Okay so you’ve decided you want your kid to go to private school in New York City. You or your parents or a fairy godmother have $48,000 X 13 years of schooling, [with an annual increase of 4%] to fund this endeavor. What’s next? As a parent who has been through this in NYC I’ll share with you my advice. Take it, leave it, but good luck to you and your child!
Do you really want your kid to go to private school?
What does going to private school in NYC mean for your child and your family? Primarily it means smaller class size than public, think less than 20 kids per class with 2 teachers, versus 25-30 for K in public school with 1 teacher. It means daily gym/playground time, and more art, music and “specials”. It may mean that issues with your child’s learning are identified faster, but it may also mean that the school is more involved in your child’s business than you want. Some privates have visual diversity, but I promise your public school has more economic diversity. Many private schools have a close knit community, so your social group may well be culled from families with whom your kid goes to school. You are “buying” a peer group for your kid, and all the values which come with that peer group, and that can be good, or it can be bad. I encourage folks to focus on schools which are K-12, as I think the middle/upper school process admissions process is particularly painful for kids. It is personal, and it’s like college admissions except your kid is still only 13 or 14. There are lovely schools that only go through 8th grade, but be prepared for a hellacious entry to high school.
Think long and hard about what pre-school your child will attend.
Many preschool directors have a lot of pull with certain schools, and no pull at others. To use that pull on your behalf the PSD (preschool director) needs to like you more than other parents or want in some other way to use their currency for your family. Some PSDs play favorites more than others, but you should be able to get a sense from current parents at the school. PSDs have “go to schools” where they have a habit of sending several kids to a given school each year. Those same preschools have schools where they haven’t sent a student in 10 years. Thus be sure that the preschool you choose has at least some history/success sending kids to the ongoing school you think you like.
Beware the preschool full of ultra-rich, “connected” New Yorkers, as those folks have an automatic foot up in the Kindergarten admissions race simply because they know people who can influence folks with sway at these schools. Dalton is not going to take 5+ kids from the same pre-school, so if there are 10 connected families who all want Dalton, guess what happens to your chances…….
Consider progressive vs. traditional pre-school when you consider your longer term school objective. Traditional schools like Trinity or Buckley accept many more children who go to “traditional” preschools than “progressive” pre-schools. You know your kid and your family, you choose the best fit, but be aware that that choice is one of the filters ongoing schools use in the admissions process.
Once you are in a pre-school, be involved, well liked and not a pain in the ass. This means volunteering, helping with the auction/fundraising, generally involved at the school so the PSD knows your kid and your family a little better than others. If they want to send your kid to speech therapy, listen to them and follow their advice (if not their recommended specialist, I always recommend getting your own). Do NOT get yourself labeled as a problem family or kid if at all avoidable. Give the PSD and teachers small gifts at the holidays and end of school. I personally always broke the rules here, as most schools don’t sanction such gifts. Nothing lavish is necessary, but thoughtful is good. Your child’s teachers write the school report which is a key information piece for admissions committees.
Make sure your child can separate with ease from you or your spouse. Especially if you have no stay at home parent, make it a point to take your child to several drop off classes and make sure they can separate from you without a big production. Schools want kids who can transition easily, and some kids need practice for this to be smooth.
I’m of the school of thought that you should prepare your child for the testing, whether it is the ERB or some new format of “testing” children at the playdate. I don’t personally advocate professional help with this as I think most parents can do it themselves. All parents should be reading at least 20 MINUTES PER DAY out loud to their children and it will help them with these tests.
The ERB categories are as follows:
- Word Reasoning
- Picture Concepts
- Block Design
- Matrix Reasoning
The ERB is based on a subset of tests in the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence a.k.a. (WPPSI-III). Ever wonder why psychiatrist’s kids do so well on these tests? – they have access to the tests . There are lots of good resources out there if you search for ERB test prep, I’m no expert. Each individual section has a score and the scores from Verbal and Performance subtests are combined for scores like: 92/95/94, or 98/99/99 or 89/81/87. Any total in the 90s is a good enough score, and it’s better if there is no large discrepancy between Verbal and Performance. Large discrepancies between the two sections (25 pts or more) should be investigated to make sure there is no learning issue afoot. A total score of 99% means that the total score of all the subtests was 125 or above. Through hearsay I’ve heard that anything above 140 in the total score will cause your child to get a closer look by schools, as such a high score is very unusual.
This one is tricky to teach. In the ERB they are looking for descriptive answers….encourage your child to provide 2 answers per question. “What is a hero”? “Superman, someone who is brave.” My best advice is to have dinner with your children nightly, or at least a few times a week so that they can pick up more sophisticated language from you and your spouse. Teaching straight vocabularily to a 3.5 year old seems slightly crazy and potentially counterproductive – “Mommy says maroon is also mauve which is also dark red…”.
