Getting in Part Two: Private School Admissions

by on December 13, 2012 · 1 comment

The first day of your child’s school in another country can be daunting. These steps should help you prepare

This article is part two of a two-part series entitled “Getting In”. The first deals with getting your children into kindergarten in NYC. It can be found here.

“Are you ready for Labor Day?”

That was the ominous greeting I received from the first parent I met, on our first day in New York, three summers ago. It was the end of August and as my children played on the swings with hers, I made a flippant comment about looking for schools. When she learned we were considering both public and private schools, she sat me down for a chat.

Gaining a kindergarten spot in one of the city’s independent schools is competitive. Schools routinely receive 500 to 800 applications, of which they accept five to 30. Acceptance comes after they’ve run prospective parents and their four year old “applicants” through the gamut of school tours, applications, testing and interviews.

Admissions begin 12 months before your child is due to start school (unlike public schools, kids need to be five by September 1 to start at most private schools). As the first Tuesday of October, the day after Labor Day, is usually the first chance to apply, locals who know what they want hit the phones and websites to request application packages from their favorite schools on this day. This is the start of a grueling five months for locals and expats alike. The only disadvantage for expats is the element of surprise.

I spent the first fall in our adopted city arriving overdressed for open houses, under-dressed for school tours and lamenting the lack of a good old-fashioned waiting list. As the temperatures plummeted so did my confidence. Until, towards the end of the season, I fell into stride with the tour guides to ask questions. I discovered how creative and innovative education could be and, this being Manhattan, learned to shop around.

Step 1: Shopping around (Summer to October)

My first lesson, which would have been valuable to learn before I began, was just how independent New York’s independent schools are. Without a state-wide curriculum to adhere to, they run their own show. From school hours and vacations to whether they begin teaching formal reading programs in kindergarten or third grade. Some assess with letter-grades and others with student conferences. In New York there’s a school for every point on the scale from ultra progressive to staunchly “traditional”.

Accepting this early might make the admissions process, which can feel invasive later in the season, easier to understand. Schools are as concerned with finding the “right fit” for their school as you are for your child. They want to know you’ll be committed to their model of education and that your child will thrive there.


To have a rough list of schools ready for October, start researching in the spring or summer. The Zagat-styled, 493-page Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools is a great place to start, then refer to each schools’ website.

The Independent Schools Admissions Association (ISAAGNY) website has the most succinct admissions advice, including a contact list of all its member schools.

As you make your wish-list, be wary of over scheduling. Each serious application can involve three appointments for you and your child, so be selective while keeping your options open. A list of 10 schools to whittle to between five and eight is reasonable. Pick a school on either side of where you think you stand in the traditional-to-progressive range.

Step 2: The applications (October)

Two weeks after my phone frenzy, I sat before six application forms consisting of short-essay questions: “Describe the applicant’s interests, strengths and weaknesses.” And “describe your child’s learning style…and what you hope they will gain from their time at the school.” I was careful not to overstate but I’ll admit that a close study of the school’s philosophy helped.

Throughout the season, schools offer open houses. These were a great way to familiarize ourselves with the process, pick up pointers based on other parents’ questions, and help cull some schools off our list. Consider them a warm-up for the season.

They’re open to anyone but require registration. ISAAGNY has now posted its calendar of open houses.


Application deadlines vary. Read the admissions timelines on each school’s website thoroughly. A few schools have already posted their forms for the September 2013 intake, but most will be available from Tuesday (September 4). Some will be online but many are still mailed out after your phone call. Some schools stop sending forms once they reach a set number, hence the advice to “be ready for Labor Day”. Some publish a deadline while others close their applications when they’ve received their limit.

Step 3: ERB Testing

Nearly all Independent schools require their applicants to take a $548 entrance test, a one-on-one session with an examiner from the Education Records Bureau (ERB). The test is a mixture of verbal responses, conversations, puzzles and patterning exercises. Results can take up to a month so register early to meet school deadlines.

There is a lot of advice about test-preparation but ignore it. In this, expats have the advantage. Blissfully naive, we simply ensured our daughter had a good night’s sleep prior to her test and plied her with hot chocolate on the way there. The anecdotal results that accompanied her scores reflected that she got along swimmingly with the examiner and enjoyed the challenges.


Children are assessed against other kids the same age, so timing shouldn’t matter. But our preschool director urged us to have our daughter tested before she turned five, when she’d be assessed together with peers who may have had more schooling experience.

Step 4: School tours, interviews and play groups (November – January)

After reviewing my essays and our child’s ERB results, the schools called to schedule “play dates” – where small groups of young applicants participate in class-room activities, have a snack together and hopefully exhibit good social skills while being observed by admissions staff.

We had applied to five schools and at our daughter’s fifth “play-date”, I met a mother who had applied to 11. She and her son had passed the ends of their tethers.

Scheduling includes some form of parent evaluation but it varies so much from school to school, that every encounter was as baffling as the first.

The first, which sounded ominous, was the parent interview. We arrived wary and quickly shifted to stunned when the Director opened with a question about our “family philosophy”. I started speaking without thinking but after a fumbling start I began to enjoy it. This was the first personal interaction we’d had with a school. It was a pleasant opportunity to sit and chat about our children for 20 minutes.

The alternatives to the parent interview were more challenging. One school hosted a “coffee morning”, where we joined four other sets of parents for a Q&A style discussion with the admissions director and chancellor. There was nothing genuine left to ask so the parents’ questions doubled as thinly veiled statements about themselves. Afterwards everyone stood up, gathered their coats and hovered by the door to name-drop. With nothing more to offer we slunk out unnoticed.

Another school offered small groups of parents a tour with a parent volunteer (who speaks for, and reports back to the Admissions Director). While asking about recess time (hard to come by in some city schools) I was body-checked away from the tour-guide by another parent eager to have his presence noticed.

The last school invited us, along with the parents of all 800 applicants, to a cocktail evening in the gymnasium. I later learned that this school’s only realistic intake is through their pre-k program. There were approximately three kindergarten spaces available.


Just a note on interviews. If you’re invited to one, prepare by re-reading your own application answers and the school’s prospectus.

Step 5: Notification Day (February)

We were finished in January. We went sledding and waited for the letters to arrive in mid-February. All ASAAGNY schools mail notifications on the same date and give you one week to accept so respond promptly, whether it’s to accept, decline or take a place on a wait-list.

We received two offers and three rejections (we had culled one along the way). We were happy with all five decisions and our daughter loves her current school. Now that her little brother’s due for kindergarten, I’m just glad we checked their sibling policy.

  • Angie

    This is a fantastic article! Even after living in NY for 3 years I was confused about this process and this article is so clear and conscise! Great!