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And the Race Begins — a Little Early

It’s 7:30 in the morning, and Ben is eating a quick breakfast before leaving for his school interview. Both nervous and excited, he wonders what his first interview will be like. Ben’s mother Alice cannot get him to eat fast enough; she is anxiously awaiting the appointment with the head of admissions. The applications, test scores and essays were sent in weeks ago, everything else is up to Ben. Will he be able to show off his fine manners and inquisitive nature? What about his creativity and talent for languages? To any senior applying to college, this should all sound vaguely familiar. One small detail, though: Ben is only four years old, and he is applying to Kindergarten.

Welcome to New York City’s fiercely competitive Kindergarten application process, where neighbors and friends with four and five-year-olds are pitted against each other as they vie for spots in some of the most prestigious elementary schools in America. To many New York City parents, this race is the be-all end-all, as their child’s elementary school experience alone will determine a life of either success or failure. Even those who have sworn to stay far away from the hype suddenly find themselves immersed, sucked in by the intensity that surrounds them.

The first element of a typical Kindergarten application is the essay: a parent’s chance to lay out all of his or her child’s skills and achievements. Weeks and months are spent agonizing over these essays, as parents try desperately to make sure that they have mentioned every one of their kid’s unique talents and abilities. They will often go to great lengths to build on these abilities- it is common for wealthier families to hire foreign au pairs that will be able to teach their children languages like French and Mandarin Chinese. When Alex McCord from the popular Bravo show “The Real Housewives of New York City” was going through the Kindergarten process with her son François, she boasted about his proficiency in French and ability to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in Latin. Involvement in extra-curricular activities from a young age (even younger than four) is also a key element in an outstanding application essay, something that may grab the attention of the admissions officers. As for the number of schools parents consider? Five is modest; many families will send applications to eight, ten, even fifteen. They are determined to maximize the chance that their child will be accepted to a respectable institution.

Next on the application are the test scores. Kids are required to take the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, an evaluation administered by the ERB that tests a child’s motor skills, problem solving and reasoning, among other things.  Similar to the SAT preparation process, parents will often hire expensive coaches to boost their kid’s scores if they feel that he or she will not make the numerical cut for the top-tier schools. At a time where imagination and games of dress-up are an imperative part of life, kids instead spend several hours a week practicing mazes and math problems with a tutor.

The last step of the Kindergarten process is the critical interview at each school on the application list. It involves almost anything that will help the admissions officers to get to know the child, ranging from one-on-one questioning to the observation of the child in a playgroup or classroom setting. Parents have good reason to worry about this, too, since four and five-year-olds are so unpredictable. If a child like Ben decided to squirm his way through the interview while singing the theme song from his favorite cartoon, the admissions officer could deem him “active” and “musically talented” just as easily as “needed to be refocused” and “a bad listener.”

In many ways, the New York City Kindergarten process is just as much of a gamble as the as applying for college. Even if a child is bilingual, musically proficient, and has impressive test scores, he or she may be turned down simply because the school is looking to diversify its student body. Unlike colleges or secondary schools, legacies are rarely taken into account. Hundreds of children can be applying for as few as forty spots; competition is fierce. As the first wave of acceptance letters sweeps the City neighborhoods, some families rejoice, while others are left crushed. The time, money, effort and careful grooming of their sons or daughters has met with no result. Since many social circles equate the name of a good Kindergarten to that of an Ivy League college, parents on the losing end are confronted with a tremendous feeling of inadequacy. In their minds, their child’s attendance of the  local, public Kindergarten will ruin their chances of attending a good boarding school, being accepted into a prestigious college, or going to medical or law school. The Kindergarteners, however, remain blissfully unaware of the calamity that has stuck their home and their resultantly bleak future. No, they are just excited for their first day of school, dreams of becoming firefighters, astronauts, or race car drivers occupying their sanguine minds.

If you are a high school feeling overwhelmed by applications, interviews and SATs , just be glad you didn’t have to go through a similar process when you were four years old!


To learn more about the New York City Kindergarten process, check out this video:

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