Ask a Private School Admissions Expert: Amanda Uhry

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6 min read

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Amanda Uhry is the founder and owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which helps up to 1,600 families per season in regards to preschool and K-12, boarding school, special needs admission, and college preparation. Before founding Manhattan Private School Advisors, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

What is the typical timeline for private school admissions? 

Amanda: ‘Getting in’ is a one- to two-year process before acceptance. Our many preschool and K-12 applicant families begin preparing for admissions one year in advance. Applications are due between October 15 and December 1. During that time or the spring before, parents tour schools and attend open houses and students are observed (younger children) or interviewed, a process which may go on until January. Parents are also interviewed separately at most schools. Final decisions are mailed or emailed in mid-February for continuing schools or early March for preschools. Parents have a number of days or weeks to make final decisions before schools go to wait lists.

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

Amanda: It depends on the school and the admissions director or staff, but all are generally looking for a child and family that might be a good fit for the school community. Children applying to kindergarten are often evaluated at a group or individual visit to the school, by school reports from preschools, and, at some schools, by AABL entrance exam testing. Children applying to older grades are evaluated via individual interviews or visits, transcripts and recommendations from teachers at present schools, and by scores on the ISEE or SSAT entrance exam – or often, both.

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

Amanda: Applicants need to represent who they really are – and the same is true of parents in their parent statement. It is pointless to tell a school that a child is a brilliant, budding mathematician if he or she actually neither likes nor does well in math, just as it is a shame not to tell a school that an applicant is interested in any subject even if a parent thinks it’s ‘silly.’ Classrooms are made up of all kinds of kids with all kinds of personalities and interests. Parents should not be afraid to discuss a child’s weaknesses or areas that are emerging: this is the hallmark of an honest parent, not a flawed child!

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

Amanda: Children rarely make ‘mistakes’ – they are simply children. Parents make tons. They lie about their child’s talents or interests. A five-year-old who likes to sing is not really the next Lady Gaga, just as a ten-year-old who won the science fair prize is not going to go for the Nobel Prize anytime soon.

Parents also tell schools what they believe the schools want to hear and it often sounds silly and false. Parents need to work with qualified sources – not get their info on schools and admissions from haunting parenting websites that often provide more disinformation on high-stakes schools admissions than usable or even reasonable advice. Just be yourself. Can you imagine spending K-12 at a school positioned as someone who is not you, not your kid, and not really your family?

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

Amanda: The best way we have found is to connect applicant families with families who have students already at the schools. Parents at a school have nothing to gain or lose by being honest about that school’s community.

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

Amanda: That depends entirely on the school. At some schools, testing is very important. At some other schools, it is not important at all – and some schools do not test. What is universally important is that subtests of admissions tests do not have glaring discrepancies. In the ERB for younger kids, for example, it is far better to have average scores on the verbal and performance portions of the test rather than high scores in one area and low scores in another.

What are the most important things parents need to represent about themselves when meeting with admissions officers?

Amanda: Once again, honesty is always the best policy. If you feel progressive education is a waste of time, don’t go tell the admissions director at a progressive school you think it’s marvelous – and vice versa regarding traditional education. Remember that if you get in, faking it ‘til you’re making it may not work in a school community. You could wind up transferring out and doing the entire nightmarishly-competitive private school admissions process all over again.

How competitive? Well, a good number of schools have reported receiving more than 1,000 applications for an average 60 kindergarten spots, and it gets worse moving up. That is not including siblings and legacies. Know before you go and discuss what you want as a family.

Don’t be afraid to be funny and relaxed in your parents interview; it’s a marvelous ice breaker. Also, do not – do not, and I repeat do not – assume admissions officers and staff whom you meet are your new friends. They are nice to everyone and professionally distant with all. That is because, in the end, they have to reject or waitlist up to 90% of the applicants!

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

Amanda: It’s helpful and nice, but it doesn’t always result in an acceptance – not at all. Connections to board members who know you, your family, and your child are helpful. Connections to active families at the schools are helpful, but somewhat less so. Connections to teachers and staff at a given school are often not helpful at all in an admissions decision.

How can a student best prepare for admissions interviews?

Amanda: Your student can be his or herself. Children should also get used to speaking with adults because this is often an issue. Looking a teacher or admissions person in the eye while speaking to them, shaking hands, and saying simple greetings and farewells goes miles in a student interview. Additionally, so does having the student think about one or two school experiences he or she has enjoyed recently at his or her own school and being able to recount and discuss this with poise and passion.

Visit Manhattan Private School Advisors for more information.

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