apply to the most competitive schools.

What about the cost of an independent school education, now between $40,000-50,000 at many schools? If you can afford it, then it’s a question of whether you prefer to start your child in a public school or an independent private school setting. A good public school may have larger classes, but they have tried and true curriculums in place and they really do get to know your child. Then again, private schools don’t have to operate within the strictures of state and federal testing, which generally gives them more flexibility to focus on learning and discovery. If you feel you can’t afford private school but really value what a private school education has to offer, be aware that financial aid is available to families at both low and middle incomes, or consider taking advantage of a public elementary school education and approaching the private school process for middle or high school. The money question is often followed by the entitlement question: Are independent schools inherently more entitled environments? Of course, they are. But many of them work double time to nurture children who are mindful of good character and citizenship. Plus, whether you choose independent school or public school, I hear that parents have a hand in raising their children too.

A Selective Guide to NYC Private Schools

Aaron School
The Abraham Joshua Heschel School
The Alexander Robertson School
The Allen-Stevenson School
Ascension School
Avenues: The World School
Bank Street School for Children
BASIS Independent Brooklyn
BASIS Independent Manhattan
Bay Ridge Preparatory School
The Beekman School
The Berkeley Carroll School
The Birch Wathen Lenox School
Blue School
The Brearley School
The British International School of New York
Brooklyn Friends School
Brooklyn Heights Montessori School
The Browning School
The Buckley School
The Caedmon School
The Calhoun School
Cathedral High School
The Cathedral School
The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine
The Chapin School
The Child School/Legacy High School
Churchill School & Center for Learning Disabilities
City And Country School
Collegiate School
Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School
Convent of the Sacred Heart
The Cooke Center for Learning and Development
Corlears School
The Dalton School
Dwight School
Dwight-Englewood School
École Internationale de New York
Elisabeth Morrow School
Ethical Culture Fieldston School
French-American School of New York
French Institute Alliance Française
Friends Seminary
Fusion Academy
Garden School
The Gateway School
The Geneva School of Manhattan
The Gillen Brewer School (GBS)
Golda Och Academy
Good Shepherd School
Grace Church School
Greene Hill School
Green Meadow Waldorf School
Hannah Senesh Community Day School
The Hewitt School
Horace Mann School
The Ideal School and Academy
International School of Brooklyn
The Kew-Forest School
Kinneret Day School
La Scuola d’Italia Guglielmo Marconi
Lawrence Woodmere Academy
LearningSpring School
Léman Manhattan Preparatory School
Leport Schools
Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School
Loyola School
Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Music Center
Lycée Francais De New York
Lyceum Kennedy International School
The Mandell School
Manhattan Country School
Manhattan Day School
Marymount School of New York
Masters School
Metropolitan Montessori School
The Montessori Family School of Manhattan, 212-688-5950
New Amsterdam School
The New York International School
The Nightingale-Bamford School
Nord Anglia International School New York
The Packer Collegiate Institute
Park East Day School
The Parkside School
Pine Street School
Poly Prep Country Day School
Portfolio School
Professional Children’s School
The Ramaz School
The Reece School
Regis High School
Riverdale Country School
Robert Louis Stevenson School
Rodeph Sholom School
Ross School
The Rudolf Steiner School
Saint Albans School
Saint Ann’s School
Saint David’s School
Saint Thomas Choir School
The School at Columbia University
The Smith School
Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan
Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
The Spence School
The Speyer Legacy School
St. Bernard’s School
St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School
St. Ignatius Loyola School
St. John’s Prep
St. Luke’s School
Staten Island Academy
Stephen Gaynor School
Stevens Cooperative School
The Studio School
The Town School
Trevor Day School
Trinity School
United Nations International School
Villa Maria Academy
Village Community School (VCS)
West End Day School
Williamsburg Northside Schools
The Windsor School
Windward School
Winston Preparatory School
Xavier High School
York Preparatory School




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The Gillen Brewer School

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Church of The Epiphany Day School (CEDS)

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