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Everything you need to know about applying to high-school in NYC

How to make NYC high-school admissions less scary
How to make NYC high-school admissions less scary
Authors personal photo

September 11, 2013 marks the first day when New York City middle-school students can begin registering to take the Standardized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) or request an audition for the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

Yes, public school has only been in session for three days, but it's already time to think about next year.

Applying to high-school in New York City is a multi-month (or year - that's up to you) process. In a NY Gifted Education Examiner Exclusive, one been there/done that mom takes you through the process step by step, below....

Having gone through the New York City Kindergarten admissions process three times, I thought I was well-prepared to tackle high-school admissions with my oldest son. I was mistaken. Compared to high-school admissions, Kindergarten is a basket of kittens and puppies. Remember how, in Kindergarten admissions, you can either enroll at your local school, enter a lottery for an unzoned school, or take a single test for Gifted & Talented then, if your child makes the cut-off, rank your choices and wait to be notified where you got in?

High School isn't like that. Click View the List at the bottom of this article for Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About New York City High School Admissions... But Didn't Realize You Needed to Ask....

Step #1: Don't Panic
Step #1: Don't Panic Author's personal photo

Step #1: Don't Panic

For one thing, while you do have a zoned school, you also have the right to apply to a multitude of other schools in the city. How many schools? Oh, about 400, give or take. The process begins in 7th grade, when your child will be given a telephone-book sized tome listing every option in New York City (or, as a guidance counselor acquaintance called it, "The Big Book of Fiction"). If your child is anything like mine, he will spend the summer obsessively leafing through it, considering his options: Big school? Small school? Selective? Specialized? Screened? Artistic? (You can get a head start considering your options with this on-line directory.)

Of course, once he makes up his mind, he'll have to read the fine print to discern if he's even eligible to apply. Some schools give priority to students in their district, others to those in their borough, yet others to those with a 90 and above average GPA and stellar attendance (though, of course, this being NYC, there are always exceptions to be made. The question is, how hard do you want to work for them?).

Step #2: Hit the Books
Step #2: Hit the Books Author's personal photo

Step #2: Hit the Books

If you are interested in one of the city's Specialized High Schools, i.e. Stuyvesant, High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Brooklyn Latin, High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Queens High School of Science at York College, or Staten Island Technical School, your child will need to take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) usually given in October. This test is composed of three sections, English, Math and Logic. If playground lore is to be believed, there are kids who begin prepping for this test in 4th grade, attending weekend cram schools in an attempt to make the cut-off (which varies from year to year and by school). Other playground lore suggests that some children get in without ever cracking a book.

My family chose to split the difference. The summer before 8th grade, we got my son a variety of prep books - he found McGraw Hill’s New York City SHSAT and Barron's New York City SHSAT: Specialized High School Admissions Test the most useful - and he spent every weekday morning taking a practice test. What we gleaned from the process was this: If your child already knows the material, then the prep books are very helpful in teaching them how to take this specific test, which is written in what I assume to be a deliberately confusing manner, in order to weed out as many kids as possible. If your child doesn't know the material - the math tested in October isn't attempted in most public schools until the spring, and the English, especially the scrambled paragraphs, is a skill no human being will ever need ever - the prep books won't do much good, and you may need to turn to either a private tutor, or a tutoring company like Princeton Review or Kaplan. The NYC Department of Education does offer two sample tests online via their Specialized High Schools Student Handbook, and there is a free tutoring program, DREAM, that begins in 6th grade for economically disadvantaged as defined by Title I Free Lunch status students who also meet certain grade and attendance requirements.

Step #3: For Art's Sake
Step #3: For Art's Sake Author's personal photo

Step #3: For Art's Sake

One specialized high school that does not require the SHSAT is LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. It, like Talent Unlimited, Frank Sinatra, Celia Cruz, the Professional Performing Arts School, Gramercy Arts and Brooklyn High School of the Arts, is an audition school. Students are required to demonstrate exceptional talent in an area like Music, Drama, Voice, Instrument, Dance or Fine Arts, and come prepared to perform. (For a list of Art Portfolio Prep courses, click here.) There is also an essay to be written on site component to many of these schools, as well as an interview.

Step #4: Research Deadlines
Step #4: Research Deadlines Author's personal photo

Step #4: Research Deadlines

Interviews are additionally required at selective schools like Bard High School/Early College and Beacon High School, among others. In order to prep my son, we held mock practice sessions, asking him standards like "Tell me about yourself," "What do you do when you're not in school?" and "How would you make the world a better place?" (the process is sort of a combination job interview and Miss America pageant).

An important thing to remember is to sign up for any tests and interviews as soon as possible, or risk no more spaces being available. Also make sure you know when all the deadlines are for submitting portfolios, personal statements, and other supplementary materials that vary school by school and date by date.

Step #5: Rank 'Em!
Step #5: Rank 'Em! Author's personal photo

Step #5: Rank 'Em!

Then, after all the tests have been taken and the interviews completed, come December your child will be asked to rank their choices in order of preference and hand it in to their guidance counselor. Keep in mind that there is more than one list. You rank all your Specialized High School choices on a different form than your Selective High School choices, and a school like LaGuardia gets its very own spot. Rank carefully, because you will be given the top choice you qualify for on each list, and there is no room for Buyer's Remorse. Because of the different tracks, it's possible for your child to end up with up to three acceptances (and we're not even counting private or lottery schools). They will then have about a week in which to tour them all (again or for the first time; many schools don't allow tours until you've already been admitted) and accept (only) one offer.

In the end, the most important thing I learned about the process was to have the child do a majority of the work themselves. I had my son book his own appointments, schedule his own tests, prepare his own portfolio and do his own studying. This way, he was invested in the process. It wasn't a case of my dragging him from place to place. He put in the effort, so he cared about the results. It was all his responsibility and thus his achievement.

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