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How to Navigate Private School Admissions

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Getting your child into a top private school in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco is time-consuming and competitive, filled with moments of sheer boredom and hair-trigger stress. Listening to a dull head-of-school blather on and on is downright boring. Racing to the post office to get your applications in on deadline is ridiculously stressful.

I’ve been through the admissions process, twice for each of my two kids. My family survived the ups and downs, twists and turns, and so will yours. My kids are at a wonderful private school in Los Angeles, just as we’d hoped they’d be. My husband and I weren’t private school legacies or “insiders.” We were just two parents who were determined to get our kids into private school.

If that sounds familiar, you’ll need patience, time, determination and a lot of luck. That annoying former colleague who talked about her kid’s private school constantly? Now’s the time to dig up her number. She may be your best contact at the school. I invited a former colleague to coffee, and she was my “secret weapon” through the admissions process.

When you embark on this journey, you might feel like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," as she travels down the Yellow Brick Road and encounters all kinds of characters (some admissions directors may remind you of the Wicked Witch). So, put on your ruby red slippers to navigate the ups and downs of the admissions process. When it’s over, you’ll (hopefully!) be holding a handful of acceptance letters as you pop open a bottle of celebratory champagne.

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Top-tier private schools have more than their share of wealthy families. But they also need middle-income parents with great kids. They need ethnically diverse families, too. Most importantly, they want families who believe in their school’s mission and educational philosophy. They need kids who will flourish and excel at their school. They want parents who will volunteer and give money, when possible. Private schools offer financial aid (based on need) to bring additional ethnic and socio-economic diversity to the school.

I’ve seen parents with newborns on school tours. That’s called getting a very early (neurotic!) start. You don’t need to tour so soon after your baby is born, but you do need to allow time to apply. The best time to start is when your child is a preschooler (about 3 years old). Start to pay attention to kindergarten admissions, assuming he/she will enter kindergarten at 5 to 6 years old. You'll need to understand how the admissions process really works and what admissions directors are looking for. There's no question that getting into top-tier schools is an insider’s game. But anyone can play the game as long as they understand its hidden rules.

See an A-list celebrity on your tour? Pretend you don’t know who it is (yes, you, Matt Damon).

It was astonishing to me how little information private schools offer prospective parents. Information provided by private schools is carefully selected and, in many cases, very limited. Schools provide families with basic information about the admissions process like tour dates, their school’s programs and application deadlines. What they don’t spell out is how to navigate the process to get your child in. This leads to rumors, gossip and false assumptions as parents anxiously try to find out who will get in.

Yes, it’s competitive, but don’t let that deter you from applying. See an A-list celebrity on your tour? Pretend you don’t know who it is (yes, you, Matt Damon). They’re probably just as unsure about getting in as you are. Well, maybe not Matt Damon, but some of them.

Top private schools receive far more applications for every opening, creating a competitive admissions environment. For example, a top-tier school may have 25 open spots for kindergarten, but receive 350 applications. These schools are expensive (ranging between $18,000 to $35,000 per year), so you need to pay close attention to the qualities you want in a school and your family’s educational values. Ignore the hype and focus on what’s best for your kid. If you’re unsure, talk to a few trusted friends and your preschool director. This is a time for discretion, not posting about your school search on Facebook.

There isn’t only one good school, despite what the other moms at your preschool are saying. Be open-minded. Start early. Tour a ton of schools (10 is a good number).

If a school that emphasizes its theater arts and choir programs impresses you, but your child has no interest in these activities, this school may not be the right fit (even if everyone else at your preschool is raving about it). A school that requires a two-hour drive round trip may be excellent, but if you can’t get your child there every day, there’s no point in applying. Are you looking for a traditional school with nightly homework, structure and uniforms? If so, will you be happy sending your child to a school that doesn’t give homework until middle school, believes in a progressive, child-centered approach and frowns on conformity? These are the type of questions to consider as you look at schools.

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I’ve learned that there are a lot of truly amazing private schools out there. Small class sizes, inspiring teachers, beautiful campuses, specialists for art and music. You name it, they offer it. Your little one has just as much chance as anybody else to get in. My advice? There isn’t only one good school, despite what the other moms at your preschool are saying. Be open-minded. Start early. Tour a ton of schools (10 is a good number). Apply to lots of schools (four to six). Ask for help from well-connected friends. If you don’t have well-connected friends, ask your preschool director to help (she’s probably very well-connected herself). Don’t take any of it personally. Don’t be afraid to apply for financial aid if you need it. Play by the rules (the school’s rules, not your own). Trust your intuition. Wine helps too.

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