Its worth reviewing with your child categories of things – these things are all green, all vegetables, all valuable, all things that break, all clothing, all games…
This is your child figuring out a word based on descriptors. “It’s white liquid and comes from a cow” – Milk. “You wear them on your hands when it is cold”. Mittens.
This is figuring out a word based on social cues/norms. “What meal is after lunch”? – Dinner. “Why is it good to wash hands?” Germs, preferably Kill Germs.
Hopefully you read enough picture books to your kids and ask them to tell you what is happening in the story that this section goes well. Two nice books with no words which tell a story are:Un-Brella and Rainstorm. Get your child to “read” the story to you.
There are a number of ipad games and easy drawing games you can play with your child to hone this skill. If its a picture of triangle, triangle, square, triangle, triangle, _________ your child should know to select the square as the next shape in the pattern.
Building with blocks should be a cornerstone of your child’s preschool/home education. Magna-Tiles® are great for this, and also Unit Blocks. ERB testing assesses a child’s ability to replicate patterns, and there are simple practice elements you can use like Pattern Blocks or MindWare Pattern Play
Play dates seem to often require imaginative building and playacting with blocks so this should be real area of focus. Kids who have a lot of exposure to building with blocks will improve, even if it is not a natural strong suit.
Pick the blue pill. Just kidding. A not so fun section which shows up to 6 pictures and your child has to pick which are most similar/opposite. Think sun and igloo, frog and lily pad. Maybe play the opposite game at home. At the very least your kids should know what the opposite of things means and be able to give examples.
Beyond the ERB
Many schools have ceased to require the ERB. At the moment there is no clear replacement. It appears that most schools will be spending up to 30 min one on one with your child at their playdates to assess skills the ERB attempted to measure.
These are other areas you should practice with your child:
Guess what, when your kid has playdates and they ask your child to draw pictures they are checking your child’s fine motor skills. They also often review kids’ gross motor skills by having them climb stairs (your kid should be putting down one foot per stair, not two feet and then moving to the next one). I’ve also heard tell of schools which asked children to skip or hop on one leg.
Practice drawing with your child. Details count, if drawing a house or apt, you need windows/window panes, door knobs, doorbells, shutters, curtains, etc. With people again details matter: five fingers on each hand, eyebrows, hair, clothes….
Schools want well behaved kids. Admit to yourself if you have a problem child: a yeller, a breaker, a hitter – AND FIX the issue as FAST as you can. Even if you can get your kid to be the perfect angel at the playdate (nearly mandatory for acceptance) the school report will tell the whole story. I know of a kid who didn’t get accepted at a school because the report (correctly) reported that he had hit another child. Your child doesn’t need to be perfect but they need to not raise any red flags for schools.
I have a theory that schools are going to start trying to test this because of the proliferation of iPads and computer games and other attention killing devices. Other than limiting screen time my only other advice is to play board games with your child starting at 3 years of age. Even if they can’t finish it, see how far they can get and aim for improvement. 2 games for little ones I like are : Chutes and Ladders and The Ladybug Game.
Your 4 year old DOESN’t need to know how to read. Yes there are a few schools who will ask your child to read something (Trinity I’m looking at you…). However reading is not expected at all (even at Trinity), and most of the best private schools in NYC don’t officially teach reading till 1st grade. Reading at age 4 is a sign of a tiger parent. If your child learned to read at age 2 on their own, then yes maybe your kid is a little special.
You and your Spouse/Partner
Newsflash, it’s not JUST about your kid. Mostly schools want to make sure parents are nice and normal. However they are not above being influenced by fascinating parents. Schools adore interesting parents who can pay full tuition. Are you 1 chapter short of finishing your novel? Get it done and published! Have you been ignoring the non-profit you started after college? Dust off your accomplishments and make sure they are spiffy and relatable. Some schools like public service work (Mayor’s office, DA’s office), some the arts, some the media, anything that can set you apart as parents can work in your favor.
It is also time to start your reconnaissance into schools and who you might know at these schools. Is your spouse’s boss on the board? Did her kids go there? Ask. Most folks in the city are happy to talk about the school process and give you any insight they have, and tell you “oh yeah Bob used to be on the Board there…..” . Talk to EVERYONE about the schools process to see who they know, your hairdresser, your trainer, your rabbi. You simply never know who might know someone who could be helpful to you. Do NOT ask for any consideration or favors yet. That will come later… simply gather information about schools which you think might interest you and any contacts you might use at a future date.
