Confessions of a Preschool Admissions Coach

You think college tuition is pricey? Try preschool in Manhattan (or many other big cities).

From $12,000 a year for five mornings at a neighborhood daycare (call it your toddler’s “safety” school), to up to $40,000 at preschools that are part of elite private elementary schools, these fees won’t just blow your budget, they’ll blow your mind.

But many parents pay for a school somewhere on that spectrum because they have to—there are few other options, unless you want to homeschool.

And then there’s the issue of supply and demand: In New York, there are currently fewer slots at preschools than there are tiny pupils, so “getting in” to the more competitive schools becomes an issue—even for two-year-olds. That’s where a preschool admissions coach like Emily Shapiro comes in.

What Does an Admissions Coach Do, Anyway?
Preschool in New York is “fairly consistently insanely expensive,” says Shapiro, and parents there pay her to help them place their kid in the best school for them.

She’s certainly had a lot of practice. Shapiro worked at the Columbus Park West Nursery School on New York City’s Upper West Side, as a teacher and as director of admissions, for 15 years. Four years ago, after her youngest daughter was born, she shifted into advising parents as a volunteer with the Parents League of New York, then gradually launched her own business, Emily Shapiro Consulting.

But a hired gun like her doesn’t come cheap. Shapiro offers a range of services, depending on what clients need. She’ll meet with parents over the phone for $150 an hour, or come to you for $250. Packages of six to 10 consultations may be available at a discount to parents who want guidance throughout the admissions process. She also holds two-hour workshops for small groups for a flat $400 fee.

But, as some parents see it, that’s a small price to pay if junior gets into Harvard.

We asked Shapiro to demystify what consultants do, debunk urban legends about preschool admissions and offer tips on how to pick the right school—no matter what preschool “market” you’re in.

An Application Process … for Preschool?!
We know: An admissions process for toddlers sounds beyond ridiculous. Don’t worry if you’re not applying to eight schools or constantly revamping your kid’s “application essay.”

But getting a glimpse into the ultra-competitive world of New York nursery schools can be fascinating. In that market, according to Shapiro, the preschool application timeline should look something like this.

And do read on, because below she offers tips for every parent on how to know if a school is a good fit for your child.

Step 1. A year and a half before parents want to enroll their child, they should start making a wish list of potential preschools. Because most New York preschools enroll children at age two, parents should begin their admissions process when their child is one year old.

“The best way to put together a list is consulting a guidebook,” says Shapiro, who recommends “The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools,” by Victoria Goldman.

Step 2. After making a preliminary list, parents should narrow down their six to eight top choices, keeping their odds in mind. (While schools don’t publicize their acceptance rates, “in some select schools, it can be as few as 5% of the number of families requesting applications,” Shapiro says. “In other schools—many of them very good, just not as well-known and prestigious—it may be 50%.”) Part of her job is managing some crazy expectations about the admissions process. “I try to set parents up with a list of enough of the schools that they really want,” Shapiro says. “So people get to a point where they really believe that there’s not only one school where they can be happy.”

Step 3. Applications are due the fall before enrollment. In Manhattan, schools traditionally give out applications on the Tuesday following Labor Day. The number of applications available depends on the size of the school. At some schools, “it’s kind of scary, because applications are given out only to the first 30 or so people who get through on the phone,” she says. “Many schools have since adjusted that policy, with some offering applications by lottery and others making applications available online prior to Labor Day.”

Step 4. Parents should expect to spend more time on certain schools’ applications. “Free-standing nursery schools generally have very simple applications,” Shapiro says. “They’ll ask for your basic information, and then there might be a small space to add whether there’s any particular information they should know about your child or how you heard about the school and why you’re interested. The ongoing schools ask parents to fill out the same applications that they ask the parents of older children to fill out, which are pretty elaborate—like college applications, with essays.”

Step 5. Many Manhattan schools mail acceptance letters on the same day. The Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY), which many top independent schools in Manhattan belong to, sets a date on which the schools agree to send out their responses, then gives parents 10 days to return the contract. “The benefit of that,” Shapiro says, “is that if parents have applied only to ISAAGNY member schools, they’re never in a position where they have to make a decision about their second-choice school before they’ve heard from their first-choice school.”

Busting the Myths
As you can imagine, in a scene this insane, urban legends about getting into preschool abound.

“I worked with a couple who had moved here from Atlanta, and they were just completely dumbfounded by what they were finding,” Shapiro said. “People were telling them that you have to sign your kid up for preschool before they are born, which is completely not true.”

Given that, we asked Shapiro to tackle the other biggest fairy tales in the preschool admissions game:

Myth 1: Consultants can get your child into a particular school. “Parents sometimes come to me with a school or a group of schools that they want their child to go to, thinking that I’m going to get them in. That’s not my job. It’s not in anybody’s interest to try to [game the system],” Shapiro says.

Some schools do want a “particular” kind of child. In other words, some court calmer children while others want active toddlers to keep things lively, Shapiro says. It’s important for parents to be realistic about what will make for the most supportive environment for their kids.

Myth 2: A consultant will write application essays for parents. “There’s a suspicion that consultants are maybe writing admissions essays for parents,” says Shapiro, who doesn’t write application essays for parents. These essays often ask parents to discuss their child’s strengths and weaknesses or to describe what they hope their child will gain from attending.
“The most important thing to mention in application essays is real specifics about what you like about the school and why you think it’s a good match for your family and your child,” Shapiro says. “The school needs to know you are really on board with its mission and share the core beliefs about children and how they learn.”

Myth 3: If your kid doesn’t get into the right preschool, game over. “The one thing I find the hardest to convince parents of is that preschool is not going to determine the ongoing school your child gets into. I don’t think anybody believes me. It’s a very strongly held conviction. If you believe that, first of all, you have a really unnecessary escalated anxiety around the preschool thing.”

What a Good Coach Can Do
Every exclusive club has its own lingo and traditions, and big-city preschools are no exception; a good preschool admissions coach can translate them for you.

“Parents will ask me, ‘What is Montessori, really?’ ” Shapiro says. But it’s not all Montessori, there’s also Reggio Emilia and all the other philosophies, plus ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive,’ play-based versus structured schools. Schools tend to describe themselves using this vocabulary, as if somehow parents are going to magically know what they’re talking about—or have some obligation to know what they’re talking about,” Shapiro says. “How is that supposed to happen?”

Great coaches also save time by clarifying what’s really important in a preschool. For example, parents often want to know how well kids at a certain nursery school do on the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment, a standardized test administered by E.R.B.—an educational services organization—that some kindergartens take into consideration when making admissions decisions. “Schools all stress that it is just one of several factors that go into admissions decisions,” Shapiro says.

But the intangibles of a preschool are what really should matter to parents, not the test scores, Shapiro says.

“When parents visit schools, they should be looking at what I call the hidden curriculum—things like how adults at the school talk to each other, how they model the ways people interact with each other, how they talk to the kids, what children are being taught about taking initiative versus waiting to be told what to do,” she says. “The culture of the school is much more important, particularly at the preschool level, than the subjects it covers.”