How To Get Into A Great Preschool Or Private Grade School

Are you a parent worried about getting your kid into a great preschool or private grade school? Ever wonder about the preschool or private grade school interview process? Or how about what type of interview questions they will ask and what type of kids get in?

After three years of navigating the preschool admissions process gauntlet, this article will address how to get into a great preschool or private grade school. I'm a parent to two young kids currently in private preschool and private grade school in San Francisco.

There are plenty of good preschools and private grade schools. Therefore, thankfully, you won't have to stress out as much about the process because admissions is easier.

However, if you're going to spend the time and application money applying, then you might as well apply to the best ones as well. After all, if your child gets in, the tuition is roughly the same.

Finding A Spot For Your Kids In A Big City

Living in a big expensive city is great. You will have plenty of opportunities to grow your wealth. You'll meet lots of interesting people and experience many new things. However, surviving and thriving in a big city is more difficult due to tremendous competition.

Given most of the highest-paying jobs are located in big cities, big cities will naturally attract the most gung-ho people from the best universities. Competing against the most competitive people can be a fun challenge. But it can also be exhausting.

Once these types of people have kids, there's sometimes a helplessness that overcomes a parent. Suddenly, a parent can't just work harder for little Johnny to get into preschool or private grade school. Little Johnny will have to figure out how to perform on his own.

If you're applying to a selective preschool or private grade school, here's a look into my experience after visiting and interviewing with seven highly competitive preschools in San Francisco. As nobodies, we got waitlisted (rejected) from five and got into two.

Let me first shed some light on the preschool or private grade school interview process. Every school requires one to get to know the parents whom they might invite into their community.

The Preschool Or Private Grade School Interview

To start, the average preschool or private grade school interview runs about 30-45 minutes long. You've got 30-45 minutes to showcase why your family wants to attend this school and how you can contribute.

When a school is private, it can pick and choose whom they let in. Just like you have the ability to pick and choose which school you want to apply to.

If you don't want to go through the preschool or private grade school admissions process, then definitely go to public school. Public schools will let anybody in, provided you are a resident of the area. Further, public school is free. Hooray!

What To Wear To The Private School Interview

I recommend parents wear semi-formal clothing. You want to look as presentable as possible without seeming stiff. Like it or not, first impressions matter.

As a man, I recommend wearing casual work shoes, nice jeans, a collared long sleeve shirt, and a blazer. A suit is too formal. You can probably get away with dress pants and a collared shirt. But the blazer really makes you look sharp.

For the ladies, I recommend similar business casual attire as well. A long dress works well or a blouse with a pair of dress pants. Comfortable work shoes are a safe bet.

Parents just need to come to the interview looking clean and presentable.

Note: After the pandemic, video interviews became the norm. It's much more efficient just doing a video parental interview and a video play date interview with your child.

Questions The Preschool Or Private Grade School Admissions Officer May Ask

After sitting through multiple interviews, here are the most common questions you will likely be asked.

Why our school? – The purpose of this question is to find out whether you've done your homework on the preschool. Since there are various ways of teaching, they want to make sure you are onboard with their methods and philosophies. Learn the history, teaching style, hours of operation, and curriculum beforehand.

Tell us a time when you were certain your little one was one way, but your partner or your little one showed you otherwise. – This question tests how flexible you are as a parent, and how easily you can adapt to new ways of learning. As parents, we have many blindspots. We often think our little one is smarter, cuter, quieter, and more agreeable than he or she really is. It's important to have a realistic view of your child.

How would you describe your son and daughter's personality? – The school wants to hear how well you know your little one. No parent is going to admit their kid is a terrible tyrant. But they can get clues if your little one is indeed hard to manage. Say what comes up first. Be natural and honest. Not every kid is ready for preschool at 2.5.

Additional Interview Questions To Get In Private Grade School

How would you describe your parenting style? – The admissions officer just wants to get more of an idea of how you parent and whether your style will mesh well with their style. Again, if the school is very structured, they may want to hear a more structured parenting style answer. If the school is very progressive and play based, then the opposite may be true.

How do you take in feedback from the teachers? – The more hoity toity the preschool, the more hardcore parents there are. But no teacher or administrator wants to deal with difficult tiger parents who are rigid in their ways. Preschools want to see the parents as parents who will work together in the development of the child and take constructive criticism positively.

How would you like to be involved in the community? A preschool loves parental involvement. The more you can volunteer, the better. I would say at the preschool level, 80% of the reason your child will be accepted is because of you, the parents, if your little one is a normal child. The more you can demonstrate the work you do around the community, the better.

A Numbers Game For Getting Into Private Grade School

Getting into a highly selective preschool or private grade school is a numbers game. You must understand the acceptance rates, and apply based on those rates.

For example, if the average preschool or private grade school acceptance rate is 15%, then you should probably apply to 6 – 7 schools to get into at least one. Take the estimated acceptance rate and multiply it by the number of schools to equal 100%.