Mentally prepare – The kindergarten process in NYC is a time suck and emotional black hole. Plan on both parents spending a minimum of 3 hours per school you are applying to in the fall. There are meetings, tours, playdates. For all except playdates both parents should attend each event. Get yourself organized, even if you are not a naturally organized person. There are a lot of play dates and application websites and passwords to keep track of…along with applications and so on. Then there are all your friends and frenemies who are going through the same process at the same time to the same schools…..its not pretty. Just remember it works out for most everyone, even if you don’t necessarily get the school you want.
If you need financial aid to afford private school, try. Just know that the need for financial aid decreases the chances of acceptance, probably by a lot. Schools have a limited amount of FA to offer, and a large portion goes to families already at the school or stellar high school applicants (to increase college acceptance rates, to help schools keep their top tier status). So your kid may be stellar, but they are not in the same pile as kids who can pay full freight.
Paying for Private School
Are you really sure you want to do this? Even if tuition never goes up a cent, private school in the 2015-2016 school year is around $48,000 dollars at most NYC privates. 48K times 13 years is $624,000 dollars (post-tax). And most schools tuitions have been rising 3%-4% each year…so again, I ask you, are you sure?
This is what I tell friends when they ask me if they should consider private school:
- Do you have debt outside of your mortgage and professional school loans? If yes, then NO private school.
- Will you be able to save 15%-20% of your pretax income for retirement, and maintain your current lifestyle (or a lifestyle you want) if you pay for private school? If no, then NO private school.
If your heart is set on private school but you can’t comfortably answer the questions above, my advice is to move to the best school district you can, save your money for private high school and college, then re-apply in high school. Fully funding your own retirement is the best gift you can give your child.
Timeline (Read this when your child is about 3.5)
A few schools offer tours for Pre-K or K in the spring before applications are due (in Nov). You can take some later tours off your fall schedule if you happen to register for these. Usually you need to call the schools on a set date when they declare “Spring Tours Open”. It can be like dialing for nursery applications, some lines seem to be busy the whole day. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t get through, you will get another chance (usually). Offhand the schools which offer spring tours are: Browning, Little Red, Dalton, Marymount, UNIS, Town. By no means is this a complete or fully updated list, check the websites of schools you are interested in.
ERB Testing – After your child turns 4
Many schools are eliminating ERB testing because of misgivings about children being prepped for this test. Its not yet clear what will replace this testing, for now assume the playdates are mini-tests. A few non-ISAAGNY schools still accept and want the ERB (Horace Mann among them). ERB scoring is calculated in 3 month bands based on your childs age, so in many cases it’s best to take the ERB in the 3 months following their 4th birthday. However, some children just seem too young at this age (boys often) and you might consider waiting if you believe your child will become more verbal in a few months. The ability to communicate effectively is paramount for the ERB, and some kids will benefit from a few more months of maturity. Initially have ERB scores sent only to your preschool.
Investigate the schools you think you want to apply to in the fall. A common resource is Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools, 6th Edition
Talk to other parents, see what you think you like. Make a list. Most families should plan to apply to between 6 to 10 schools.
Most schools want kids who have turned 5 before August 2015 (or the year you are applying). Each school has slightly different age cut-offs, so check each website carefully. If you have a late summer boy, plan to apply but you may often be told that the child needs more maturity, and to reapply the following year. Unfortunately it DOESN’T behoove you to wait, you must apply to Kindergarten in the “proper” year, and hope your kid is mature or that you get a second shot at the school.
Write an essay about your child. Yes, you will have to write essays about your 4 or 5 year old. Here are some recent essay questions:
- Tell us about your child and your family.
- Describe your child in a few sentences.
- Explain how your child would benefit from an education at XYZ school.
- What are your educational goals for your child?
- Describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
- What values are most important to you?
- As a family what do you enjoy doing together?
- List your child’s special interests and abilities.
What do schools want in the essay…..that is the question.
Most schools want to make sure that you are nice and normal parents. This is not the time to write about how your child got potty trained in one day, or can bake cupcakes without help, nor how their school is just the beginning of your child’s senatorial bid. It is a chance for you to impart memorable details about your child, and any information you want to share about your family. Whenever possible you want the essay to match up with the schools values as you understand them….valuing a progressive education, religious component, academic excellence and so on. Like a job interview you want to show you have done some research on the school and value their values. Don’t try to be cutesy or overly unique, you don’t want your poor child to get dinged cause the parents are a little “strange”. Nice, normal, well written. Double and triple check it for mistakes and spelling errors. This is not the time to just slap it out.
Applications (Late August or early September)
Applications are composed of personal data, essays, release for school reports from your child’s pre-school, photo of your child/family, submission of testing scores where applicable and payment. A few schools may ask for personal recommendations from family friends.
