How to Choose the Right Private School without Losing Your Sanity

kids preschool smiling happy stairs backpacks school

Choosing the right school for your child can be a daunting, exhausting and nerve-wracking process, especially in New York City. Many parents put their child’s name on preschool waiting lists before they’re even born. Even then it’s not a guarantee your child will be given a place.

For Brooklyn parents, the population explosion that has come with Brooklyn becoming a global brand has meant that many established local schools have admissions rates resembling elite colleges. Many schools require that 3 and 4-year-olds take standardized ERB tests, which has spawned its own industry of test-taking and school interview preparation for tiny tots.

Private school admissions have become so insane that many Manhattan private schools now ration out application forms to a small number of lucky lottery winners, since they would otherwise be deluged by the flood of applications. All this can feel rather daunting to the parent who is neither a hedge fund titan nor a media luminary.

Whether you’re well versed in the peculiarities of the NYC private school scene or you’re fresh off the boat, finding the right independent school is a process that rewards persistence and gumption. The good news is that there are now more options than ever before, with several new Brooklyn independent schools starting just in the past five years.

NYC Private School Tips

So, in choosing the right school for your budding little genius, here are some suggestions to follow:

Choose Your Entry Point

Some independent schools have pre-K programs starting at age 3 or 4, while others start with kindergarten. While it is possible to transfer in later, those are primary entry points for most established schools. So, it is important to choose whether you choose a program that runs from pre-school on up or try and get in at kindergarten.

Unfortunately, at many popular schools, the pre-school slots are mostly set aside for siblings and legacies. Ask the admissions director and they will generally be pretty honest how many actual slots are available for those without a previous tie to the school.

Do Your Research

Once your child reaches 2 years old, it’s time to start looking at schools that you think will be the right fit for you and your family. Each school is different. Each has a different ethos and mission. What’s right for you might not be right for someone else. Therefore, it’s important you attend as many open houses and information sessions as possible.

Most schools host them several times a month, so it’s easy for both mom and dad to attend. They will include a presentation and tour of the school. It’s a good opportunity to see first-hand if the school will work for you or not. Next to your home, 13 or 15 years of independent school tuition might be the largest investment you ever make. So be informed.

Ask Questions

Many parents may feel that they and their little one are under so much scrutiny that they neglect to ask questions. But if there are certain issues that are important to you, then you have a right to know. How many of the teachers at the school have advanced degrees? What methods of math and reading instruction to they use? What kind of communications can I expect from my child’s teachers?

A parent who asks reasonable questions is one who is taking the process seriously and is genuinely curious about how the school differentiates itself.

Evaluate Your Public Option

While average reading and math scores in New York City’s public schools remain discouraging, some districts have grade schools with excellent teachers and resourceful school principals. If you are lucky enough to live in one of them, your child may be able to get a great education with a mix of students that is more diverse than the typical private school.

Oh, and you can bank away that tuition money for college. Ask for a tour of your zoned school and chat with parents with kids who are attending.

Those Pesky Letters

Some parents may be advised that they need to provide a sheaf of reference letters to support the written application they have put together for their 3- or 4-year-old child. While this appears risible on its face, letters from alumni or bold-faced names may sway decisions at some of Manhattan’s elite schools, but only if the writer truly knows your child and has something of substance to say.

Another letter is the so-called “first choice” letter in which a family informs their favorite school that they will accept if admitted. Beware of sending more than one “first choice” letter, however, because Brooklyn admissions directors reputedly engage in a process of “brokering” to try and maximize their acceptance rates and find a home for as many kids as they can.

Don’t Bluff

If your youngster has shown a precocious aptitude for music, math, visual arts or some other gift, don’t be shy about talking about it, or even backing it up with some samples. But don’t make the mistake of hyping the talents of a child who is still developing, since the admissions director may scrutinize these areas more carefully in the assessment process.

Substance Over Status – In the hyper-competitive whirl of New York it is all too easy to get sucked into obsessing about getting your child into the “right school.” But really parents should focus on whether this is the right school for your child and your family. The research and assessment process should be looked at as a chance to have a real conversation about what your expectations and values are.


  • How rigorous of an academic program are you looking for?
  • What level of parent communication and involvement do you expect?
  • Where do you fall on the spectrum of “traditional” vs. “progressive” styles of instruction?
  • Does your child have a clear passion for music, sports, performing, or visual arts?
  • How important is character and values as part of the school experience?
  • Does your child learn in large groups or does she or he need more tailored support?

By asking the right questions, you are more likely to find the school or schools where your child will be happy, well-rounded and successful.

So, take the time to see what feels like the best fit for your family.

And you may be surprised that the school that is perfect for you is not the one with the feverish application lottery and miniscule acceptance rate. You may end up applying to one school or applying to ten or more.

If you get accepted to your top choice, congratulations! If you get a dozen or so rejection letters and are “shut out,” don’t panic.

Many schools may have places left in your child’s age range and provide an outstanding start to your child’s educational journey. As your child moves into higher grades you may have a much clearer view where their aptitudes and interests lie and transfer later to a school that is the perfect fit.

So be curious, enjoy the journey, and rest assured that one way or another your family will find the school that is just right for you!

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Zoe Marmot is the Director of Marketing & Admissions at MUSE Academy.

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