Preschool Admissions: Between Now & September

Parents interested in sending their children to preschool in the city often have a lot of questions. A very good place to turn to for answers is the Parents League of New York, whose primary mission is to help parents navigate independent school admissions for preschools and on-going schools. Spring and summer are the best time for parents to begin their preschool research, so they’re ready for the fall when it’s time to apply. To offer advice on how to navigate the process, we chatted with Gina Malin, the Parents League’s director of school advisory services. Please note: We use the word “preschool” interchangeably with “nursery school.”

[Editor’s note: To view our comprehensive NYC preschools directory, click HERE.]

Topic: Timing

When do parents begin the formal process of applying to preschools? 

Parents begin the application process the fall of the year before they would enroll their child. Most applications become available in September, right after Labor Day. Entrance age varies from school to school. Many preschools offer a program for 2-year-olds, but parents need to check the entrance age of each preschool they are considering. Some schools start at 2 years; others may require children to be 2 years and 3 months at the start of school, etc., and some start at 3.

From a practical point of view, if a school begins at 2, then chances are that’s the year when that school would have the most openings, yes?

Not exactly. Some schools may have only one or two classes of 2-year-olds, but expand to four classes of 3-year-olds, doubling the size of the grade. If a school starts at age 2 and does not enlarge at age 3, then it is true that the best time to apply to that particular school would be at age 2. For this reason the Parents League’s Guide to Preschools lists enrollment by class for each school.

So what advice do you have for parents who worry that their child might not be ready for preschool at 2, on the one hand, but don’t want to miss out on applying for those available spots?

Parents often want their children to start school at 3 rather than as a young 2 for a number of good reasons, and they should be reassured to learn that there are spaces for 3-years-olds in every neighborhood across the city. However, if a parent is focused on a particular school that doesn’t enlarge at age 3, then our advice would be to apply to that school at age 2.

Most preschools don’t offer parent tours or open houses in the spring, right?

Correct. Preschool tours generally take place over the course of the fall during the application process. However, ongoing schools with an early childhood or preschool program often offer spring tours. [An ongoing school is a school that may have an elementary, middle, and high school]. Some ongoing schools begin at age 2, 3, or 4 years, but most ongoing schools begin at Kindergarten, which is age 5.

How can parents find out about spring tours?

Parents can check individual school websites or the open house calendar on the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) website at

Topic: Resources

To get an overview of the admissions process, what are some the popular resources for parents? And yes, this is the place where you are welcome to discuss the Parents League.

Thank you. We are a trusted resource for both parents and schools. We have a professional team of advisors with experience as former admissions directors, preschool directors, or teachers. And because our team regularly visits each of our schools, we have a deep understanding of them. We offer a preschool workshop for parents where we walk families through the admissions process. This workshop, along with our Preschool Workshop booklet and Guide to Preschool offers comprehensive, up-to-date information about the schools. Once a family attends the workshop, parents can speak to a Parents League advisor by phone as often as they need to. In addition to the workshop and advisors’ guidance, we hold a Preschool Admissions Panel where parents hear directly from the heads or admission directors of our member preschools. Our Independent Preschool Fair will take place this spring on May 10, 2016, at the Broad Street Ballroom at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School. This is a wonderful opportunity to meet with representatives from most of the preschools in the city, gathered all in one place.

Do the preschools listed on your site have to be Parents League members? 

In order for a preschool to be a member of the Parents League, the preschool must be licensed and in operation for three years. The Parents League only lists its member schools on our website; we list both member and non-member preschools in our Guide to Preschool. If a school is licensed by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, it is eligible to be listed as a non-member school in our Guide to Preschools.

Please help parents understand the difference between a licensed  preschool and a preschool alternative program.

More and more preschool alternative programs are opening and the line between what is a preschool and what is a preschool alternative is blurring. Many look and feel like a preschool and have qualified, experienced teachers with degrees in education. However, preschool alternatives are not typically licensed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Parents sign up on a first-come/first-served basis. Many preschool alternatives run by semester (or have rolling admissions) so parents do not have to commit to a full year. This allows flexibility for parents, but the make-up of the children in the class can vary and is not fixed. In an official preschool, the make-up of the class is the same for the year. Tuition tends to be a bit less at preschool alternatives, but parents should check the hours and time the child is spending at a preschool alternative and compare the hours with a traditional preschool. With any program, whether it is a preschool alternative or a preschool, parents should visit the program before they make a decision.