Applications are available online starting usually in late August, and by the Tuesday after Labor day at the latest. Usually you must set up a login and password to sign up electronically. Start your spreadsheet now. Print out application instructions for each school and put them all in one folder (separate folders if you are hyper organized). I recommend that you complete the applications within 2 -3 weeks. Folks who get completed applications back to the school first are usually contacted first for playdates. (This can be good or bad, if you want your child to be as old as possible at the playdate you could wait a little to complete the applications – though generally I don’t recommend this). I think if you wait til the last minute you run the chance of them already composing a class in their minds, and your kid may be stuck without a chair. Another reason to get applications in quickly is that schools sometimes cease to accept additional applications before the final due date they have posted because they already have too many applicants. This happens at many schools.
Don’t embellish your degrees, or college graduation status. It won’t pay to lie, just be truthful.
Some of these applications want all kinds of info, including elementary schools. Just play along, it doesn’t matter.Often it’s easiest to complete one application and then print it out and use exactly the same data for all the others. Make sure you do not copy essays inadvertently (you don’t want to be the sucker who mentions Dalton in the application to Buckley).
Many schools will ask for a photo of your child. You need to have it in JPG format usually, although maybe a few want you to send a physical print. Follow dating site guidelines and get a picture of your kid smiling in a fun place (outside, in a ball pit, doing something they love). Professional photographs are totally unnecessary and potentially creepy to some schools (maybe there are schools that like them, but it would be news to me).
Connections (The WHO DO YOU KNOW game)
Many schools ask open ended questions about how you heard about the school, etc. This is your opportunity to put down the name of contacts who you may call on to help you in the admissions process. “The Gelft family loves XYZ School, and recommended it to us”. “My friend, Donald Trump, is a former Board Member”. You need to tell these people in advance before you name-drop them in these applications. Often, these are the same people you may be asking to push for your kid at these schools, but remember you can only use a few connections. More on this in the Using Connections section.
See my advice on your starter essay first. Now you are honing that essay to be appropriate and personal for each school. Make sure you answer the essay question for that particular school. If you know something about the school and its philosophy either because of personal friend’s stories or tours and its appropriate to incorporate it into your essay, feel free. However don’t throw it in there just to have it there, schools don’t expect you to know everything about them, and the essay is more about them getting to know you. Keep your answers to the space allotted, this is not the time to write War and Peace.
The Elevator Pitch (on your kid)
Okay so why am I mentioning this when talking about your essay…..well, if at all possible you want your essay to mesh with your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short, positive, memorable story which describes your child so that when the admission director thinks about little Henry, they think “oh that’s the kid who brings his little brother yogurt every morning” or some equally memorable, cute, potentially skill showing story. You will have told this story in your parent interview, whether it is with the Director of Admissions or a parent representative. These folks see hundreds of children, so your ability to mention it in the essay, and then tie it to your child in the personal interview increases the chances your kid gets remembered.
Each application will set you back about 40-60 dollars. Some you pay by check, others online.
Releases for School Records and ERB scores
Schools will include a form to allow your current preschool to send the school your child’s preschool report. You complete this form for each school and give it to your preschool. Usually you submit these to your school in November, after you have had at least one conference to make sure things are going well. Schools won’t accept school reports that aren’t “current” so they won’t often send them back to the school(s) you are applying to til mid-December. These reports are quite detailed, and your preschool completes them without you knowing what is in there. Remember to be nice to your kid’s preschool teachers!
When you sign your child up for the ERB you get a login and password to receive scores and to later send scores to schools. I believe the ERB will send scores to up to 6 schools free of charge. Make sure that you ask for scores to be sent to schools who request them.
So get your applications in (remember to attach photos when required). Schools will often “close” to new applications before the last date listed on their website because of the overwhelming number of applicants, so don’t delay.
Once your application is submitted the school will contact you by phone or mail to schedule a playdate at the school for your child and likely a parent tour/interview for you while your kid is at the play date. Some schools make an effort to work around your schedule, some just give you a time slot and you need to work around them. BOTH parents need to attend school tours/interviews. If the interview/tour is separate from the playdate then only one parent must attend the playdate. Usually parents are interviewed while your child is going through the playdate.
What does a playdate consist of for your child?
Playdates are often the determining factor of whether your child will be admitted to a school. They are checking to see that the child they see that day matches up with the school report and also how the child performs in a variety of “tests”. These range from being able to sit and listen attentively to a story, building a building, completing puzzles, hopping on one leg, to drawing a picture. Kids need to show that they transition well, understand instructions, communicate effectively, play well with others….and so on. Your child needs to talk at the playdate, being extremely shy to the point of not speaking usually works against them. Playdates are going to become even more critical in absence of the ERB or alternative external testing.
