How to get your kid into an elite preschool

Young parents and little girl blowing into straws and making colorful foam in glasses with soap bubbles liquid

Looking to get your kid into the preschool equivalent of Harvard or Yale? You’ll need to have connections, cash and, of course, an understanding of the preschool system.

How did we get to this point, where getting your kid into a preschool takes as much effort (and often as much money) as getting him or her into a good college? In short, math. The country’s urban centers are drawing more and more people (particularly in regions where the economy is thriving), and preschool availability hasn’t kept up. In Manhattan — which is pretty much Patient Zero for this trend — there are far fewer slots at the so-called Baby Ivies than there are applicants. New parents in San Francisco and other tech hubs will tell you the same thing.

But we’re not here to solve that problem. We’re here to help you navigate it. You can do so by taking these simple(-ish) steps.

Start by making a list of schools

We’ve already covered the topic of how to find the right daycare for you, but the TL;DR version is: Ask around, consider your budget and prioritize your values. Of course, since we’re talking about elite preschools here, we’ll assume your budget skews toward “money is no object,” and your values lean toward finding the absolute best for your child (or at least the best exmission policy—that is, the school that promises to get your child into an elite kindergarten). Whether that’s Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf… is a topic for another article.

As for “asking around,” there is no shortage of online research you can do for just about any major city. If you’re in New York City, you’ll want to check out Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York, an association for private school admissions, which is a handy resource for application deadlines and open house dates. You might also consider an offline resource, the guidebook The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools by Victoria Goldman, who coined the term Baby Ivies in the first place.

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Prepare early

Experts recommend making a wishlist more than a year and a half before you expect junior to enroll. If that’s around age 2, then that means you should get going when your little one turns six months old. And remember, typically the latest you can apply is the fall before your child will start, so keep close tabs on all related deadlines.

Save up now

Per Forbes, some elite schools will set you back more than a decent state school (as in, a university)—up to $40,000 per year. That’s… not nothing. Of course, that’s at the highest end, but according to a recent report from the non-profit group Child Care Aware of America, families on average spend just over $9,000 per year per child on child care. And that’s before you factor in that, in many regions of the country — particularly those with elite preschools — it costs much more. (Some schools do offer need-based tuition assistance.)

Hire a coach

Look, you’re busy. And busy people often employ help. This is like that, but for keeping everything straight when applying to preschools, a long and often arduous process that requires high organizational skills, and benefits learned experience. (After all, you’re likely doing this for the first time, and you probably won’t do this more than a few times at most.)

The Forbes article quotes one coach who offers her services for $150 per hour over the phone, $250 per hour for an in-person consultation or $400 for a two-hour workshop with other families. It sounds, well, ridiculous, but if it saves you time in the long run — and gets junior into the school you want — then perhaps it’s worth it to you.

Network

As with anything else, it helps to know a guy (or gal) who knows a guy (or gal). It’s already a good idea to ask other parents if they know of any good preschools, so you have an idea of what places have what kind of reputations. If you luck out, there’s a chance that parent will make a key introduction for you or your kid, or tip you off to a sudden opening. Even if that doesn’t happen, you still might make a parent friend (always in short supply).

And then there are the opportunities presented by the school itself. You’ll likely schedule a tour of the school—since you’re trying to put your best foot forward, it’s ideal if both parents can attend, and typically your little one will come with you. (Pro tip: Feed him or her a snack beforehand to head off any hunger-related meltdowns.) Somewhere in there, you could also attend an open house.

You’ll also have some form of in-person during the application process. Which brings us to [dramatic pause]: The application process.

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Nail the application

Assuming you’ve got the connections and the research and the cash parts down, you’ll still have to, you know, apply. This can be grueling and, you guessed it, costly. Expect to pay around $100 per application, give or take.

At an especially elite school, as few as 5 percent of applicants might be accepted. (In general, schools don’t publicize acceptance rates, but this is an estimate from the aforementioned coach.) So you want to present your family and your little one as well as possible.

Now, the easiest way to get in would be if you have an in — for example, you attended the school yourself, or you already have a child enrolled. We’ll assume that’s not the case. Instead, you’ll be doing a written application, including an essay section with strict word and character counts. These essays will ask you to assess your child’s strengths and opportunities, and/ or what the child might gain from attending the school in question. Be honest. Tell the story of your child, taking care to show, not tell, by using examples. Don’t just say Johnny loves music; tell a story about the time he banged a wooden spoon on pots and pans in time with the drum solo from “In the Air Tonight.”

There will likely be an interview, too, with someone in the school’s admissions department. Again, be yourself, be honest, and be prepared with concrete examples of your child’s delightfulness. This is a chance to talk about your kid! Every parent loves that.

A note on timing: Again, applications are typically due the fall before your child will enroll. Missing a key deadline is a great way to waste all the hard work you’ve done preparing.

Bonus: When all else fails, ask the Dalai Lama for a letter of recommendation

That’s apparently what one Manhattan family did for their kid, according to the New York Post. All you need to do is, um, establish a personal connection with the Nobel laureate. But then you’ll have that going for you, which is nice.

And that’s all there is. (Kidding.) From there, you’ll wait. Your kid will get in. Or won’t. And life will go on, junior can still go to the Ivy League (or, you know, somewhere else that’s right for him or her). Every parent wants the best for their child, and what’s best for your child isn’t always what’s “elite.” As long as your child is somewhere safe, where he or she receives ample love and attention (and learns a thing or three), you’re doing all right.

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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.

Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational only, and the information provided is not written or intended as specific legal advice. Haven Life Insurance Agency does not provide legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own legal counsel.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC 042017 [OK1] and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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