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 Topic: A Priority List

When forming a list of schools to apply to, don’t most people focus on schools in their neighborhood?  

Yes. Never underestimate location and close proximity.

You’re going to hear about nursery schools from friends and neighbors, from people you meet in the park, from people at work. You may also read opinions online. How much credibility should you give to anyone else’s opinion?

A friend, neighbor or colleague can be helpful. But remember: You know your child and your family best. And only you know what feels right for you and your child. I am somewhat leery of online chat rooms. You don’t know who is participating and what their motivation is. They tend to raise anxiety and do not provide information that can be trusted.

Let’s say you meet someone with a child at a school you’re interested in, or someone with a child who has recently graduated. I would think their opinion would count for something.

Of course! But parents should trust their gut, and make their decision based on their own family’s values and needs and where they live.

These days, almost every school has their own website. What’s the important info to glean from a school’s website? 

Philosophy and mission, admissions procedures, dates and deadlines, entrance age, hours, and tuition.

For the interested parent, how much value should you put on the website and how much on a school tour?

Nothing can replace a tour of the school and the opportunity to ask questions. Remember, too, that many nursery schools are small, nonprofit entities with limited staff and technology. Parents shouldn’t judge a school if the website looks dated.

Parents are often surprised by the idea that there are many different kinds of approaches or philosophies to early childhood education. How deeply should a parent try to distinguish between the different philosophies?

Parents should look for a school whose philosophy is compatible with their parenting style and values. Preschool is the first big step children take outside of home, one in which adults other than parents or caregivers observe them, guide them, care for, and teach them. Some schools are play-based and child-centered. Others are more teacher-directed and academically focused. Some schools are Montessori, some Reggio. Most are a mix of methods.

Assuming that you’re a parent who has done their homework—and has come up with a list that includes some very popular schools and others that are less competitive to get into—what’s your rule of thumb for how many schools you should apply to in the fall?

This is a hard question to answer because there are many variables. If you live in a neighborhood where most of the schools use a lottery system for application, you might have a longer list than someone who is applying to non-lottery schools (you are not guaranteed an application when you apply to a lottery school). If you have twins, you need to apply to more schools than a family who is applying for one child, because a preschool does not separate twins, so you’re asking for two of its available spaces. Six to eight schools is the general rule of thumb. One of the most valuable services we offer at the Parents League is one-on-one advice about a family’s list of preschools. We tell them whether they need to add more schools or subtract schools on their list.

If a family is interested in a preschool at a religious institution, are they guaranteed a spot at the school if they are members of the institution?

You are not guaranteed a spot at the school, even if you are members of the school’s affiliated church or synagogue. Active members of churches and synagogues generally do receive admission priority, but each institution defines “active” differently. Most synagogue schools ask that you join the temple once you enroll your child. Schools affiliated with a church do not require church membership.

 Please explain the importance of the Tuesday after Labor Day in the admissions process. Do many schools still give out their applications on that day?

Schools’ websites give specific information as to when to call or download an application. Schools often leave a detailed message on their answering machines in August about when and how to request an application in September as well. Many schools have switched to online applications or online requests for applications rather than phone calls. This has greatly reduced the anxiety and the frenzy surrounding what some have called the “Terrible Tuesday” after Labor Day. There are only a handful of schools that require a phone call, and yes, there are a few popular schools whose applications are all given out on the day they open the phone lines. But if parents find out when and how to request an application in advance of Labor Day, they will find the process is manageable. If for some reason parents did not request applications during that first week after Labor Day, they will find they have plenty of time, and lots of schools, that will take requests throughout the fall.

How much does it typically cost to apply to a preschool?  

Between $50-100.

What’s the common range for school tuition?

The average range of tuition is $10,000-12,000 for 2-year-olds who go 2-3 days per week for a couple of hours each day, to $25,000-30,000 for 4- and 5-year-olds who go five days a week for a full day.

