Your child may be ready for preschool, but are you ready for the application process?
If you choose to go the private-school route, you’ll be faced with a multi-step, multi-month undertaking that might seem more administratively overwhelming than your own college applications and — as you put your tiny, precious one up for her first round of outsider evaluation — more emotionally overwhelming than your wedding. Here are a few tips for successfully managing the process while also maintaining a modicum of sanity.
The Application to Apply
Some NYC preschools are so popular they use a lottery system to manage the pool of applicants — meaning that you have to apply in order to apply. You’ll be asked to fill out a written form (some short, some long), and then, depending on how many spots remain after the ages and genders of siblings of current students are taken into account, you may be invited to continue the process.
In general, most preschools will prioritize admitting siblings and legacy children, and at times, applicants from families known to the school through current attendees. They also typically try to create classes that range in ages (so, children whose birthdays span fall to summer), and that balance boys and girls. Some claim to seek cultural diversity.
If you want to learn about a school and its staff before preparing to dig into that 401(k), see if it offers group or individual tours during the spring or summer prior to application season. I set up visits with several local schools in August when the city was quiet, and had the opportunity to meet directors one-on-one, especially at newly-established schools.
What a Preschool Application Might Include
Once you get clearance (if needed) to apply, you’ll have the real application before you. The full application process usually involves some or all of the following steps:
- A written application
- A school tour or open house
- A parent interview
- A playdate-child interview (euphemism for “rigorous assessment that will be entirely incomprehensible to you”)
- An application fee (typically between $40 and $150)
The written application, which can often be obtained and submitted online, may be as short as one half-page or as long as — in my daughter’s case — 13 pages. Some applications ask for basic information about your child and family (age, address, gender), while others require answers to specific questions, or even short essays. For instance, these are all questions from applications I completed:
- “Please tell us about your family values.”
- “Please describe your child’s speech and language development.”
- “Briefly tell us about your child — his or her likes, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses.”
- “If we were to walk into your child's classroom, how would we know which child was yours?”
- “What’s your child’s favorite toy?”
- “What’s your child’s favorite book?”
- “What are your thoughts and priorities in choosing a preschool?”
- “What do you consider to be the most important part of raising children?”
- “List several adjectives that describe your child.”
- “How does your child play with others?”
- “Please attach a family photo.” (Um, why??)
Tips For the Aspiring Applicant
Basically, you want to approach the preschool application as you would most school or job applications. Give yourself time to work on it before the deadline rolls around. Answer what’s asked. Keep to the space allotted — that is, no need to attach your baby’s resume, the screenplay you’ve penned about nanny culture, or a précis of your doctoral work on toddler gender dynamics in the digital age.
Do Your Research
Make sure you actually know some details about the schools you are applying to. Most private preschools were founded and are run by a director who has a particular vision based on years of pedagogical research, or perhaps, based on years of running a local playgroup. Such professional and philosophical experiences may well result in quite different schools, so read each school’s website descriptions of its educational and social philosophies.
Consider the School Community
Many schools foster community and favor local families, hoping that relationships will extend outside the classroom and into neighborhood playdates and park gatherings. Some are affiliated with churches, synagogues, and other religious or cultural centers. These schools usually — but not always — provide religious-based education and may also offer additional children’s events or community-involvement opportunities for the family. Your tuition may go to help fund the broader institutional community, or you may need to purchase membership in the affiliated organization — above and beyond your tuition.
Learn About the Teaching Philosophy
Preschools offer a range of pedagogical approaches, from child-centered and progressive to teacher-led and traditional. Some preschools offer curricula based on very particular education philosophies — such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia — and draw children from all across the city.
You might also consider the facilities: I’ve seen art studios, ceramics classes, science labs, yoga sessions, piano lessons, ballet training, and on and on. Some have outdoor playgrounds on site; at others, children are taken to local parks daily. Consider which learning approach will suit your child as well the range of experiences you want her to have at this young age.
Take Into Account the Schedule
Many schools run full-day programs with extended care that continues beyond a traditional school day (similar to what you would find in a day care), while others meet for only a few hours a week. With these latter programs, parents must provide full- or part-time child care to cover the hours when school is not in session. Some preschools have different children attend on different days, whereas others have the same class members enrolled throughout the week. Some schools mix age groups, while other schools have 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s classes for children in each of these age brackets.
A Note About Ongoing Schools
Some schools are solely preschools, whereas others are “ongoing,” meaning they lead to elementary school and beyond. Admissions counselors (and some parents) caution that, if you do apply to an ongoing school that accepts your child, and you end up declining its offer, the school may be reluctant to entertain an application from your family later on. Try to think about your present preferences as well as those that are a little — and really only a little — further down the road.
It can also be tricky to switch from an ongoing school because its admissions office is not set up to help with the “exmissions” process — that is, helping children gain admittance to another school for kindergarten. They are less likely to allocate resources to helping families apply elsewhere than a school that ends at a particular grade level.
On the contrary, one of the appeals here is the fact that once you’re in, you’re in! If you find a preschool-elementary school that meets your family’s needs, securing admission when your child is three will ensure that she has a place for the next several years, a circumstance that means you won't need to go through another admissions process for the immediate future — and that is no mean feat.
