How to Gain Control: The NYC private school process

Seeking admission into a private school has become a rite of passage for the families of many New-York area school children. This past year, our family went through the application process. There were many moments when my husband and I felt overwhelmed by the experience. However, gaining control over the following factors helped us preserve our sanity and improved our chances for success.

1. Timing. We wanted time to carefully consider where we would apply. So we began the application process in the spring previous to the autumn in which we applied. We joined Parents League and attended their spring and autumn panel sessions in which admissions directors from various schools discussed the application process. At Parents League, you can also meet with an advisor who can help you draw up a list of schools. We read books that described the schools, spoke with educators and friends about the schools they knew well, and we devised a list of schools that particularly interested us. We went on as many spring tours as possible. We noticed that the more we toured, the more we developed our powers of observation. In June, we met with our pre-school director to seek her input into where we should apply. We began calling the schools for applications at the earliest possible date they had specified, and we completed our applications right away. Because we submitted our applications by the beginning of October, the schools called us early on to schedule both child and parent interviews. By scheduling our child interviews early, we were increasing the likelihood that should our child be sick on interview day, the school would still have time-slots available for rescheduling.

2.The search for the “right fit.” It seems that schools and parents are looking for the same thing: the “right fit” between child, family and school. But we quickly learned that there were many places that could be right fits for us. In our meeting with our pre-school director, she confirmed that the admissions process was highly competitive. She stressed that we could increase our chances for acceptance by making realistic choices about where to apply, and by applying to about eight schools.

3. The Good News. The good news for us was the overall excellence of the schools that we visited. If touring the schools hadn’t been combined with anxiety over getting our child accepted, the process would have been fun. As it was, it was fascinating. We saw tremendously dedicated teachers and highly engaged students everywhere we went. We discovered that our child could get a wonderful education and have a healthy social experience at a wide variety of schools. We felt that as a family, we could fit in well at many schools. This discovery helped to ease the pressure.

4. Writing Applications. The applications all ask, in different ways, the same three questions: “Who is your child?” “What are your family values?” and “Why do you think our school is the right fit for your child/family and vice versa?” I found it helpful, before I began writing each application, to read the school’s material first. I kept in mind that it was important that I remain grounded in reality while writing about our child and our family. The schools to which we were applying would all be receiving a confidential teachers’ report from our child’s pre-school. If there were large discrepancies between the pre-school’s perceptions and mine, the validity of my statements might be called into question. Once I began organizing my thoughts, I discovered that Hemingway’s advice to writers still has a place in the world of application writing: be specific, be clear, be succinct, and show, don’t tell. For example, instead of writing, “Delia is smart. She loves science,” one could say, “Delia has asked where the brain is located in the body.” One way to “show” instead of “tell” is to emphasize using active verbs instead of adjectives. This can help keep an application from sounding like it was written by adoring grandparents. It puts the focus on what the child “does” rather than on vague descriptions of how wonderful the child is. Rather than explicitly telling the reader what conclusion to draw, this method allows your evidence to make your point for you. Nevertheless, it remains a fine line between describing the strengths of one’s child and boasting about the child, and while writing, I often lost my ability to judge when I had gone over the top. Therefore, after writing a first draft of my application, I took the precaution of asking a more objective reader to red-pencil it. Beware the anecdote. It is one thing to give an interviewer an incisive insight into one’s child; it is another to tell cute stories. My editor eliminated 50 percent of my first draft in an effort to save me from my own creative writing. Finally, I didn’t trust my computer to catch all of my spelling and grammatical mistakes. I reread my final application several times at different sittings so that I’d be fresh enough to catch errors. Because our application offered some specific insights into our child and family, our interviewers knew a fair amount about us before meeting us. Thus the interviews went quickly into depth, in specific ways, about a wide range of subjects. We were able to use our short interview time to more comprehensively present our child and ourselves.

5. Recommendations. It was important to us to ask two people who know our family and child well to write recommendations for us, even though many of the schools do not require them. Recommendations can somewhat objectively expand upon important points raised in the written application. Also, they increase the number of points-of-view from which a family’s candidacy is supported.

6. Child-Interviews and the Educational Records Bureau exam (ERB). We didn’t want our child to be as anxious as we were about the interview process. We told him we would be visiting schools for the following year, and that he would be the one to choose from among them. We also mentioned that several classmates had visited whichever school we were going to, and had said it was “cool.” This scored points. We added that it was important to be polite, so as to be a good representative of the pre-school. When possible, we requested morning time-slots — when our child is most awake and alert. We chose interview clothes with him the night before, to lessen the chance of a last-minute rejection of the “interview outfit”. At the downtown schools, most interviewees wore new-looking play clothes; at the uptown schools, most boys wore corduroy pants and a sweater, and many girls wore understated dresses or pants outfits. Our child insisted on wearing sneakers at all times, and we allowed that, because we felt comfort was an important element in achieving a good performance. The night before, we tried to make sure our child had a calm evening and went to bed early. The morning of the event, we encouraged him to eat well. We brought a drink and snack along with us to the interview or test site just in case. We tried to arrive early, so we would have a little time to orient ourselves to our surroundings. Our first stop was the bathroom. Then, while we waited for things to begin, we sat down to read the book that our child had picked out before leaving home. After the first couple of interviews, our child became more comfortable with the experience, and was happiest at the mid-point of the interview process. By the time we reached the last interviews, he was eager to return to a usual pre-school routine.

7. Parent Interviews. My husband and I, like our child, became better at interviewing with practice. We tried to follow the same rules when we interviewed that we had relied on when writing our applications: be specific, clear, succinct, and show-don’t-tell. Before we interviewed at a given school, we read the school’s catalogue and curriculum guide. We reviewed what we had been told and had observed during our tour. Then we discussed our sense of the school’s orientation, and what might constitute a good fit in the school’s culture. We had chosen where we would apply based on where we thought we could achieve a good fit; we were aiming for acceptance at every school at which we interviewed. We thought carefully about how best to express, at each different school, and in specific ways, that while we had a strong family identity, we were flexible enough to work successfully with a wide variety of people, that our values were humanistic, and that we felt comfortable in the culture of the school at which we were interviewing. We aimed to present our child very favorably, but in an honest way. Often our interview took place a couple of months after the school had received our application. So before the interview, we would make a few mental notes that served to update the information we had given on our application. Then, during the interview, we would mention a couple of new titles of books we were reading with our child, or cite a concrete example of a new stage of development our child had entered upon since the time we had submitted our application.

8. Open Houses and Events. Although we were always feeling pressed for time, we went to as many of the school-sponsored events that we were invited to attend as we could, and found them informative. They were among the few opportunities we had to learn about how the schools viewed themselves and their goals. Although we were mostly focused on our anxiety about “getting in”, we knew that once we had been accepted and signed a contract somewhere, we would be spending years of our lives in that place. We knew it was important that we have as much information in hand as possible when choosing a school.

9. Notification from the schools. Our outcome was successful. We received some acceptances, some wait-listings and some rejections. During the admissions process, we had heard school administrators repeatedly say that most families would end up with at least one placement. They cautioned against two risk factors that could lead a family to total rejection. The first was focusing too narrowly on one school or one type of school. The second was failing to apply to schools that would be realistic fits for the applicant child and family. Our result seemed to support that assessment. The process of applying to independent schools ultimately taught us a great deal about our family and what we seek in an educational environment. Had we had been rejected by all of the schools to which we had applied, we would have used the insights we had gained from this experience to find a good alternative.