02.14.13

Stuck in New York City Private School Wait List Hell

It’s the busiest week of the year for private school admissions consultants, who are being flooded with calls from anxious parents. Is their kid on the ‘real’ wait list—or the ‘polite’ one? Eliza Shapiro reports.

As if applying to New York City’s most elite private schools wasn’t stressful enough.

Try getting wait-listed. As nervous New York parents find out this week whether their kids got into the $40,000-a-year schools of their dreams, many are facing the ultimate pickle. Is being wait-listed the same as being rejected?

The scary truth: in some cases, the answer is yes. That’s because in the highly complex universe of New York private schools, there are two types of wait lists. The real one includes kids who might get in if others give up their spots. The fake one is for kids who probably don’t have a chance in hell, but the schools want to keep the families happy. These families often receive different letters from various schools, with language emphasizing how much the school loves the child and family, and how sorry the admissions officer is that he or she wasn’t able to find a spot. They might be wealthy potential donors, or they might have a younger sibling the school wants to consider down the road.

“I really have close to zero hope that the wait lists I’m on are true wait lists,” says one mother whose daughter was just wait-listed at five schools for kindergarten. She’s heard of the real versus polite wait list from other parents. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me. So many of us are on all these lists. Obviously they don’t want all of us.”

One friend applied to 14 schools for a kindergarten spot and got 12 wait-list letters and two rejections, she says. Such a high number of wait-list letters, she believes, means everyone stands a worse chance of getting into any school.

It’s no secret that over the last five years or more, application rates for private New York City schools have risen far faster than the number of open spots.

“This is a transparency issue. It’s very stressful to give hope—and that’s what a wait list is—when in truth there is none.”

According to the Educational Records Bureau, which administers admissions tests for private schools, 4,668 students took the tests in the 2011 application cycle, though the true number of applicants may be slightly lower. That was a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Data for this year have not yet been released, and requests for data and comments from admissions officers at Avenues School and Friends Seminary went unanswered Wednesday.

The skyrocketing number of applicants helps explain why more kids aren’t making the cut. As for wait-listing, Dana Haddad, a former admissions officer at private schools Horace Mann and Leman Prep and now an admissions consultant, says schools are trying to keep as many options as possible to construct the most diverse incoming classes.

Private schools admissions consultants say this week is always the busiest time of the year for them, with anxious parents calling for advice on whether a wait-list spot is worth believing in.

“One of the hardest things for parents to discern is what list you’re really on,” says Victoria Goldman, author of the Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools. “It might take some objectivity about your kid and that’s very, very hard.”

Haddad says schools use various tactics to let parents know if their wait-list spots mean anything. Notifying families that they’re on a priority wait list keeps them in the running, she says, and some schools will take special care to personalize wait lists to families with whom they have preexisting relationships.

“The message was delivered more softly in some letters,” says the mother waiting on five kindergarten lists.

“But some didn’t even mention my daughter’s name. Those schools just wanted us to be done with them,” she says, speculating that those are the wait lists worth ignoring.

And she wouldn’t mind being done with the schools, either. “It’s been so much drama, at this point I just want to know,” she says, adding that she’d rather be rejected now than being forced to wait around. “I would prefer closure.”

“It would be much more humane of schools to reject kids they have no intention of admitting,” says Amanda Uhry, president of Manhattan Private School Advisors. “This is a transparency issue. It’s very stressful to give hope—and that’s what a wait list is—when in truth there is none.”

Online parenting forums like Urban Baby and The School Boards are filled with posts from parents asking if anyone is thinking of giving up their spot at Dalton or Ethical Culture, two of Manhattan’s most exclusive schools, so that their kid might be able to snag a free spot.

These forums reveal both the agony of waiting (“Moms waiting for wait lists, what is your plan if you get shut out completely? My mind is racing”) and the ecstasy of getting a spot (“OMG, OMG, OMG thank you! Just got the call”).

And many parents simply won’t take “maybe” for an answer, milking any connection in an effort to get off a wait list.

“Bill Clinton is a popular choice for recommendation letters,” says Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. She and Uhry both say they have worked with families for whose children Clinton has written letters.

Uhry also says she worked with a family who had the pope write a letter for a Catholic school they were desperate for their child to attend.

During her time as an admissions officer, Haddad says she received a letter from former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

“Rehnquist is basically on his deathbed,” she said, “and I get a letter from him explaining that he envisions this 4-year old girl as a Supreme Court justice later in life.”

“He was too sick to be working and he wrote this letter,” she says. “It was absurd.”