How to Write About Your Bundle
As for writing about your child — that is a tricky task. Of course, you think your darling is a supermodel genius (because she is!), but in this context, you have to present her to an assessment committee.
Try to use concrete details and lively anecdotes to convey a sense of your child’s unique personality, and of how she negotiates the world in her own quirky, amazing way (even if her age is still measured in months). If you have the space, it’s better to describe how your toddler recently interacted with ketchup packets to create a Jackson Pollock rendition across your new dining room table than to simply declare that she is curious or artistic.
Share plusses and minuses so that you seem objective, level-headed, and easy to work with — but explain those weaknesses in positive terms. (“My child has no sense of cleanliness or spatial boundaries” might be better characterized by the Jackson Pollock anecdote above.) Think of negatives as places where there is room to grow.
If you must include a reference letter, ask someone who actually knows — and likes — your child. (Bonus points if this person is also a celebrity who likes to donate libraries or is on the board. Triple score for both.)
Remember to Breathe
It’s true that applying to preschool is a challenge — and not the sort most of us want to repeat. That said, many families manage to get through it, and most end up at a school where their child thrives. So, as you’re filling out a brief form or a national-security-clearance-length application, remember that you too will find your way to the other side. And it will somehow seem worth it in the end.
Follow this link to read more of Judy Batalion's advice about the wacky, wonderful world of private preschool admissions.
Much has been written about how to write a parent statement or essay for your child’s applications to private preschool or continuing K–12 schools, but little has been written on what not to write.
For parents of preschoolers to students at older points of entry (and all the years in between), the finest example of admissions/application essay instructions can be found in the Common Application to U.S. colleges and universities.
The Common App asks applicants to write a statement of 650 words about anything — anything at all — so long as the statement is about them. You may think that sounds easy, but it’s not. For example, the finest Common App essay I have ever read was by a high school senior who, at age seven, started volunteering with kids diagnosed with cancer. The little girl became a national advocate for volunteering with sick children, appeared in the media, and won prestigious awards for her work. Over a decade, she worked with over 100 hospitalized children, befriending each one as well as their families. Her college essay, however, wasn’t about her work or the accolades she received for it. It instead detailed how she had stayed close to these parents and siblings, and talked about the emotional impact upon realizing that she was a link, often the final one, to the children the families had lost.
The same principles apply to parent essays. To make it easier, we ask parents to not use adjectives when they write and describe applicants. Terms like brilliant, gifted, caring, talented, and a host of others not only bore admissions committees, but scare them. If, for example, a parent genuinely feels his child is brilliant or gifted, is that same parent going to expect and demand “special” treatment for that child if and when she is admitted to the school, taking teachers’ precious time away from the class at large? That is how to get rejected on the spot.
Try to write an anecdotally-driven parent statement.
For young children, a day in the life of your child is far more interesting and introductory than a list of his or her attributes as observed by Mom or Dad. For older kids, one or two academic or social experiences is a good suggestion for parent admissions statements, especially the effect these experiences had on the child’s development.
Do not write a statement longer than a single page.
There is much to say about every child, but school applications may not be the venue in which to say it. If schools receive 900 parent statements for a particular point of entry, how much do you believe actually gets read if the statements are overwhelmingly long? More saliently: will it get read at all?
Do not feel you have to impress.
Usually when parents write to impress, it has the opposite effect. The “leader” who is always first to finish the reading or art or math project and “help” his peers in the classroom, while at the same time designs the group’s imaginary games and activities, is often perceived as demanding and overbearing. This is a more central question: can that same leader also assume the role of follower, giving others a chance to shine and create?
Don’t try to conjure the future.
The kid who likes playing with a science kit is not necessarily destined to become a neuroscientist, just as the kid who enjoys writing about his summer vacation is not necessarily tomorrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Above all, don’t overstate.
A child who donates his or her gently used clothes or toys to charity is not Mother Theresa helping the poor, or Jimmy Carter building homes for humanity. She is a kid learning about charity and community service.
Balance what you write.
Few kids, especially younger children, actually sit around all day trying to perfect a task or learned skill, whether that be math, writing, art, or computer science, and if they do, they are missing out on many other aspects that childhood and adolescence exist to introduce them to. Admissions directors are famous for asking the magic question, “What else is your child interested in?” Schools do not teach one subject; they teach many.
Don’t brag, even inadvertently.
Your child’s interest in the ocean, marine life, and swimming is fine to write about as is his fascination with changing seasons, nature, and animals, as long as it isn’t preceded by the words: “At our vacation home ...”
Finally, an admissions essay is not the place to list the people you know who are connected to a school (parent, alumni, board member, etc.). For the most part, admissions directors do not like the “powers that be” to dictate which students to accept, and that is the subtle message of a parent statement that name drops.
We are taught to be ourselves at every turn. It’s hard to do in private school admissions, when you suspect that other parents are presenting better selves than they really are, and, of course, painting rosier, larger-than-life pictures of their children. Yet, being honest often yields the best results in terms of admission at virtually every point of entry. Think about the simple, beautiful message of the aforementioned Common App essay.