If you follow this application count formula, you will highly likely get into at least one school. Even if you get waitlisted, there's a good chance a spot will open up down the road because family situations are always changing. Families sometimes move for work, face affordability issues, go through divorces, and so forth.

Your goal is to apply to as many good schools as possible and keep your name in as many wait pools as possible.

You will increase your chances of getting into a particular school based on your interview skills, commitment, follow through, and potentially whether you ask for financial aid or not.

Preparing For The Preschool Play Date Interview

Getting through the parental interview process is one thing. Getting your toddler to behave and interact during a play date interview is another thing. This is where parents get the most anxious.

Play dates are also usually 30 – 45 minutes long. The play date is usually around six months before your toddler will first be eligible to attend school. The preschool knows there is plenty of time for development from the play date until school starts.

However, if you feel your child is developmentally behind, you may want to wait and apply to a Pre-K for age 4 instead of age 3, or focus on schools that have mixed-age classrooms.

Kids should dress in casual fun clothes that are clean. If your kid is sick, do not send your kid to the play date!

What To Expect During The Play Date

Most preschools will have a play date interview where your child will be invited to play with other children on campus. The purpose of the play date interview is to test out how your child functions in a classroom or play setting. The teachers or administrations will typically set out a bunch of toys and observe how the invited kids react.

Some schools host play dates solely for prospective students in an empty classroom or during hours when the school is closed. Others observe how prospective students behave when invited to join a classroom that is in session.

Pre-COVID, usually only one parent is allowed into the play date room for spacing purposes. During the play date interview, there is typically free time first where your child gets to do whatever he or she wishes in the setting. You want your child to be friendly, interact well with other students and teachers, stack blocks, and not have a tantrum.

After free time is over, a teacher will sometimes invite the kids to sit together in a circle for roughly 10-15 minutes. During circle time, the teacher will probably read a book or sing a song. The children may also be asked to say their name, favorite color, etc.

According to the admissions director I spoke to, roughly 40% of the kids sit in the circle the whole time.

The main keys for a good play date interview are:

  • Sitting patiently and listening to a teacher read or sing for 10-15 minutes during circle time
  • Showing good behavior and able to parallel play or play with other kids
  • Demonstrates the ability to interact properly when shown an item
  • Displays creativity
  • Good parenting skills
  • Articulating why the preschool and the community is right for you
  • How you can contribute to the community and school

To prepare for the play date interview, simply spend as much time reading and playing with your kids as possible. Practice going to story time at the library. Visit playgrounds so they get used to being around other children. And talk to your kids about the play date in advance to help them know what to expect.

The admissions officers are not only observing the kids, but they are also observing the parents. So the more you prepare, the better.

When To Use Connections For Getting Into Private Grade School

If you so happen to know someone on the board of a preschool or private grade school, you may consider asking for a letter of recommendation. The stronger your relationship with the board member, the stronger the letter of recommendation. Poorly written letters of recommendation carry no weight. They are like mercy letters which immediately get discredited. Therefore, be careful when asking.

A board member or esteemed alumni will be willing to write you a letter if you also demonstrate their particular school is the one for you. The last thing they want to do is go to bat for you and have you reject the admissions offer. That looks terrible on everybody.

The board member or esteemed parent alum is putting their reputation on the line for you. They want to find families that exemplify the core values of the school.

Asking for a letter of recommendation uses up social capital. Therefore, you must consider carefully when to use your credits and with whom. Further, if your child gets into the school, will you feel good knowing you got in due to your connections?

I didn't feel good about asking for help, even when I was offered, so I didn't. I wanted to let the schools reject us or accept us solely for who we are. If we got into a school using connections, we would forever wonder whether it was because of the referrer's power or because of us. Further, I would feel indebted to the person, which seldom feels great.

As parents who are also proponents of homeschooling, we were happy to accept whatever the admissions outcome. As a writer, I was also very excited to chronicle my journey in order to help other parents make a decision.

Final Points For Helping Your Child Get Into Private Grade School

Is your head spinning yet? Let's keep going. Here are some final tips for helping get your kid into preschool or private grade school.

  • Long-term commitment. Some schools start in preschool and go up to 8th grade or through 12th grade. If you can demonstrate that you plan to be committed to the area for the long term, fantastic. Schools love this because they want continuity and a stable stream of income.
  • Having realistic expectations / partnering with the community. You are putting your trust and money in the school and teachers. The school values a partnership with the parents. The more you can show you can be that partner, the better. One way is to demonstrate how you've supported other projects in the community through volunteering or donations.
  • Attend all recommended “get to know you and the school” events.These include lunches, dinners, fundraisers, etc. The schools want to see that the parents truly care about the school. Attendance is a reflection of how much volunteering and participation if your family actually gets in.
  • Multiple kids. Rightly or wrongly, having multiple kids should increase your chances of getting your children into your desired preschool or grade school. More children mean a stronger likelihood of future revenue. If you only have one child, you can make it known to the administrators of your desire to have more.
  • Know the toughest grades to get into. The most difficult years to get into preschool or private grade school are Pre-K 3, kindergarten, 6th grade (start of middle school), and 9th grade (start of high school). Therefore, you may want to apply not during these grades to increase your chances.
  • Donate to school fundraisers. Like it or not, showing financial support for private grade schools is important. Since the school is private, it relies on donations from parents.

