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Getting Your Kids into the Country’s Most Competitive Kindergartens

Experts share tips on how to maneuver the cutthroat application process at the top pre-schools and kindergartens

Requesting the Pope, Donald Trump, or Bill Clinton write a recommendation for a 5-year-old, hiring a handsome actor to portray your husband throughout a school admissions period, and sending 1,000 cupcakes to the admissions office. What sounds like the premise for an episode of a primetime sitcom are actual realities for many parents, revealing the lengths they go to—bartering, bribing and brownnosing—to secure a spot at a top-tier private kindergarten. Many parents view sending their little ones to elite schools, like New York City’s Dalton and Trinity, as a make-or-break pipeline into Ivy league colleges. “This is a process that’s highly competitive because of supply and demand—there are more families seeking spots in good schools than there are spots available,” says Terri Decker, an educational advisor at Smart City Kids. To help with the process, educational consultants, psychologists and coaches share top lessons.

STEP 1: PREPARE 

Join groups.

You’ve read the books and scanned parenting websites. Now what? Many pre-schools offer toddler groups and Mommy and Me programs, which give parents a glimpse of the school’s education philosophy, community, teachers and administrators. “Toddler groups are like a preview to a movie—they’re a microcosm of the preschool,” says Michelle Nitka, clinical psychologist, educational consultant and author of Coping with Preschool Panic.

Know your geography.

Position yourself—pre-schools like to draw from the neighborhood because they want to build a sense of community, says education and parenting consultant Devra Weltman.

How early is too early.

“Some people would literally call from the hospital to put their name on the waitlist,” says Anne Simon, an L.A. educational coach, consultant and co-author of the book Beyond the Brochure: An Insider’s Guide to Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles. But this is the exception—most schools don’t accept applications until the year before. According to another Los Angeles-based educational consultant, Jamie Bakal of L.A. School Mates, parents can kick off the process approximately two years before their child begins kindergarten. This gives them enough time to tour, research and find their fit.

STEP 2: APPLY

Meet your match.

A brochure can be all talk, so it’s important to visit schools, get to know the other families that are attending and find out how the school operates. “Don’t just go off reputation,” says Nitka. “People get fixated on one or two popular schools—the flavor of the year schools—and those might not be the right fit for your family.” Find your philosophy and core education values. “While you don’t have to have your child’s IQ tested in utero, it’s not a bad idea to start doing research on schools as you establish priorities,” says Decker. From Montessori to Reggio Emilia, there are several methods to choose from. According to Simon, some questions to consider: What kind of a learner is your child? Are they exploratory or do they like to be receptive? This will help articulate what you’re looking for in a school, academically and beyond. 

Cast a wide net.

According to Manhattan Private School Advisors founder Amanda Uhry, some schools receive over 1,000 applications for 60 kindergarten spots, including siblings and legacies that have preferential treatment. “It’s the best education money can buy and that’s why everyone wants it,” says Victoria Goldman, educational consultant and author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools. Translation: apply to no fewer than five schools. Be realistic and include a wide range. “It’s like college—you can’t just apply to Harvard and Yale,” says Nitka.

STEP 3: INTERVIEW

Avoid the Preparation H—Preparation Harvard—topic.

“Never ask about a school’s Harvard, Yale and Princeton matriculation rates,” says Emily Glickman, educational consultant and NYC’s Abacus Guide Educational Consulting president. Foster a good relationship with your child’s pre-school teacher and director. Oftentimes pre-schools will facilitate the process for applying to private elementary schools, giving those families an edge. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a long-term plan, but that plan should be fluid,” says Weltman.

Don’t over or undersell.

Speak honestly about your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  “We had a parent who insisted his son was a concert-level pianist at age three,” says Uhry. “When his boy came for his visit, they told him to bring the violin. The kid could barely eke out Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Any challenges should be spun into a positive, but don’t overdo it. According to Bakal, “The easiest way to get an admissions director to roll their eyes is to talk about your child as ‘gifted.’” 

Nice guys finish first.

Prepare to be observed at every stage. The preschool director might have the key, but it’s important to be nice to everyone, from the security guard to the parent tour guide to the head of the school, according to Decker.

Don’t treat it like a quiz.

While some schools focus on academic questions, others look at social and emotional development. Interviews range from paper and pencil assessments to highlighting a child’s motor coordination (recognizing numbers and letters, sequencing items) to hosting a playgroup while observing interaction with other children, sharing skills, eye contact and more. “There’s no way to prep a 4-year-old for what will essentially be an observation of their potential classroom behavior and basic skills set,” says Decker. Parents should come with questions, know what makes the school a good match—it’s not enough to say it has a good reputation—and think about what they can offer the school community (e.g. help plant an organic garden with kids). 

Practice makes perfect.

According to Nitka, kindergartens look for children with strong, executive function skills. That includes the ability to follow multi-step directions and transition from one activity to the next. “If you tell your child go sit down and draw a picture of your family, and he or she stands on the desk and draws a dog, that shows he’s not focused or able to follow directions,” she says.

Be yourself.

What feels right to you will probably be right for your child. Keep calm—children play off their parents’ feelings, so if you make it too intense, they’ll appear stressed, according to Weltman. Stay consistent with what’s said in person and the message shared on the application. “It’s almost like a branding process,” says Simon.

STEP 4: TACKLE POLITICS 

Think outside the box.

Don’t stick to the questions about the curriculum. “Do not be afraid to ask the hard questions—it will never reflect badly on you,” says Uhry, who cites bullying and how a school disciplines children as examples. But never challenge the school’s expertise. “Our favorite no question: ‘My child is very bright—how will you keep him or her challenged?’ says Decker. “You want to be the kind of parents the school wants to have in their community.”

Avoid name-dropping.

“Bragging will garner you a rejection faster than admittance,” says Uhry. “Parents should stop with famous people writing glowing recommendations. Schools don’t buy it.” For many top-tier schools, connections have become the norm, diminishing their value. While recommendations that come from someone important at the school may help bring attention to your child’s application, choose wisely. According to Decker, a lukewarm recommendation from a board member might not carry as might weight as a heartfelt one from a family that’s well liked by the admissions office. Either way, it’s not the be-all and end-all. “Advocacy helps, but a good family is a good family,” says Bakal. “There are many things parents can do wrong in the admissions process. But the worst thing you can do is have a sense of entitlement.”

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