How can I prepare my child for the playdates?
See my section on preparation first. Then on the day of the playdate make sure your kid has a good night of sleep, good breakfast and goes potty before he or she goes into the room for the playdate. Many people ask if they should tell their child what is happening. You know your kid the best and have to decide what you want to tell them so that they handle it the best possible way. I told my 4 year old that we were going to meet people who wanted to know what 4 year olds know. I didn’t really mention that it was in a school or anything. For my kid, that seemed fine and not an issue. I have a friend whose kid had a meltdown at the first play date they went to, and after that the parents actually said to the kid, this is super important, I need you to be on your best behaviour, and the kid responded to that that very well. Every kid is different. I don’t think bribery is effective because I think you run the risk of the kid telling the teachers in the playdate, oh if I’m good I get a candy after this. I think most schools want kids who don’t rely on that kind of motivation. Play dates are fun for kids for the most part, so it shouldn’t be at all painful for them. I also wouldn’t make it about the school “we are looking at new schools for you Bobby” because I think that kids don’t really get it and could become agitated that they are leaving their nursery school.
Dress your child how children at the school dress, aiming for comfort for your child. Do not have your child in fussy, fancy clothes they will worry about during the playdate. On the other hand, sweatpants seem a little casual to me. If the school has uniforms, dress your kids similarly – khakis and blue sweater for boys, leggings and simple dress for girls. Nothing too fancy or precious, no jewelry. Shoes that are comfortable and that they can move around in.
Dress for Parents – Dress like you are going on a job interview in your given profession. If you wear a 3 piece suit to work every day, wear that. If you have worn jeans every day of your adult life with a blazer, wear that. You want to be yourself, just the cleaned up, best looking version. The more traditional the school the better it is to have fathers wear ties. Tailor yourself to the school. Don’t wear a mink coat to a school that spends a lot of time talking about their social outreach and mission, I guarantee you will feel out of place, and it will negatively set you apart from other parents. Be careful about over the top displays of wealth. I’ve been to playdates with billionaires where the wife was only wearing a wedding ring, no diamonds the size of Nebraska. At many of these schools you will be walking around for 20+ minutes, so plan your footwear accordingly.
Phones / Beepers – TURN THAT SHIT OFF!
Unless you are a doctor waiting for a transplant organ to arrive, just don’t go there. Turn it off. Don’t look at it in the waiting room, or afterwards until you are in the cab. Give the school your full attention. I hope it’s a given that you should take no photos/recordings and do not tweet or FB your school visit.
Going Into the Playdate/The Waiting Area
Okay your phone is off. When your kid asks to play with it you say, no, lets read a book instead or draw. All the waiting areas have books and toys to keep kids occupied. The teachers are observing from the moment they meet the kids, so don’t have yours be the one playing Candy Crush as they walk in. Again, schools care a lot about kids being able to transition smoothly. Make sure your kid can separate from you without a lot of drama. If your child has trouble with this you need to practice, and probably mention it beforehand. “Today, the teachers want to talk to you, so you are going to go in another room to play with them for 30 minutes”. “I’ll be outside waiting for you”. Many schools are sympathetic to children who go into crying fits upon separation if they can recover quickly with your help (sometimes they let you go into the classroom for 5 minutes); however if Junior howls through the whole thing and is disrupting other kids, it’s curtains. They will ask you to leave early and perhaps to schedule at another time. It ain’t good.
The schools tours are a chance for you to see the school, learn its philosophies and observe current students at the school. It is NOT the time for you to grill the tour guide on the school or act like an investigative reporter. The sad truth is there are so many applicants to these schools you are not “shopping” for a school for your kid, you are learning enough so that you know what schools you prefer or if there are any you wish to veto. Tour guides are usually current parents and will probably report “troublesome” parents. There have been some stories that tour guides report back to schools on parents, but this is probably only true in extreme cases – “she asked if the school only bought pasture-raised organic milk”, “he said he heard 40% of the 5th grade class was counselled out”. On the tour you should be asking very little and observing a lot. Think about if you can see your kid at this school, are the kids smiling, happy, engaged, challenged? Does this seem like a place I want to spend 44 K+ a year on for the next 13 years?
After the Playdate/Tour
Thank everyone verbally who helped you – parent tour guide, assistant who showed you to the room, and so on. Stop yourself from immediately grilling your child on what happened at the playdate. Wait til you are in the cab or subway to try and learn what they did. Teachers will sometimes say positive things “Little Sophie did a great job on the puzzles today”. These are simply platitudes, they mean nothing, don’t try to analyze them. You do not need to send a thank you note or email unless the school did something extraordinary to help you or your family. “Thank you so much for your patience with Oliver, and letting me come in to calm him, this level of caring concern certainly endears XYZ school to us”. ********You DO need to send thank yous after parent interviews************.
