Judy Batalion’s Private Preschool Admissions Tips: The Application

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.