Parents Matter Greatly For Getting Into Private School

It takes an on-the-ball parent to navigate the preschool or private grade school application process. Parents must follow deadline instructions and fill out application forms that rival college applications. Essays will be written! So brush up on your writing and story-telling skills.

I estimate roughly 85% of your child's chances of getting into preschool or kindergarten is based on you, the parents. The percentage drops down to about 50% when applying to private middle school and under 25% when applying to private high school. In other words, your child's academics and extracurricular activities carry a greater weighting as they get older.

If you can demonstrate you are a loving family who is really committed to your child and to the community, you will increase your chances of getting in. Involvement in your child's future is critical. And involvement takes time.

Preschools and private grade schools would rather not be viewed as daycare repositories. Parental involvement may be one of the biggest differentiators between private and public schools. Remember, the cost of raising many children is not just the money. It's also the time.

What If My Child Doesn't Get In To Preschool or Private Grade School?

Despite applying to a number of schools, your child may still not get in during the normal admissions cycle. There is also a growing deemphasis on merit, which could unfairly penalize your kid. If your child doesn't get in, don't worry. A spot will eventually open up somewhere. You may just need to provide more childcare in the meantime.

However, to hedge against not getting into any preschool or private grade school, apply to public schools as well. Public schools can't deny you admission. Therefore, your child will always be guaranteed a spot if you apply. If you live in a area with highly-rated public schools, even better.

At the end of the day, you just want a preschool or grade school that is safe, caring, close by, and has a teaching system that fits your lifestyle and financials. I’ve made the argument that if you make at least 5X the annual tuition cost per child, you can afford private grade school.

Sending your child to a particular school is a leap of faith. You won't really know whether they will enjoy their experience there for at least 3-6 months. Thus, you can opt to stay on the waitlist for the schools you didn't get into. This way if your child isn't happy, you'll have options to switch schools if a spot opens up. And you can always apply to other schools as well.

Sometimes it takes actually trying out a school to really figure out what type of teaching style and environment works best for your child.

Good luck! If you are diligent, opportunities will open up. I truly believe every child will get in somewhere good. Parents just need to be on the ball regarding the application process.

Related posts on preschool and grade school:

Why Preschool Is Worth Every Penny And More

Forfeit The Enrollment Deposit For A Better School?

The Value Of Knowing A Second Language: Consider Private Language Immersion School


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51 thoughts on “How To Get Into A Great Preschool Or Private Grade School”

  1. Hi Sam,
    I came across your article while researching whether I should start my 4 year old in private school vs. try public school first. I’m shocked at how competitive this process is at such a young age. Does starting from elementary school help ensure your child will get into the same school’s middle and high school programs without having to reapply? As you say, at a young age, admission is mostly about the parents. I recently heard about my nephew’s painful experience getting into private high school in Andover, MA. He was rejected from 8 out of 9 schools (and he is a brilliant student!). He became very depressed. The whole family was relieved when he finally got into one of the programs. I feel like the elementary admissions process is much less stressful in comparison, plus the child will benefit more years of private education. If money is not an issue, do you think starting early as a way to ensure future enrollment in the same school is a valid approach? Thanks for your insight!

  2. Hi Sam
    Like you, I have a residence in the Bay Area (peninsula) with 2 kids. Similarly, we travel to Asia quite often so I’ve been considering an online school for my toddlers so they can travel with us to Asia and back, anytime. I feel it could be a great experience through virtual learning supplemented with traveling the world…. and of course social activities like sports and the like. They would likely go back to traditional school by middle school.

    What are your thoughts on this? I haven’t come across many parents that do this. Any prestigious online school that come to mind?

    1. I think it’s a great idea! We plan to go to Taiwan during the summer for Mandarin immersion, eating lychee and fantastic local food, and for adventure.

      I don’t think there’s any prestige in online school. And I don’t think it matters. Learning and freedom does!

  3. I agree that preschool is worth the money (within reason) and we are lucky enough to have pre-school offered by our public school. We still have to pay, but it’s not crazy.

    But this admission process and scramble to get into the “best” preschools just seems insane. More about parents wanting to expand their networks than getting something of true value for their child.

