For NYC public schools, even if your child scores gifted, above the 97th percentile on an intelligence test (as 1,788 kids did last year), they still need to enter a random lottery for one of the only 250 seats in the five citywide gifted programs, and may very well end up shut out. (Fact is, those who score in the 99th percentile are served first, so they tend to fill all the seats before the 98th percentiles are even in the running.)
Despite the rumors you will inevitably hear running rampant through the playground, there is, officially, nothing you can do to increase your chances of landing a coveted spot.
For private schools, however, a high-score is only one part of the admissions package (though there are plenty of those, as well; NYC kids score much higher than average as a rule). There are teacher recomendations, there are child and parent interviews, and there is the essay.
In fact, the essay usually comes first. It's included with your initial application and, at some schools, where not everyone is granted an inteview, it may be your only chance to so much as get a foot in the door.
Traditionally, a NYC private school essay asks the parents to briefly describe their child and family.
Traditionally, this is where most NYC parents draw a blank.
What exactly do the schools want to hear?
They want exactly what they say they want. They want to hear why you think your child and, by extension, your family, would be a good fit for their school.
But they want to hear specifics, not generalities.
Don't say, "Madison is very curious and loves to learn."
All children are very curious and love to learn. And many of them are even also named Madison.
Personal examples are best. They are also the hardest to think of when attempting to turn around a dozen essays to a dozen schools in the space of twenty-four hours. (Early bird gets the interview worm, and all that.)
One suggestion is to keep a journal of cute - and clever! - things your child says throughout the year. That way, when facing a crunch, you can just refer to a specific incident.
For instance, my three year old, when hearing the story of Passover and the final plague killing of the firstborn, asked, puzzled, "But, I thought God was supposed to be the good guy in this story?"
My middle child, at that age, when I said that I made a mistake, corrected, "No. You made a Mommy-stake." He also wanted to know, "Why do people say we're Jewish? We're really Jews, but 'ish' means not really."
These are exactly the kinds of anecdotes that show a child's cognitive reasoning, their language skills, and a bit of personality, too.
Every child is perfectly capable of making them. The trick is for the parents to remember. And use them for all they're worth.