I believe in 99% of cases a parent interview CANNOT get your kid into a school. I do believe that a horrific parent interview can get your lovely child dinged however. Rules of the road – talk with your partner beforehand to make sure both of you will get some time talking to the interviewer. Figure out which one of you will give the “Elevator Pitch” (although you should both be prepared to give it). Some interviewers are parents, some are admissions staff. I’ve heard mixed reports on whether it improves your chances of admittance if you are meeting with the DOA (Director of Admissions). Personally I think its always a good sign to meet with the Director, and better than just meeting someone on the staff. Make sure to send a thank you to whomever interviewed you.
Be prepared. Be interested in the school. It’s just like a job interview.
Have some standard questions prepared, tailored to parent interviewers vs. admissions folk. Parent interviewers are easy – tell me about your child’s experience at XYZ school, likes and dislikes? For admissions folk – you want to ask good questions about the school and what they are looking for in children. What kind of child thrives at your school? How does the school incorporate religious instruction? Can you tell me more about the Dalton Plan? Our family is diverse, how does the school work to incorporate differences into the curriculum?
What NOT to say!!!!
- What percentage of the graduating class attends an Ivy League college?
- Why should we send our child to your school? – GUARANTEED DING!!!
- How many kids are counseled out each year?
- Are you looking for donations to the school’s endowment?
- My kid is allergic to milk and eggs, how can you accommodate him? – Worry about this after your kid gets in, not before.
- This is our back up school.
- We watch a lot of TV.
- We both went to Harvard (they know where you went to school).
Again the parent interview is a filter to make sure you are nice, normal parents. Everything you can do to promote this image is encouraged. SAVE THE BUSINESS card they give you so you can email or hand write a thank you. Use their name in the conversation when possible “ Debbie, thank you for your time today, we learned so much about XYZ school.
Once you are back at your home send off a thank you. The thank you must go out in the week following the playdate, preferably within a day or two. I prefer handwritten on plain stationary (not personalized) but that depends on the school somewhat. Fancier schools probably don’t mind personalized stationary, but most don’t care. I think the world is moving more toward email, so unless it is a very traditional school email is probably an okay way to communicate the thank you. What is important is that the thank you express your interest in the school for your child, and add a detail or two you learned in the process about the school. Sample:
Thank you for taking the time to meet with us and learn more about Junior and our family this week. Private School XYZ is clearly a school where students are taught to love learning and become engaged members in the community. As a former parent you offered us an especially valuable perspective. We were touched by your child’s heart-warming experience learning to love reading from the school librarian. We walked away confident that School XYZ can offer Junior excellent educational attainment within a warm and inclusive environment. Our family would feel incredibly fortunate to be part of your school community.
Calling in a connection
Once you have identified schools where you may have a usable connection, decide quickly if you want that person(s) to go to bat for your family. The truth is you need to consider the strength of the connection and difficulty of getting into the school. If you have a great connection, but it’s at a school among the hardest to gain acceptance (Dalton, Trinity, St. Anns, Grace Church, Ethical Culture Fieldston, Collegiate, Chapin, Brearley) it’s a toss up. A lesser connection at a less popular school might have more influence in the outcome for your child. The problem is there are only a few connections you can work at the most, (usually only one), because anyone who goes to bat for you wants to be sure that you are going to attend the school if accepted. No one wants to put their support behind a family who is fishing for 3 other schools at the same time. So you have to decide what school you like the best, and then you have to approach your connection as early as you can in the process and assess what kind of support they will give you. Sometimes you will want to mention their name on the application (and then have them follow up with the school), and sometimes you want to make sure they will contact the appropriate person at the school for you (and give you feedback on their meeting). Unless your connection is a super close personal friend who actually knows your child, you will want to send the connection a short dossier on your child. This should include a picture, a copy of the application essay for that particular school, and if not included in the essay a short description of your child -“Sondra is an exceptionally musical child who already plays the drums. She loves rhyming word games, and teaching her brother how to build train tracks. Her teachers say she is a good listener, with a long attention span.” This will help your connection speak more personally about your child with their contact at the school. You don’t want to harass your connection but you want to check in to make sure that they have contacted the school on your behalf. The next time you will talk to the connection about this is in the 6 weeks before decisions come out. The decisions start officially being made about 6 weeks before the letters come out. You want to make sure your connection has indicated clearly to the school that it’s your first choice and that if accepted you will accept the spot. Six weeks before decisions are finalized is the time make sure your connection has done all they can. Then the waiting begins.