    Is there any evidence that the “best” preschools lead to better outcomes than lower priced options or public school offerings? Seems like the business model is just to seem pretentious and exclusive and therefore attract wealthy clientele willing to pay too much for the pleasure of watching a dance recitals next to someone that can fund their startup.

    1. Here’s the thing though, is the application and tuition cost the same, why not apply to the best schools?

      For example, why go to Boston University if you can attend MIT or Harvard?

      1. My point is that “best” is ill-defined. Even if a pre-school has data that show for example that their students go to colleges at higher rates than the general population that is meaningless if their selection process admits mostly parents that went to college. Then the school is likely adding no value over alternatives it is just being selective and offering average or below average service, then taking credit for performance of a high caliber student body.

        If you have successfully identified that one school is better than another and the costs are the same, sure go for it. But I would bet that most schools and especially most pre-schools don’t actually have any real evidence of quality.

        1. Sounds good. What is the best though? Did I write the best? Or did I write “great“?

          We can only trust what the rankings and parent feedback says. We can only trust what the matriculation data says as well as to where these kids go to school after or what type of jobs they get. After that, that’s a leap of faith.

          1. In the comment you said best. But I don’t think that’s crucial for the discussion. Unless the rankings are based on some type of data they’re basically useless. And matriculation data is basically useless too unless it takes into account the likelihood of the same students matriculating without attending the pre-school.

            If you are spending a ton of money to send kids to “great” pre-schools that are “great” because a lot of their kids go to college that’s not impressive if all the parents of the children that go there have advanced degrees and their children were very likely to go to college anyway.

            Basically, I’m saying that unless you have value-add data instead of absolute data it’s very difficult to know if the institution is actually doing anything of value. And if you don’t know, then you probably shouldn’t be spending a fortune for it.

            1. Got it. What do you recommend my family and other families should do?

              The school we got into goes from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade starting this fall.

              If we don’t accept the offer, we would have to reapply during kindergarten for public and private. The public school system here is a lottery system, where there is no guarantee of getting into your local kindergarten.

              Bird in the hand situation right now. Or maybe continue to homeschool? We have already saved $24,000 by pulling our son in March 2020 and homeschooling him until this day.

              Is there an income minimum we could earn where we can get in your approval of sending our kids to preschool or private grade school, regardless of how well-rated it is? For example, what if we made $1 million a year or had a $10 million net worth. Would that be enough? I have suggested income equal to at least 5X annual tuition per kid.

              I’m a big proponent of public schools, having gone to public high school, public college, and public graduate school. I’m assuming given your strong disapproval of private schools, you went to public school as well and have children in public schools. Correct me if I’m wrong. Thanks!

              1. I did go to public school and my children do as well.

                I certainly don’t claim to approve or disapprove of anyone’s decisions. People are free to do what they please. I just think that many people try to rationalize the expense of private school by claiming that the quality is vastly superior. But in many cases they are basing that on little or no data. Or ignoring data to the contrary.
                Pre-school is a little different because as you mention, there frequently aren’t free public alternatives. But I would still be wary of claims of the superior quality of pre schools that aren’t based on value add metrics. And once you get to elementary school age where public options are available I think people should have very strong evidence of higher quality to justify the going to private.

                For a hypothetical person making a lot of money, I would say that it doesn’t make sense to waste money, regardless of you ur income. If you want to treat your child’s school choice like a luxury car purchase, something that clearly doesn’t justify the cost but something that’s fun to brag about, sure go for it, people with high incomes can afford to make mistakes. But they’re still mistakes.

                The only advice that I would give for your situation is to carefully look at value add comparisons of your public and private options to determine if you are paying for actually quality or the perception on quality. Perhaps take the worst possible school your child could get in the lottery system (again, justifying why it is the worst based on some actual data) and compare it against the private school you are considering. And then compare the value add against the cost to determine what’s right for you.

                If public schools is not safe, maybe there are frequent shootings, and there are none at the private school then the private school may be worth almost any price.

                But if you are comparing performance you have to look at value add metrics (like improvement in test scores) not absolute metrics like (nominal test scores). When evaluating the value of the school.

                Otherwise you aren’t evaluating the quality of the school you evaluating the quality of the student body, and making a decision that basically say “I’m
                Willing to pay a lot of money for my kids to school with that are likely to go to college” (which has many other implications). And not “I want my child to go to the school that will most improve their chances of going to college” (or whatever your chosen values metric is).

                1. Thanks for your thoughts. Deep down, why do you think you are so against private school, especially for those who can afford it? I think this would be a fascinating insight.

                  Also, why do you think there’s such a demand for private school, with application numbers increasing often times in double digits every year?

                  If this thread has ended, you can post a new comment or respond to one of our previous comments. Thanks


                  Why Do Smart People Make Dumb Decisions About Private School

                  You Really Want To Spend $1 Million On Private School?