I assume that some families will have their children attend an independent nursery school for 2s and 3s; and then consider public free Universal Pre-K for when their child turns 4. I’m guessing that if you’re likely to end up in public school, then Universal Pre-K might seem like a good step. But if you’re likely to be applying to ongoing independent schools (Kindergarten and up), then staying in your independent preschool might seem like a natural progression and the best way to get good admissions guidance when you apply for the next level. What are you seeing? 

The advent of Universal Pre-K has changed the landscape somewhat. But parents should know that every independent school seeks children from all neighborhoods, programs, and preschools—public and private. And parents should keep in mind that the Parents League advises families moving from public to independent schools at all grade levels.

For parents who know that they’re interested in an independent school education for their child for the long term, should they be focusing their preschool admissions efforts on the early childhood programs of ongoing schools?

Not really. The entrance age to independent schools with early childhood programs varies from school to school. Some start at age 2, some at 3, and many at pre-K or age 4. Also, spots in early childhood programs at ongoing schools tend to be limited due to priority admission for siblings and legacies.

Are you seeing any other trends in independent preschool admissions that parents should be aware of?

As so many new programs—both preschools and preschool alternatives—have opened in the last couple of years, I believe there has been a shift in supply and demand. There was a 7 percent increase in preschools listed in our 2014-2016 edition of the Guide to Preschools compared with 2012-2014 edition. We are currently working on our new 2016-2018 edition and it looks like there will be an 8 percent increase in new preschools. There was an even greater increase in preschool alternative programs listed in our Let’s Play guide. We are also seeing parents look at and explore lots of different options for their child’s early education. Some are waiting to enroll in a preschool, and choosing instead to enroll their child in a preschool alternative before they transition to a preschool or public pre-K.

 Is there tuition assistance at the preschool level?

 There is some, but not a lot, and it varies from school to school. Some schools offer no aid; at some schools 10 percent of the parent body receives some aid.

Topic: Big Picture

People are often surprised by how much work is involved in applying to preschool. Is it necessary?

The application forms are simple and straightforward. They are not time-consuming. Visiting the preschools is a time commitment but is essential to the process. Being organized and having a well-thought-out list makes the process less overwhelming.

 What are the most important factors that parents typically hone in on to come up with a list of schools to apply to? Location? Educational philosophy? Ex-missions record? Overall reputation? How they felt on the school tour? Available schedule (day or afternoon)? What else? 

All of the above. I would also add leadership. Who is the preschool director? What is his or her background? Is this someone you feel comfortable with as the leader of the school? Would you also feel you could work with this person if there ever was a situation, besides Kindergarten placement, where you need her help and guidance?

Much like when you’re applying to college, I know that families are advised to come up with a list of preschools that go beyond the list of the most popular schools in their neighborhood to include what might be called some “safety” schools, right? That’s only good sense. But how are you supposed to know which preschools are more competitive than others?

I encourage parents to look at all the schools in their neighborhood (obviously within reason), whether they have heard of them or not. They will be surprised by how many little-known gems are out there. But you are right, there are some schools that are more difficult to get into than others, and not surprisingly, popularity can shift.

 Again, we’re hoping this story will help families be ready for next September. But let’s offer a quick preview of what follows after that.

Parents request applications in September. Schools generally ask for a completed application before scheduling a tour of the school. A few offer open houses for parents after which they can decide whether or not they would like to apply. Application deadlines vary from the end of October through January. We advise parents to send their applications in by early fall in order to have flexibility, if they need to reschedule because of illness or work emergency. Whether they are the first parent to file the application or the last one who meets the application deadline, it makes no difference as far as showing interest. Once parents have toured the school, the next step is the child’s visit. These visits usually begin in late fall/winter and run through the end of January; sometimes a child’s visit might be in the beginning of February. Some schools do not have a separate child visit. The notification period when parents hear from schools about whether or not the school can offer their child a spot is the end of February. This is when the Parents League is in high gear helping our parents make informed decisions.

To learn more about the Parents League of New York, visit!

For our comprehensive NYC preschools directory, click here.

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