Preschool? Pfft...Why NYC High School Admissions Will Crush You

As amazing as this city is, living in NYC is not for the faint of heart. Raising kids here? Even more so. If you’ve gotten through preschool, elementary school, and even middle school admissions, you may be thinking, “I’ve got this.” Even spreadsheet-making, type-A parents who mastered the earlier grades may be shocked at how overwhelming and chaotic the high school application process is. I should know; I'm going through it with my second kid now and I'm still dizzy from the whirlwind.

Even if your kid is still a tyke, it's worth knowing what you are in for. I didn't want to just rely on my own experiences though. After addressing our mutual PTSD, I got the inside scoop on what you need to know about applying to high school in NYC from a bunch of been-there-done-that local parents.

Too much of a good thing?
Let’s start with the fact that there are over 700 high school programs from which to choose and the vast majority are unzoned, meaning most kids don't have a guaranteed spot at any school. And the process matters. A recent study found that 39% of NYC high schools do not provide a college preparatory education, and that just 18% of the students graduated with Advanced Regents degrees, all of whom came from 25 select schools. You can bet there's a lot of competition to get into those 25 schools, revving up the complications and competition for families even more. 

Say what now?
Once you’ve zeroed in on the schools your kid wants to apply to you have to figure out the application requirements for each school. Of course, none of them are the same. There are many different metrics, and each school will consider some of them, but not others. Things that may impact a student’s eligibility for a school include grades, standardized test scores, attendance, and where they live. Mitch Chaitlin, a Manhattan dad who blogs at, was surprised by the dizzying array of so many different requirements. “Many wanted their own essays, some had their own tests; a lot had tours that you were required to attend (that were more like cattle calls), and several required individual interviews.” Not to mention schools that require auditions or portfolios.

Welcome to the asylum
Unfortunately, there's no one centralized place to find all this information. You can start on the DOE school finder website and high school directory, which will give you general admissions requirements for each school, but then you need to study each school’s website to figure out their individual requirements. And I do mean study; schools also all have their own website designs, so it’s not always easy even to find their admissions information.

Tour little, too late
But hey, you can just go to the tour right? The school will tell you what you need to do once you are there, right? Nope. For some schools, by the time you attend the tour it will be too late for you to actually get a testing spot or other admissions criteria.

No soup for you.
Even getting a spot at a tour can be challenging. They fill up quickly, often happen during school or work hours and can involve navigating huge lines. Pam Kirkbride, who blogs at and has an eighth grader, recently posted a photo of parents lined up one morning for the popular Beacon High School tours, comparing it to lining up for concert tickets. Parents started arriving hours before the tours started, and by the time they started letting people in, the line circled three sides of the block and doubled back again. Popular schools that require reservations also fill up quickly, leaving many frustrated parents without even the option to tour. Cue Alanis Morissette for the irony of being thankful to be able to wait in line for three hours. 

Four score school tours?
Touring a few schools is probably doable for many families, but it would be a full time job to tour all 12 schools on the your application. Chaitlin, the dad blogger hit eight tours, while Jodi Call, a Brooklyn parent, told us she opted to only tour three. “There’s enough information online about each school and more than enough people around who are willing to give personal recommendations and opinions about these places,” she explained. Still, a tour of any kind might strike our suburban counterparts, who have just one local school, as onerous. 

Are we there yet?
So much of this process depends on parents finding (or not finding) a way to manage it all. Kirkbride admits that her circumstances make it easier for her. “I am a marketing consultant and part-time student so I have a very flexible schedule that can accommodate all the logistical planning, scheduling, and touring that is required.” Because folks, applying and finding the right NYC high school is basically about to become your second (or third, or fourth) job.

Get your game face on
Parents need to be on their A game early in the process. The amount of executive function needed to navigate the high school admissions process is way above the head of a 13 year old. It was above my grade as well. Those who have less flexibility in taking time off work or other children to care for, will certainly see their patience and dedication to figuring out this maze of requirements tested. Not to mention those for whom English is not their first language. All these factors can penalize a child's chance of being matched with the best school.

Confused yet?
Teri Cunningham, a Brooklyn parent of an eighth grader, recently posted a quote by Edward R. Murrow to her Facebook page, “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation…” and described the high school admission process as “packed open houses, endless tours, lines wrapped around city blocks (twice), months of sacrificed nights and weekends of preparation, challenging assessments, brain-melting specialty testing, bold interviews, creative personal essays, tedious applications, artistic portfolio development, cruel crack-of-dawn auditions, passionate practice, years of commitment to mastering the common core curriculum, excellent report cards, stellar attendance and more.”

Cunningham says she started out optimistic. “I had entered into this rabbit hole with an open mind and a positive attitude, thinking that it could be something of a fun adventure to explore all of the possibilities. Now nearing the end, I am no more clear than when I started, am completely drained, with a melted brain, and don't even know what to wish for.”

Go time
I like to think that these things always work out. That, even though the process may be maddening, in the end every kid ends up in a good school. But what is the reality? In the DOE's sixty page "Introduction to High School Admissions" handout, they state that 48% of students got their first choice last year, 86% received an offer from one of their top five choices, but 8% did not receive any offer in round one. If there are 80,000 applicants, as the same document states, that means 6,400 families had to restart the application process all over again, not to mention deal with the immense anxiety and crushing defeat of being in that situation. Hold me. 

Believe it or not, these acceptance stats are a huge improvement over what the process looked like before. And in NYC we are used to taking our lumps in exchange for all the benefits we reap from this city. Jodi Call sums it up, keeping things in perspective: “We pay ridiculous amounts of money to live in New York City. We are so freaking stoked to be able to take advantage of one of the perks of living here—the amazing public schools—these are champagne problems, seriously.”

Are you going through the NYC high school admissions process or have you in the past? We’d love to hear your experiences, questions, or thoughts. Join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Top image courtesy of Glee.

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