                  Going To Private University Depends On Your Guilt Tolerance And Fear

                  What If You Go To Harvard And End Up A Nobody

              2. The question of why private school is so popular is a good one. There are some interesting studies on it. (I don’t think I’m allowed to link any of them in the comments). But in many cases it’s simply the desire to self segregate. If you believe that I have an outsized reaction to the decision and are looking for me to self reflect on that I would guess that it is because with so many people making a very expensive decision without value add data I begin to believe that the cost is actually the price people are willing to pay for self segregation. Which perhaps makes me upset about the general nature of society and people. But…

                I don’t think that i would say that I am intrinsically against private schools. I’m sure that there are many out there that do an excellent job. However I am surprised that so many people are willing to pay the cost, and hurt their chances at financial freedom with very little evidence that it will provide value to their own children. I guess what I am against is people making large investments based on little evidence. Or using bad evidence to rationalize a decision that’s based on other factors.

                If anyone finds a school that has a combination of measurable quality beyond their alternatives and a price that justifies that additional quality then by all means go for it.

              3. Perhaps a more personal explanation could be that in Ohio, the Ed Choice Program takes $6000 per child away from the public schools to give to families that choose to send their children to private schools if their local school is deemed “failing”. The private schools they attend are not assessed at all, so there is no way to tell whether or not they are failing and in fact, when they compare student progress between those that leave for private schools and those that stay, the ones that leave do substantially worse on standardized tests.

                So our property taxes get taken away from my kid’s school to subsidize tuition at a private school where the child will do worse.

                And just to twist the knife a little bit, if a district is considered failing, but doesn’t have 20% or more of the student body on Title 1, then they do not have to offer vouchers. Which essentially exempts wealthy communities from the rules and protects their public school budgets.

                So, at least in that case, people choosing to send their children to private schools despite evidence that showing that it is detrimental to their education has a direct effect on my child’s education as budgets are squeezed and services are reduced.

                1. Finally, now THAT is a great personal explanation! It’s always fun to get to the root of why people truly feel strongly one way or another. Like a small vendetta in the way! Thanks

      2. East coast girl

        Sam, I’ve been following you since 2012- and I am shocked that at 40 you don’t acknowledge that many parents are looking at colleges in the same way you are accessing pre-school. It’s becoming clear that you might not see the big picture and yes I have 3 sons ( one at 28 adopted bc I wanted to… 1 at 33 and one at 40 ) but you need to back / don’t let them tell you it’s “all that” ..plenty of kids get into MIT or what have you without all this ridiculous nonsense you believing. You’re so smart but how can you not see the broad Picture? You have to know better

        1. Sorry, I’m not sure what it is you are shocked and disappointed about. Can you be more specific?

          What is wrong with applying to the best schools you can if they all cost about the same?

          Of course all parents and students are making calculated decisions on where to go to school. Nobody really knows how the environment will be until after you get in. Nobody knows how helpful the school will be until after you get a job etc.

          Instead of just telling me I might not see the big picture, please help me understand the big picture. What is it?

          And would you like to write a guest post on the big picture so all of us who don’t understand Can see? If not, a comment is fine too.

  4. I worked in ECE for over a decade. Most of my time was at a selective preschool in Seattle which primarily drew from one of the more affluent neighborhoods.

    First, the author’s observations are very astute.

    A few additional thoughts/supportive points to the author’s…

    First and foremost you got into the school because your child fit a particular need for the classroom in which s/he would attend. A simple example; if the classroom was 65% boys, you can bet that we were not going to pull another boy from the waitlist to fill the opening.

    Enrollment was pulled from a waitlist. 99.9% of prospective families were waitlisted. Our waitlist was often 1+ year long. In normal years getting on to a waitlist 1 year out was necessarily, 2 years was smart. However, rarely did we pull in a student from the waitlist mid year.

    Pay attention to the particular philosophy/pedagogy that the school may be aligned with. The school environment may look “safe and clean” but do you agree with their pedagogical leanings? It may not be a good fit otherwise.

    Does your family mesh with the kinds of other families you perceive to be enrolled? Do you feel aligned with the community? These will be your child’s friends.

    Read your enrollment contract. At our school we made it monetarily burdensome to jump ship, especially so if you withdrew prior to the enrollment start date. Understand the financial commitment you are making.

    A quality school will pay its employees above standard. ECE historically has a very high employee turnover rate. Schools with well paid teachers have better employee retention rates, and that trickles down to boosting all sorts of quality standards in the classroom.

    And just another humbling reminder: Your child is probably average. I can’t tell you how many parents thought their kid was super smart. Sadly our society does not value the capability of young children. What are perceived as remarkable abilities, or adept learning, are really just natural milestones of development.

    And finally, appreciate your preschool teachers. I hear lots of people complaining about the cost of Early Childhood Education. And yes it can be a hefty price. But operating a school comes at a hefty price (jumping through government regulation hoops has a cost), and teachers are generally still paid well below the living wage requirements in most regions and cities. Those gift cards at Christmas really are nice!! …or that really good bottle of whiskey, that was a pretty sweet gift one year.

