Private school admissions: The parental frenzy continues

The independent school admissions process for kindergarten and first grade came to an end in early March. The consensus is that it was one of the most competitive years ever.

The reasons? One we've been hearing for quite some time: "The negative reputation of the New York City public school system is definitely a contributing factor. Many parents don't even bother to check the elementary schools in their area, some of which have excellent programs," says George Davidson, director of Grace Church School and a board member of the Independent School Admissions Association.

The other reason is a more cyclical one: a booming economy . "People say: if I can afford something better I might as well get it. In 1992 that was not necessarily the case. Parents turned down our school for public schools in the area. That does not happen anymore," Davidson reports.

Interestingly, although the number of applicants at many schools has increased dramatically in recent years, the number of preschoolers who are "taking the ERBs" (the evaluation test given at the Educational records Bureau which is required of pre-school through first graders seeking admission to virtually all the city independent schools) has increased nominally - from 3000 in 1996, to 3200 last year. The implication is that parents are applying to many more schools. "The whole process is overwhelming. Parents feel insecure," explains Jo Ann Lynch, director of admissions at The Buckley School. "The increased number of applications is possibly because parents want insurance. They apply to a wide range of schools so that they will have more choices."

But families applying to more schools means that they'll be turning down all schools but one. And according to admissions directors we spoke with, submitting applications to more schools is not the best way to approach the process. anyway. Instead it is better for parents to look for institutions that share their family's values. "There is not necessarily a need to apply to so many," says Jo Ann Lynch. "Do a self assessment to see what you are looking for. Do a lot of reading, talk to people you know, and ask questions. Apply to schools that share your philosophy."

Acceptance is based on the ERB test, the nursery school report, and an interview with the child as well as the parents. Stiff competition has prompted parents to hire tutors for the test, a practice that is discouraged by most admissions directors, who say that when a child has been coached, it becomes obvious.

Says one director: "This test is a developmental evaluation. Basically, what it measures is what stage a child is at and whether or not an adult has spent time with the child."

When children come into the school for an interview they are generally observed playing with a group of other applicants. Their development and motor skills are evaluated. They might be asked to draw a picture, play a ŒSimon Says' game, or predict what will come next in a book or rhyming scheme. A member of the admissions committee might begin a conversation and hope that kids will talk to each other.


Considered as important as the child's interview at many schools is the parents' interview. Both parents are advised to attend to show their commitment to their child's education. If there is a dress code at the school, parents and their children should dress more formally. It is also wise to say something nice about the school and to show that you've read the school's literature by asking questions that are not already answered in brochures. And of course, do not be late or cancel without calling the school.

One admissions director explained that she's looking for parents who will get involved in the school, who can talk about their child's strengths as well as what they are looking for educationally , and who are non-confrontational.One admissions director recalled the parent who said, during an interview, "I know you only accept people who know people like Woody Allen and Donald Trump." His lack of respect hurt his daughter's chance of being accepted.

sidebar Acing the ŒERBs': Should you hire a tutor?

With the more prestigious schools accepting less than 10 percent of candidates, many parents wonder whether children need to be tutored in order to have a competitive edge.

"If parents are relaxed and early training is made enjoyable, children are exposed naturally to certain tasks they need to be able to do for admissions tests," says Dr. Dominick Antonelli, a New York City clinical psychologist.

On the other hand too much pressure on a child to excel can be harmful. "Some parents are tremendously driven to get a child into the very best schools. This attitude can be detrimental to the peace of mind of the child and detrimental to their enjoyment of the younger years," Dr. Antonelli explains. "A good tutor would know the skills involved in the tests and have a practical and healthy attitude about how to instill these skills in the child, just like a good teacher. But I can think of parents themselves who were good tutors and gently introduced the child to learning in a joyful way.

Sheila Harris, an educator and the founder of Skills for Excellence, trains parents to build skills in their kids while having fun at home. "I donít call what I do tutoring. I call it enrichment. Kids do not need to be coached for the ERB exam because they have everything they need just by being themselves."

Harris offers a consultation to the parent to come up with ideas that will help the child learn. "Parents might read books to their child before bedtime. I show them how to look for books that are a lot of fun but also build skills." The parents she works with go home with a bag of carefully selected games, books, and materials, which help their children to become more focused, better thinkers, and more inquisitive while they are having fun.

"The worst thing that a person can do for a child is coach or do something specific for the test. When learning is fun and skills are being built the little one is wonderfully prepared for anything."