Private Preschool: Demystifying the Admissions Process

In the off-Broadway comedy “Application Pending,” Christina Bianco stars as a new admissions officer at Edgely, a private New York school where minorities are “heritage-rich” and the cafeteria caters to “those afflicted with gluten allergies and Judaism.”

Bianco plays Christine, the naive admissions officer, baffled not only by the job’s politics but also by the panicked parents who phone her incessantly, desperate to get their kids IN: There is the Yente mom who emails videos of her son’s musical performances; the president of Build-A-Bear who bribes Christine with a stuffed-animal look-alike; and the shy father hoping for a scholarship. The fast-paced character shifts and frenetic vibe (good grief, how did she memorize it all?) reminded me of being that frantic New York parent running back and forth between applications, tours, interviews, and, well, raising a child. And I’ve only gotten as far as preschool!

Private Preschool Admissions Process

The admissions process for private preschool — some say warm-up for kindergarten — can be daunting, even though, or because, you usually begin when your child is one or two years old. Though there is no uniform set of admissions steps, most preschools require at least some of these:

The Open House

Many schools begin a relationship with you at their open house. These events can range from casual, self-guided tours where teachers and current parents are on-site to answer questions (come prepared!) to hours-long PowerPoint presentations about their Italian-based, creative-centered, resilience-focused pedagogical philosophies.

You’ll get to see the school space. I witnessed roof gardens, indoor sky-lit playgrounds, toddler ceramics studios, and science labs. You will think of your childhood and feel envy. Sometimes, there are perks. My husband attended one with lobster roll sliders. Score.

The Application

Usually the open house is followed by a written application. This can range from a half page requesting contact information to (in our case) a 13-pager that asked for a list of my and my husband’s board memberships, along with a reference letter for our one-year-old daughter. Between wrestling your poorly-Ferberized baby to sleep and wrangling with these parent essays, you’ll have missed dinner. (See lobster roll above.)

Get ready to answer questions about your child’s favorite book, song, or activity, and to articulate her strengths and weaknesses. A wise admissions officer advised me to be honest — she wants to work with parents who are able to see their child’s problems too. This is the moment when you begin to see your little coochie-coo as a human with foibles. (De-tachment parenting.) But don’t forget to express these “challenges” gracefully (i.e., “She’s so wonderfully robust that she turns over all the furniture.”).

The Parent Interview

And then there’s the parent interview, which is rumored to be the most critical stage — it is, after all, the parents who make up the preschool community. Again, the style varies by school: I participated in an enlightening conversation about toilet training; engaged in an improvised game (“Pick a word from the bag, and use it to catalyze an anecdote. QUICK.”); took part in a nerve-wracking conference call (“What’s your parenting philosophy?” “Um, Stoicism? Pragmatism?”); and was part of a group interview in which I was asked to describe my child in one word in front of a room of prospective parents — the elevator pitch for my toddler.

Click here to read about the one thing parents should avoid saying in the admissions process.

The Playdate

Finally — in case you had too much free time — most schools require a “playdate,” in which they observe your child alongside several other toddlers as they all play with dolls and break crayons. Of course, you’ll either turn up early and have to wait in a tiny room with no toys, or your kid will fall asleep just as you arrive, and you’ll have to rouse her — either way, she’ll be howling. As a parent, you are usually asked to sit on the side and stay quiet. You’ll watch teachers vigorously take notes, wonder what they are seeing besides toddlers covered in Play-Doh, and pray that your child listens to instructions, transitions well, and engages in minimal violence.

At the end of all of these interviews and essays, your child will end up in preschool. And it will all have been worth it. Plus, you won’t have to go through this ever again ... until kindergarten.

A Final Thought

It seems overwhelming. It is. But it was for Christine, too! The play explored her concerns about her own family, reminding me that admissions staff have personalities and preferences. Preschool directors are passionate experts in early childhood education; many of them founded their schools based on research they had done, and are involved daily at all levels. They seek students and families who will fit their community, and that makes sense. In the end, no one I know was “shut out” of preschool, and most parents are happy with wherever their child ends up. (This process generally engenders good fits, after all.) Most of all, they're happy to watch their child grow up, safe in the knowledge that she's making a mess somewhere else.

Try Noodle's personalized search to find preschools in your area.