    Happy hunting…

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree on supporting your teachers. As a high school tennis teacher myself, it’s a lot of work for not a lot of money. Further, he sometimes feels a lot of attitude and difficult situations to deal with when it comes to teenagers.

      In your opinion, what are the benefits of attending a selective preschool or grade school? Does it really matter in the end? I went to private international school through middle school, and then public high school, college, and graduate school. There didn’t seem to be much of a difference, except for learning how to navigate more rough crowds in public school.

      It is nice to join a community of like-minded parents who really care. When you have to pay for something, it’s natural to be more involved and take education less for granted.

      1. Regarding your question of whether it matters…?

        I can only speak to how this question relates to ECE, or preschool. Answering your question in the broadest terms possible I would say that the families who stand to benefit the most from a selective preschool experience are generally those who have very limited access to that kind of early childhood experience.

        Otherwise, and again in the broadest terms possible, while making some underlying assumptions, I’d say for those families consuming FI-related blogs, a selective preschool is fairly unnecissary. The gains an average child receives from such a school, is generally evened out by the third grade.

        However the gains that an underserved family gets can be tremendous. That’s why you see such a broader push these days for public funding of Early Childhood Education.

        That being said, I did send my oldest child to a selective preschool because I really believed in the philosophy of the school. And because of my background I had pretty high expectations for the type of experience I wanted available to my child. However now we’re in public school and happy with that experience as well.

  5. Very accurate post. We finally finished the private school admissions process in Vancouver, BC and confirm it’s almost as competitive here as in SF. Here are a few tips from us:

    – Start early. We can’t emphasize this enough. Start one year ahead of the deadline for applications.

    – Don’t confine your applications to the top 1-2 “famous” names. The best school for your child may not be the most “well known” , “famous” school.

    – Careful with some private schools that do not have independent board oversight. Some we visited were pretty sketchy and one was in financial trouble. Stick to the ones certified by associations like the NAIS.

    – There were very few “in person” assessments/interviews. Almost all ended up being online via Zoom.

    – Look at the intake years and the numbers of new spots. Each school has entry years that vary in terms of the chances of admission.

    1. “– Careful with some private schools that do not have independent board oversight. Some we visited were pretty sketchy and one was in financial trouble. Stick to the ones certified by associations like the NAIS.”

      Didn’t think about this. But good to know. Hopefully the best ones are also the most financially strong.

      There are definitely grades/levels where the demand is far greater than normal. For example Pre-K 3 years old and Kindergarten have massive demand. Then perhaps 6th grade, the start of middle school, then 9th grade for high school.

      1. You can just google Form 990 filings for the private school, and you will find the Form 990 and other financials. You want to make sure they have a good reserve and healthy annual net income.

  6. Sounds so stressful ! So glad we never made the move to SF after having had more than a few offers to do so from Silicon Valley tech companies I’ve worked for over the years. Much better making a tech comp package, living in suburban DC/NoVA with great public schools, decent housing prices (at least compared to SF or LA), and a great choice of quality in-state universities! Post-COVID, when you can literally “work from anywhere”, WHY SF?

    1. Because nobody willingly would ever live in NOVA if they could afford not too.

      Way too hot and humid and congested. Anywhere in California is by far a better place to live.

      There’s a reason why there are no odes or songs to NOVA lol.

    2. DC/NoVA schools may have ‘budget’ (D.C. public schools spend >$30K/student, look it up) but they don’t provide quality education or facilities. Loudon, Fairfax, Herndon etc. counties are introducing Critical Race Theory (CRT) to the curriculum, making Asian and white students targets for the rest of the student body. Have you been made aware of the influx of illegal immigrants and non-English speaking students from Central and South America? Look into it, you might not be so smug about ‘suburban DC/NoVA.

    3. I think my thoroughness might be misconstrued as highly stressful? As a parent, you just have to be diligent and on the ball. Yes, applying to things and not knowing the outcome is stressful. But it’s just like anything else we do. We just have to try, expect to get rejected, and keep moving forward. Maybe I just have a high tolerance for stressful situations.

      I lived in Northern Virginia for four years for high school and I went to college at The College of William and Mary In Williamsburg, Virginia.

      NOVA was an OK place until I moved to NYC. Which was really exciting. Manhattan was great until I moved to San Francisco. And once I came here, I knew I had found a home and don’t want to leave.

      It was raining one Friday during my first winter. So my friend and I decided to go snowboarding at Sugar bowl 2.5 hours away. It was awesome. The very next day, it was 70° and sunny. I clearly remember playing tennis just in my shorts.

