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Cracking the Kindergarten Code

A few preparation options that won’t raise red flags: For the tests, get professional help from educational consultants like Sheila Harris, who suggests games, books, and other materials parents can use to help their children develop learning skills, or Roxana Reid, an educational social worker who runs Smart City Kids, and who identifies areas in which children can improve skills that are used in the test and help with the preparation.

Test in the spring. “Kids are often more focused and comfortable in a test setting after nine months of school than when they’ve been off playing for three months over the summer,” notes Reid. New friends, new teachers, and the fall virus season can all result in lower test scores. Also, in the spring the field is smaller and competition lighter because fewer parents think of doing it six months early.

For the interview, let your child know what he’ll be doing. Is it a one-on-one with a teacher, a playgroup, or a combination? Talk about the interview in a positive light. And practice: Arrange show-and-tells with kids he doesn’t know, and have your child speak to unfamiliar adults, first with you present, then without you.

10. What’s the best way to sway a school?
“We always like to know if a family loves us,” says Allen-Stevenson’s Ronnie Jankoff. And nothing says love better than a first-choice letter, the note most families, after much hand-wringing over which to choose, send to the school to which they’d either most like to gain entry, or think they have the best chances of doing so—many times a combination of or compromise between the two. “Even though many schools don’t ask for a first-choice letter, it’s a show of real enthusiasm for and commitment to a particular school, which makes it easier for me to pitch a child to that school,” says Linda Herman, director of the Weekday School.

Why, you may well ask, if so many schools are deluged with applications, should an admissions director care so much whether you tell them that of the eight, or ten, or fifteen schools you applied to, hers is the one you’d most like to send your child to?

The answer lies in the yield—the percentage of families who actually accept a school’s invitation to join their community. It’s a more important number to the admissions department than how many applications it receives. “Admissions directors have to report to boards of directors, and one of the key figures they’re judged on is their yield,” says author Victoria Goldman. In a time when boasting an acceptance rate lower than an Ivy League college inspires yawns, a yield nudging 100 percent is a cause for celebration. “It’s the ultimate indicator of a school’s appeal and the admissions director’s skill,” says Hernandez.

Most schools in the top tier reap yields in the high eighties or nineties. Take 10 to 20 percent for the next rung. “Spence,” says one admissions expert, “supposedly had a 100 percent yield last year.”

Game your choice wisely, because you’ve got only one in your quiver. Some schools just file the letters away; others outright don’t want them. Admissions advisers mentioned Collegiate and Bank Street among the schools that fit into those categories. On the flip side, Trinity, Friends Seminary, and all the girls’ schools except Brearley are said to value them. Schools such as Hewitt and Packer, both making strong efforts to rise into the upper echelons, are also good candidates.

Finally, you may have to use your own judgment, based on the feel you get from touring and interviewing at the schools you liked the most: Do your child’s style and academic inclinations match up with what the school seems to be looking for? And should you send your first-choice letter to the school you like most where you also think you have the best chance of getting into, or the one you most desire? Which strategy you choose often comes down to your attitude toward risk.

11. What if I get shut out?
It doesn’t happen often, despite what the gossip on’s New York schools online forum would have you believe, but it happens: “I always get a bunch of calls on February 15 from parents who didn’t get in anywhere,” says Uhry. “It’s what I like to call the start of the second season of the admissions process.”

It may seem like the end of the world, but there are always options. First, get on the phone to all the schools you didn’t end up applying to. “There are always schools that still have openings,” says Uhry. “It’s a matter of talking to admissions directors to see who’s got what.”