First Choicing vs.”I love you” letters
Many schools will indicate that they don’t want/accept first choice letters. Some are clearer about wanting them. If you have a first choice, you should absolutely send a first choice letter, not an I love you letter. A first choice letter at some point says, “if little Andres is accepted, he will attend”. An “I love you” letter says something less definitive – “We think XYZ school is a wonderful fit for our child and family and hope that Andres has a chance to attend.” You also cannot send multiple first choice letters and be a good person. Your word is your bond, so if you are not sure, just send an “I love you” letter. Also sending multiple FC letters is guaranteed to piss off your PSD. If possible, wait til you have some feedback from your PSD about your child’s chances. It makes no sense to “waste” a first choice letter on a school where your child has no chance. PSD’s often have feedback 3-6 weeks before the notification date.
At some point in the 4 weeks before the K notification date your preschool director will ask you which school is your first choice. Be very careful, this question seems straightforward but is actually tricky. Your preschool director’s job is to get as many kids accepted into private schools as she can. Note that I didn’t say her primary job is to get your kid into your preferred private school. There is something called “brokering”. In essence what this means is that schools ask the PSD which families really “like” them and indicate which kids have a good chance at a spot. Some kids might get a lot of likes, some kids a few. The kid who has a lot of likes isn’t usually going to get 4 acceptances, the PSD will manage it so that she only gets 1 or 2 acceptances, and that the other school which might have really liked that child will be told that another family will first choice them. Now no school is going to accept a kid they don’t want, but they are going to be steered by the PSD in terms of who is most likely to accept the spot and who the PSD says will be a good fit for their school. I know a friend who preferred one school and indicated as much to her PSD. However her child was looking at multiple accepts, and she believes the PSD didn’t push for for her kid at their first choice because that school liked another kid also who wasn’t looking at multiple offers. Guess who got into my friends preferred school – yes the other kid. Because my friend’s kid had a spot. And that is what the PSD’s job is, finding a private school spot for your kid. Not necessarily at the school of your choice.
So what do you tell your PSD? You indicate your top 3-5 choices and hope for the best. There is little way around brokering, other than your one first choice letter to the school. The PSD should know if you have sent a first choice letter. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the school you prefer will want your child.
Often in the last 4 weeks your PSD will get some indication of which schools are interested in your child and which are not. If you have not talked in detail with your PSD 3 weeks out from notification date you need to set up a phone call or meeting ASAP. You need to know where your kid has a chance, or if it’s not looking good. There are a few PSD’s out there who don’t accept feedback, and a few schools which don’t offer it. In those cases you need to just hope for the best. Its a rough process.
Its the day you have been waiting for! Hopefully your inbox starts to fill up with good news. Many schools nowadays send email notifications of acceptances, wait lists or rejections. A few still use snail mail and I wish they would stop. If a school calls you it’s always good news.
Because not everyone emails, it usually is a day or two before you have the full picture for your child.
If you got into your first choice, you dance a jig, call them up and say we’ll take the spot! Then sign the forms and send in your deposit check (usually around 25% of tuition).
There are tuition insurance plans and there are specific instances where you should consider purchasing them. If you are in danger of losing your job, `being relocated, moving or a major life changing event in the next 12 months it’s worth getting the insurance. I think the bar is pretty high in terms of getting tuition reimbursement, you need to prove job loss, relocation etc. You cannot get the insurance and then wait to see if your child gets accepted into Gifted and Talented public school (G&T) and expect not to have to pay full tuition at a private school where you signed a contract.
I’m sorry to say that if you get a rejection notice there is nothing you can do. Unless you know someone in serious power who owes you a huge favor (who you should’ve talked to before) you and your kid are out of luck.
Waitlisted with an Acceptance Somewhere Else
Ugh. This is surprisingly common. Unfortunately I hear very mixed opinions on whether waitlists move. In my child’s experience they did not. At the most desirable schools there is probably fewer than 10 total spots which move. At other schools you may see more movement. If your kid is waitlisted at a few schools you like and accepted at one which maybe wasn’t your first choice you probably should “work” the waitlists and hold your breath til the last moment when contracts are due. I know people who hand delivered the contract one hour before the deadline because they were waiting til the last minute hoping to get their child off a waitlist.
Tell your PSD what is happening and get her advice. Then telephone the schools where your child was waitlisted and very nicely try to talk to the person who interviewed your family during the playdate or the Director of Admissions if possible. Tell them you want to stay on the waitlist, that you would accept a spot if offered, you think XYZ school is a great school for your child and can they give you any information? Ask them when you should next check in with them. The default is daily, but some will say to call on a certain day. Some schools are helpful, some aren’t. If they say chances aren’t good, take them at their word. If your child is on a “priority” waitlist hold out a little hope (but not a lot) and call them everyday, being as nice as you can to whomever picks up the phone. Your PSD should be doing what she can to gain any additional insight. You want schools to think of your kid first if a spot opens up.