      After experiencing Virginia for eight years and New York for two years, I can unequivocally say that I much prefer San Francisco. It is a beautiful city with so much opportunity. And Almost every day during the winter, we got to be outside and play.

      But I think it’s great that you love Northern Virginia. And if you find that area great, that’s all that matters.


      1. Maybe I was mistaken. We live in NOVA because of relatively good public schools, either the local schools or Thomas Jefferson, which is supposedly a great STEM school that requires top schools. I had always heard that the public schools in SF and NYC (minus the schools that you have to test into like Styvusent) were terrible and that is why wealthier people choose private schools. Undoubtedly, the private schools are way better than they are in NOVA, where there aren’t many elite private schools.

        As far as the comment about critical race theory, schools teach all types of things we can disagree with. It is not incumbent on schools to teach kids things that their parents agree with. If it were so, schools would still be anti-evolution, anti-miscegenation, and a whole host of other issues.

        1. TJ to NOVA is Lowell High School to San Francisco. However, admissions for both schools are now a lottery. Therefore, it may be much harder to get in.

          How old are your kids? The uproar about TJ changing its admissions policy has been a huge uproar for those in NOVA.

          And have you ever lived in San Francisco or California? Thanks

          1. Haven’t lived in California or SF. Just visited and loved it. Probably wouldn’t move due to family in MD, and as a lowly lawyer, I think I’d be priced out. My question was about average public school in SF/NYC v. NOVA. I’d imagine Palo Alto high is very good, but I’ve heard average schools in SF are not good at all. If I’m wrong, please let me know. NOVA schools seems to be very segregated. Schools with large immigrant populations that are less affluent are in certain cities and not well regarded, but more affluent (read less diverse) schools in other cities are fairly well regarded.

            1. LOL! The gaslighting! “Lowly lawyer”? It is funny how lawyers find a way to let you know they are lawyers, because it signals intelligence, money, and status. Nothing ‘lowly’ at all. And equating CRT with teaching of evolution and Jim Crow laws regarding miscegenation, both removed in the 1800s, is invalid. CRT teaches that 2+2=5. That racism is everywhere and in everyone at all times. Things like work ethic, grades and test scores, punctuality, merit, etc. benefit Whites and Asians, and Males. Teaching K-12 White and Asian children that they are racists is not appropriate in any curriculum, and isn’t a simple ‘disagreement.’ Good luck in NOVA.

              1. It was funny though that when I was in banking, our layers from Sullivan & Cromwell would go out for drinks with us and wish they were closer to the money and worked as producers at Goldman. Everything is relative!

                1. That is exactly what the (consulting) lawyers from should say, flattering the young associates who may one day throw them a huge bone of business for the small investment of picking up a few bar tabs!:-) They would certainly never want to ‘eat what you kill’ and be judged that way, instead of by billable hours.

                  Back to NOVA, it is stunning to see the excuse-making for the changes to admission in TJ. The feeder middle schools have also had a ‘change’ that removes merit and testing, and disproportionately keeps Asian children from qualifying (the ‘new’ sorting emphasizes ‘geographic diversity). Asian kids are 23% of the kids in the district, but grades and testing results in 83% of Loudoun’s Academy of Science and 55% of Academy of Engineering and Technology. A lawsuit filed by 37 parents was dismissed last month, using language particular to Critical Race Theory. Lowell in SF is going to have the same problem, and it will be interesting to see how the favored demographic perform in the years to come. This is a real ‘tipping point’ moment.

            2. Came upon two news stories this week reminding me of this discussion, wanted to leave this for the record. Headlines say it all…Teachers Compile List Of Parents Who Question Racial Curriculum, Plot War On Them about a group of 645 mostly teachers that are doxxing parents speaking out publicly against the indoctrination of CRT. The other story is…Loudoun supervisors reduces school budget transfer by $17 million; leaves opportunity for 4 percent raises which means County teachers get a raise, at the expense of the state of Virginia.

              Noticing Sam’s question “how old are your kids?’ went unanswered, and you don’t seem to have firm knowledge of NOVA schools, (“I’ve heard”…”seems to be”) makes me wonder if the CRT and teacher PR blitz extends to astroturfing PF blogs!:-)

              1. Hahhahah. Interesting theory. Incredibly incorrect but interesting. Fwiw, my kids are 5 and 2 and I’m Asian, fairly centrist, and live right outside dc. I’m not even supporting crt. I’m just saying I grew up learning nonsense in public school and learned things on my own outside of school. And in the meanwhile, I saw how other people thought about things even if I disagreed. I just asked about SF schools and mentioned that many lawyers don’t make banker and tech comp salaries so SF is probably out of my reach. You attacked me as smug and then as some teacher union plant. I implore you to stop getting riled up and essentially yelling at the internet. I don’t know your sources for those headlines but I bet they are designed to anger people. I respect Sam and this blog because he seems to always be open to new ideas even when he disagrees. We should all follow his example.

