NYC Admissions Guide 2015-2016: Nursery Schools

Editor’s Note #1: Interested in learning more about nursery school admissions? Please note that New York Family’s Independent School Fairs, featuring Nursery Schools and Ongoing Schools (K & Up), are coming up at the end of September and in early October. They are free, and children of all ages, including babies and toddlers, are welcome. For more information, REGISTER HERE.

Editor’s Note #2: This story is part of our larger 2015-2016 NYC Admissions Guide, which you can read here.

  • For our story on the Universal Pre-K admissions process, click here.
  • For our story on the Kindergarten admissions process in public schools, click here.
  • For our story on Gifted & Talented program admissions, click here.
  • For our story on charter school admissions, click here
  • For our story on independent school admissions for Kindergarten and up, click here.
  • For our story on Catholic school admissions, click here.

It’s a good idea to start by getting your chronological bearings. Nursery schools typically start giving out their applications a year before your child’s anticipated entry date (i.e., September 2016 applications will go out in September 2015). In fact, if your child will be entering nursery school next year, take a second to note this date—Tuesday, September 8, 2015—on your calendar. By common agreement as members of the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY), many (but not all) nursery schools will first offer their applications on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and the most popular schools often run out of applications by the middle of the day! No kidding. We know it seems reasonable that a person should be able to pick up an application at their leisure, but nursery schools have a limited number of seats and many more interested families than they have the capacity to interview.

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Pine Street School

Now, if you’re reading this with hope of finding a nursery school spot for this September, don’t despair. Schools sometimes have a last-minute vacancy when a family’s plans change. Contact the Parent’s League ( for starters; they keep a roster of schools with open seats. It’s also a good idea to contact new or relatively new schools, which often have rolling admissions.

But for parents aiming to attain a seat in September 2016, knowing that you’ll be seeking applications early this coming September means that you need to start doing your research as soon as possible if you haven’t already begun. There are a number of good places to turn to for help: If you join the Parents League, you can go to one of their admissions workshops and also have access to their handy schools guide. Victoria Goldman’s Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools is a comprehensive guide. New York Family has an online school directory. Parents looking for in-depth and personal guidance also turn to consultants like Smart City Kids.

When first looking at nursery schools, parents are often caught off-guard by the fact that nursery schools have many different approaches to educating young children—some are more child-centered, others more teacher-directed; some prize a more relaxed vibe, others are more formal. We’re not going to provide a breakdown of common educational approaches and philosophies in this article because you will find them all online. But note: While you needn’t master the approaches in all their nuances, it’s still a good idea to have a general sense of what they’re all about, so you can start thinking about what kind of approach sounds like a good fit for your child and family. Later, when you start going on school tours, you’ll get a much clearer sense of how a particular school’s approach plays out in real time. For now, just keep in mind that most well-run nursery schools are cheery places staffed by smart and kind teachers who like working with young children. If you don’t have that vibe when you’re touring a school, then chances are it’s not the right place for your family.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In addition to thinking about a nursery school’s approach, another key factor for most families is location. Be realistic: It’s just a lot easier and much less stressful to have your child attend a nursery school in the neighborhood, or nearby. The resource guides will list all the schools by neighborhood; but be sure to check out school websites for the official information, including educational philosophy, the starting age, and how and when to obtain an application.

Since you’re applying to nursery school when your child is just a baby or young toddler, it’s a reach to know exactly what kind of learning approach might best suit your child. But you certainly can and should have a sense of what kind of environment you are comfortable with as a family. Consider your values; of course, discuss them with your partner. Speak to friends who have children at schools that you are interested in, but ultimately trust your own instincts on whether you’d think this is a school community that you’d enjoy being a part of. Nursery school is not only where your child will make his or her first regular group of friends, but for many parents, it’s the place where they’ll meet other parents and together share the joys and challenges of raising children and being a family.

It’s a good idea to submit your applications in a timely fashion in September and October; most of them are straightforward. Some will involve essays, so draft your thoughts on paper early in the process. Parents struggle with what to say about their young toddler—just don’t overdo it with silly hyperbole. Sound loving and reasonable; share a brief, charming anecdote or two. School tours will help you get a sense of the school. So will your interview. In all interactions with a school, be attentive, polite, curious, and informed. Do your homework, and also be prepared to learn. Don’t be late or rude. All of this sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed at how often parents make a bad impression at a school they are interested in by taking the process for granted or by just behaving poorly.

How many nursery schools should you apply too? As a rule of thumb, about 8-10 if you live uptown, and 6-8 if you live downtown. That should be enough to ultimately land your child in a place you like, provided that you’ve done your homework and have focused on schools whose communities you are genuinely enthusiastic about being a part of. For reasons of tradition, reputation, and perceived quality, even at the nursery school level some schools are more popular than others. It’s a good idea to clue into this because, just like applying to college, you want to make sure you have schools on your list that may not be as hard to get into as the most competitive ones. Just keep in mind that your child is hardly missing out on anything important if he or she doesn’t get into a nursery school that is deemed to be more competitive at this moment. Have faith in this: If you like a school, chances are you’ll have a very positive experience that will buoy you and your child if you apply to private school in a few years.

Some parents hear rumors that certain nursery schools are gateways to certain private schools. No school can guarantee that. Instead, focus on this: If it’s a good bet that you’ll apply to private school in a few years, then ask about a nursery school’s experience and services in providing parents with ex-missions guidance (and for public schools too, by the way). Just be careful about demanding a list of “top-tier” Kindergartens; the nursery schools will think you’re difficult, presumptuous, or at the least uniformed about how the process works.

It’s hard for nursery schools to get to know a family, right? Most schools will not require, but will welcome, a recommendation. In some cases, a recommendation can help, but again, be reasonable about it. Don’t use a famous or powerful connection if that person doesn’t really know your family and has no real connection to the school. It makes you seem pompous or desperate. The best recommendation comes from a well-regarded family who presently has or recently had a child at the school, who knows you well enough to really say some nice and true words about your family.

When you are assembling your list of nursery schools, keep in mind there are a handful of independent schools that once started in Kindergarten that have opened their own version of a nursery school or early childhood class. It is tempting to apply to them because if you make it in, you automatically make it into Kindergarten. But usually, the vast majority of those nursery seats are taken up by siblings so it’s very hard (but not impossible) to place in this way, and you are also limiting your options at the Kindergarten level.

And what about the cost of a nursery school education, now over $30,000 at many schools? If you can afford it, it’s a very nice experience for child and family. If you can’t afford it, it’s certainly not a necessity that hinders your child’s long path through life; your child can have a wonderful pre-academic and social experience at any number of nursery alternative programs or early childhood classes.

Eric Messinger is the editor of New York Family. You can contact him at Roxana Reid is the founder of Smart City Kids, which advises local parents on independent school (nursery and ongoing) and public school admissions. For more on their services, visit