FAQ – Questions You Were Afraid to Ask
Will I or my kid feel poor at private school in NYC?
Yes. At some point. As you know NYC is the city where someone else always has more, and school is no different. There are $20 million dollar apartments, private planes, homes in Aspen and Chanel for middle schoolers. But it’s not the norm. There are some in every class, but definitely not a lot or even most. I don’t think kids start to notice much till 3rd grade, and even then it depends on the school. And yes, some parents are snooty and stuck up, sure, but so are some people in your family or your co-workers. The way I look at it is you may well be spending the next 12 years with these parents, just try to work on getting along. There are also a tremendous number of people who are getting hidden help from grandparents for this massive expense and thus its hard to nail down many folks financial situation.
Do schools care which college my spouse or I attended?
Maybe. It’s never going to hurt your application if you attended an IVY or Stanford or MIT or an extremely exclusive small liberal arts college. Are schools going out of their way to recruit families with this profile? Probably not. However, the honest truth is that there is a huge population of parents in NYC who meet this criteria and it doesn’t add that much to an application. Schools probably care more about the parents current job than they do about your education history. If you or your parents happen to have a library named after them at one of these schools, then obviously you have “connections” and should be working those, and a good admissions person will be aware of this connection (and it may make a difference). To this day I cultivate friends who have libraries named after their families at Ivies….
What counts as a connection?
In order of importance: Personal friendship with a Head of School, friendship with Board member of school, personal friendship with admissions staff, sibling attending the school, faculty/staff kid, alumni of school, friend of current family. A famous person in any field (finance, media, arts, sports, etc) will use some social currency to make a connection, usually with a board member. The famous are also often desirable in schools, depending on their speciality. Some schools love Master of the Universe types, some media, some “Pile of Money” folks, some actors or film people, you get my drift….The rest of us work our entire network of friends and acquaintances to see if we know anyone who knows anyone who can help us. Even if your child is at one school it pays to learn who is on the Board there, as often these Board folks know each other and if you later need to get your second child into another school they may be helpful.
Can I make a cash donation to get into a school? And if so how much does it cost?
The short answer is NO. There is no smooth way to mention to the admissions staff that you will casually give school XYZ $100,000 if little Betty is admitted. I have even heard tell of a parent who gave $250,000 to a school and still the child was not accepted.
HOWEVER….there are ways to make connections which involve large outlays of cash, and they might make a difference at some schools. As previously mentioned, befriending Board members can help your application if they are willing to go to bat for you. If you happen to know who the Board members are at certain schools you can certainly learn what other charitable endeavours they support and if you have enough cash you can get on their radar in the New York social scene…… How much cash does it take – who knows? A table at a black tie charity event runs 10K and up…..and you will probably want to try and approach more than one Board member…so you do to the math. I’m not saying this kind of blatant favor seeking works, but it probably won’t hurt your application. But wait, I’m barely going to have enough to pay for tuition, I don’t have the money for these “connections”. Relax. Most people don’t do any of this and their kids get into a private school. Truly.
Do schools care if I’m a stay at home parent or if I’m working?
Probably not. I think schools may strive to have a mix of parental types, but they don’t go about planning to have X number of stay at home parents and Y number of working parents. Your kids birthday probably matters more.
What’s all this about my kids birthday?
Schools are looking for a range of ages to compose a class. When you go on your school visits check out the birthday charts in the room. I guarantee you will see that almost every month has a name in it. This is not a coincidence. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this but every school is trying to cover a range of ages within the class. The “best” birthdays are Sept – Feb. Late summer birthdays as earlier mentioned are the toughest, but sometimes you can try for the same school again.
What about Diversity, does it help? What counts as diversity?
Diversity helps. Unclear how much, but it can help your child gain admittance. Most schools are looking to have a somewhat diverse student body and all kinds of diversity help at least a little bit. Racial diversity (all kinds), religious diversity (unless you are applying to a religious school), economic diversity (your household income is less than 100k), ethnic background (Non-American foreign national preferably not speaking English at home), sexual orientation of parents and family formation (adopted child most commonly). Probably visible diversity is most valuable for racial diversity in admissions, a Hispanic with blonde hair and blue eyes is perhaps a harder sell. I never seem to see many children with physical disabilities in NYC but if the school can accommodate the disability then that also counts as diversity. Schools like it when you speak another language at home and will certainly consider this in the profile of your child.