  7. Sam, we just went through this process, and there are some dynamics to covid that made this year unusual. First, private schools have seen declines in enrollment driven by some families leaving the city. Second, if you’ve been involved in a community during a pandemic, it’s pretty easy to point to that and say that community is important to you.

    In our case we didn’t have letters from board members, but we did have referrals and behind the scenes support from parents in good standing with the schools we applied to. By that I mean they weren’t necessarily the highest profile parents in professional terms, they were good people whose level of involvement roughly reflects what we would hope to contribute.

    1. Congrats! Which city are you referring to? Not SF are you?

      In San Francisco, the demand for private grade school has increased given SF public schools have been closed since 1Q2020. Whereas many private schools opened for in-person learning by the start of 4Q2020.

      I’ve been following the SF School Board issue very closely for months. From their desire to rename 44 public schools to not coming up with a concrete plan opening until they were sued by the SF District attorney. I empathize with teachers not wanting to go in person until they are vaccinated. That is at the minimum.

      I’m just not sure a 28-year-old SF school board president with no kids in the SF public school system is the right person for the job. I’m connected with one of the SF School Board members and have been trading messages throughout this process.

      Maybe you can share in an e-mail more color on your school and situation and we can exchange notes. thx

      1. Yes, I’m talking about San Francisco private school enrollment, the admissions decisions for which were just released this past week.

        I, too, have been following the public school situation here. I have lost all faith and confidence in the current board. Between the remarkably poorly handled renaming project, to the refusal to seat a gay parent on an advisory body, to the change in Lowell admissions (more how they handled it), to the messy approach to re-opening. So we went private. I’ll shoot an email later.

    1. It is not easy. A parent must plan way ahead. But hopefully, a lot of questions and concerns will have been answered after reading this post. If you can stay on top of the deadlines, that is very important.

      Before I started the process, I was flummoxed by the complexity of it. However, I was excited to do some “investigative reporting” and share my findings.

      It’s funny. But as soon as I put on my writers hat, all these funny and difficult situations don’t seem as arduous anymore.

      1. It was a really eye opening article, I enjoyed reading it! I live in a small town in the North Bay and our property prices are through the roof with the influx of SF people transplanting here, many families moved here for small town living and great schools. The public schools have been open 5 days a week since November with small class sizes. My daughter’s 1st grade class only has 10 kids and there’s 4 classes per grade. I didn’t realize the process to be accepted to SF private school was so arduous, now I realize how much more appealing it makes our school system!

  8. I didn’t realize how competitive schools are in SF until I became friends with a colleague who has a son in elementary school. I learned so much from her about preschools and elementary schools on the West side of SF because she lives not too far from me. I didn’t even think about schools until she brought it up when she found out I was pregnant.

    I didn’t ask her for a recommendation letter but I did include her name when I applied to the preschool where her son went. She had done so much research on preschools in the area which really helped me. I still did my own research but her insights helped me a lot.

    We ultimately ended up getting into that school and going there until covid hit. Your insights above on the interview and play date process is spit on.

    We went to play dates during school hours in live classrooms and also to areas set aside just for prospective students. I must say it is an unsettling feeling watching teachers walk around with clipboards taking notes about the kids playing during the play dates. But not all schools did that.

    Going on tours and play dates really helps give you a sense of if a school is a good fit or not. We went to some that were a clear no, some that were so so and a few that were amazing.

    I wish I had your article two years ago. I would have been much better prepared. Thanks for all the great tips.

    1. “ We went to play dates during school hours in live classrooms and also to areas set aside just for prospective students. I must say it is an unsettling feeling watching teachers walk around with clipboards taking notes about the kids playing during the play dates. But not all schools did that.”

      This! Are you judging our precious kid? Yes they are indeed.

      Never feels good to be judged. But when it comes to your kid it’s worse.

      Which is why if you ever want to make friends, complement someone’s kid or make a good complement about their parenting style.

  9. Nice story. Good story about same in the Atlantic this month. “Competitive preschool” seems almost laughable.

  10. Marie Jacobs

    Keep in mind when choosing a school that the other students will be the Joneses your child will want to keep up with. Is your family similar or is the academic opportunity worthy of added stress of feeling different from their classmates?

    1. Indeed. For some reason, my wife and I have no desire to keep up with the Joneses. If we did, we wouldn’t have quit the rat race in 2012 in 2015, respectively.

      It feels really great to be free and to do our own thing. There is an endless amount of money to make and we are not that interested anymore.

      What did you decide for your children?

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and providing all those great tips. I’ll be sure to practice circle time and more before the interview.

    Like I said, if you were going to apply to private school, you might as well apply to the best ones since the tuition is about the same.

    1. No problem and good luck!

      I sometimes marvel at the tuition of Boston University and wonder whether paying so much a year is a little painful when Harvard University is cheaper!

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