Ask a Private School Admissions Expert: Smart City Kids

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. The team of Smart City Kids, a company dedicated to improving students’ chances of admission into New York City private schools, recently shared their insights on the process of applying to these top institutions. Roxana Reid, founder of the organization, has been advising families for several years. She previously served as an adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies as well as the role of Director of Placement at the JCC Nursery School in Manhattan.

VT: What is the typical timeline for private school admissions? For example, outline a sample timetable of applications, interviews, decisions, etc.

Smart City Kids: In general, you will be submitting applications early in September a full year before your child will actually enter school. So, the Spring and Summer before you submit can be used for research and compiling a list of schools that seem like a good fit for your family. Some schools will offer Spring tours or Open Houses, try to attend as many as you can (even if you’re not sure you’ll actually apply to that school) to get an idea of the range of choices available to you.

During the Summer, it’s a good idea to write a couple of draft essays describing your child and outlining what you want in a school and community. 

In September, you will be submitting applications, which are usually required before you and your child are scheduled for tours and interviews, which take place throughout the Fall and early part of the winter. As you prioritize your school list, submit letters of recommendation if you have them, and at the end of the process let the schools know why you want to attend. 

Depending on the grade you are applying for, you will receive a decision in February or March, and you will have a period of time to decide which school your child will attend.

VT: What is the typical process admissions officers go through to evaluate applications? 

Smart City Kids: There are many factors to weigh … the interview (both child and parent), the essay, reports from the child’s current school, test scores if any, recommendations if requested. All of these pieces are put together and discussed in committee with the hope of finding a match for the school, with the Director of Admissions generally having the final say.

VT: What are the most important things children need to have represented on their applications?

Smart City Kids: Every school is different and sets its own priorities regarding their values and priorities. Ideally, schools like a balance of cognitive strength, social strength and a variety of interests and activities.

VT: What are common mistakes parents and/or their children make when applying to these programs?

Smart City Kids: Submitting applications without really thinking through whether school is a good match for the child and the family; what is right (or wrong) for your neighbor’s child might not jibe with the right school for you. Another common mistake is treating a school search as if it’s a consumer activity like buying a car … it’s good to keep in mind that this is a competitive process, more like a job interview than a buyer’s market.

VT: How should parents go about determining the culture of a private school, and whether it would be a good fit for their children?

Smart City Kids: The school’s website will provide a clear mission statement, and tours and open houses will usually discuss community and maybe even give you access to current parents. In addition, talk to families you like and trust who have a connection to the school, again keeping in mind that what is right for them may not be right for you. Alumni can be a good source, but remember that a school’s culture can change greatly over time. Do a little discreet “stalking” … observe the school at drop-off and/or pick-up time to get an idea of the demographic. Speak to your current school director or an educational advisor. Finally, keep in mind that park bench gossip is unreliable at best.

VT: How important are standardized test scores when admissions decisions are being made?

Smart City Kids: It really depends on the school (some will put more of an emphasis on scores than others), but it’s important to keep in mind that all schools are looking at scores as part of a bigger picture, trying to create the most broadly diverse class possible through interviews, essays, school reports, and recommendations, in addition to the testing.

VT: What tips do you have in regards to ISEE prep, SSAT prep, and preparation for other standardized assessments that private schools might require?

Smart City Kids: Most children will benefit from some form of preparation for the ISEE and SSAT, if only to familiarize themselves with the format and content of the assessments. Keep your child’s learning style and study personality in mind … some children are sufficiently prepared working on their own with one of the many study guides available, some will benefit from more structured tutoring over a period of time.

VT: What are the most important things parents need to have well represented about themselves when meeting with admissions officers?

Smart City Kids: You should be able to describe your child in an appealing, well-rounded manner. Keep in mind that no one expects you to be objective, and this is your chance to boast a little, but be realistic about her/his strengths, and make sure any challenges you bring up can be easily spun to a positive, i.e.: “Susie can be reserved when you first meet her, but once she is comfortable she is fully engaged and enthusiastic.”  Be able to articulate what you are looking for in a school, both academically and in terms of community, and make sure your vision is a good match for what the school has to offer. Come prepared with a few well-thought out questions. Your main goal is engagement … you want to be the kind of parents the school wants to have in their community.

VT: How does networking and having in-school connections affect one's chances of admission?

Smart City Kids: While the majority of families entering any school on the first day don’t know a soul, having someone who is familiar with and known to the school to speak on your family’s behalf can be helpful in bringing attention to your child’s application. Choose your references wisely: a lukewarm recommendation from a Board Member might not carry as much weight as a heartfelt one from a relatively new family who is well-liked by the Admissions Office.

VT: How can a student best prepare for admissions interviews?

Smart City Kids: Do your research on the school, of course, but remember that an interview is not a quiz … the schools know who they are; they want to know who you are. Most interviews are conducted like conversations, but be prepared to tell the school about yourself … what are your areas of strength? What’s a challenge? What are your interests outside of school? What does your ideal school look like (make sure that your vision matches the school’s). Also, come prepared with a few questions related to things that interest you about the school … one of the most common questions admissions officers ask are “Do you have any questions for me?” Dress respectfully for the occasion. Turn your cell phone all the way off. Shake hands and make eye contact. Most importantly: be yourself.


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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.