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Cracking the Kindergarten Code

7. What are six things you shouldn’t say to the admissions officer?
“My son has a mild learning problem.” Though they don’t always like to admit it, most schools shy away from children who have issues that might affect their ability to learn or behave in the classroom. A few years ago, Riverdale’s then-director of admissions told an adviser who asked about the school’s attitude toward kids who might need extra help, “We’re not set up to deal with kids like that.”

“Let’s hang out together.” You may feel like you’ve established a rapport with the admissions director. Great, but don’t spoil it by going too far. One woman ended an interview feeling so good she hugged the admissions director. “Sometimes parents end up feeling so comfortable in their interview, they reveal problems that could raise flags,” Quinn says.

Don’t ask probing, and possibly sensitive, questions. “The proportion of teachers with advanced degrees is an indicator of a school’s commitment to academic excellence,” Rowe says. “But it’s challenging to ask about it at the interview.”

Avoid bragging of any kind, and don’t make any claims for your child unless you can absolutely, positively back them up. One Upper East Sider exaggerated his son’s viola playing, claiming the boy was a virtuoso on an application essay. The school asked him to bring it to the interview to hear his son play. Words like gifted, fantastic, and terrific can sound great coming from a nursery-school director, but from a parent they sound like the crassest hyperbole. If you think your daughter’s a genius, work it into an anecdote about how she’s been crazy about math since she was 2.

Don’t sound rehearsed. “I get the sense of talking to more parents who’ve been prepped for interviews, and it’s a big turnoff for me,” says Ronnie Jankoff, Allen-Stevenson’s admissions director. “I want to get to know the parents, not have people who are coached.” In other words, “admissions officers have astute bullshit monitors,” says one pre-K director.

“And for God’s sake, don’t mention money,” advises Uhry.

8. What’s the best way to talk to an admissions officer?
Ask questions that relate to what each school cares about. For example, Friends cares a lot about creating a community and about community service. You should refer to that in your conversation. Bank Street, which has mixed-age classes, is very concerned that the kindergartners it enrolls can hold their own with the older first-graders. Be prepared to tell stories illustrating how mature little Todd or Sarah is.

And be genuine. That means not showing up for an interview at Sacred Heart wearing Chanel and talking about how important diversity is to you. If you like going to the ballet more than working at a soup kitchen, say so, but shape it positively. Ask questions that relate to your interests: “Is there a dance group, because our family really enjoys going to ballets on weekends.”

9. Should I prep my kid?
The prevailing wisdom states that not only is it unhelpful and wrong to try to give your precious little one a leg up on his classmates, but it’ll come back to bite you where it hurts. Playgrounds are rife with stories of 4-year-olds blurting out, “I’ve done this before,” at the test. ERB testers, everyone warns, are trained to spot kids who’ve been prepped, and admissions directors are on the lookout for children whose test scores don’t match up with the teachers’ reports.

But the fact is, pre-K intelligence tests are notoriously unreliable measures of intelligence—studies show that who conducts the test and where it takes place can alter performance, scores can swing wildly on retesting, and practicing can result in significant increases in performance. What’s more, lots of people prep for the test. “We interviewed 200 families who just completed the application process, and over half reported doing some level of preparation,” says Quinn.

Child experts, from psychologists to educators, warn against outright coaching but say there’s nothing wrong with helping your daughter work on the skills she’ll need to use on the ERBs. “The abilities tested—pattern recognition, comprehension, vocabulary—are skills parents should be stimulating in their children from the time they open their eyes,” says Dr. Chris Lucas of NYU’s Child Study Center.

In other words, there’s prepping, and there’s Prepping.

The same logic applies for the school interview. “Giving your child advance exposure to the kinds of things he’ll be doing or asked in the interviews is perfectly fine, as long as it’s done gently and with your support and assurance,” Dr. Lucas says.

Though most schools won’t hold it against you if you promise your kid an ice cream afterward for playing nice, they don’t take kindly to advising your kid not to tell anyone about it. “That’s a very negative comment on the parent, and we certainly do take note of it if we find out,” says one admissions officer.