Navigating The Preschool Admissions Process: Getting In And $1,000 Application Fees

The preschool admissions process can be very stressful. With so may deadlines to hit, essays to write, interviews to conduct, and fees to pay, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

This post will help you better navigate the preschool admissions process for your little one. The more you know, the greater your chance of getting into preschool.

The Preschool Admissions Process Starts Early

When my wife was pregnant in late 2016, a friend told me, “You need to apply to preschool within the first three months after he's born.

He had one kid in private elementary school and two kids in private middle school. He is also a centimillionaire. 

Absurd!” I responded.

Hey, it's up to you buddy. Getting into preschool in San Francisco is harder than getting into Princeton. Don't let your lack of preparedness hurt your son's chances for a bright future.

Damn it. Guilt sets in.

Well since you put it that way. I guess I'll get on it. Want to give us a recommendation when he goes in 2019 or 2020?

Of course I will,” my friend replied as we resumed our tennis match.

This post is an introduction into how daunting it is for families living in big cities to get their kids into preschool. It should also give some sense as to why there's so much anxiety among parents and children early on.

As someone who has questioned the necessity of paying for private grade school tuition, yet who also wants the best for his son, this post serves as a type of mental penance for going through this process. I've spent the last seven years trying to escape the grind, but somehow, I'm always getting pulled back in. 

I also hope this post brings joy to families who live in lower cost areas of the country who don't have to worry about hyper competition due to a lack of supply. Living in a big city has its perks, but helping your child get a quality education is not one of them.

It's only until kindergarten where all families are eligible for a free public education.

Beginning Of The Preschool Admissions Grind

When it comes to getting your child into a top preschool in a big city, a lot of it is about who you know, rather than your child's abilities. After all, your little one isn't going to cure malaria at two or three years old.

The demand is so high simply because there aren't enough schools. I heard through a board member at one preschool that 100 kids applied for the four spots available to non-sibling children. Siblings get automatic acceptance.

Since our boy is our first child, we have to blaze our own trail, Financial Samurai style, in order for him to get in anywhere. But we enjoy the challenge, partly because we like the excitement that uncertainty brings. The preschool admissions process would be our latest fun challenge to conquer.

Given the average acceptance rate for the top-rated preschools is around 10%–15%, the logical conclusion is to apply to 7-10 in order to get into one.

We ended up applying to seven preschools in San Francisco and one preschool in Honolulu. Three of the applications are for 2019 when he's first eligible to attend at 2.5 years old. The remaining five applications are for 2020, when most preschools allow children to enroll.

Now that I'm reviewing this post in 2021, it's interesting how our plans changed. Even if we got into a great preschool in Fall 2020, we wouldn't have attended due to the global pandemic!

Preschool Application Fee Average Cost

An annoying part of the preschool admissions process is paying for the application fee. Even if you don't get in, you won't get your application fee back.

The average preschool application fee ranges from $50 – $150 each school. For us, we paid about $1,000 in application fees for eight schools.

Since all preschools cost more or less the same in tuition (~$1,200 – $2,800 a month depending on how many days a week), we figured we might as well apply to the top-rated ones.

If you’re looking to go out to dinner, surely you’d rather go to a 5-star restaurant if the price is the same as a 3-star restaurant.

If our son gets rejected by all nine, then we will home school him since we have maximum flexibility. That doesn't sound like a bad idea at all actually. There are plenty of ways for kids to socialize with other kids nowadays thanks to the internet.

Why Our Chance Of Getting Into Preschool Is Slim

I don't remember the last time I felt like an idiot. Actually, maybe it was last summer when I didn't sell my House Sale Fund portfolio when it was up 13%. Yeah, that was dumb to not take profits when it surpassed my 10% blue sky target.

But with this preschool stuff, I feel lost because I realize the odds are extremely stacked against my family and there's really not much I can do to improve these odds. And to spend $1,000 on preschool applications alone leaves me with a funny feeling – like I'm a sucker.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe we've got little chance of getting our boy into a top-rated preschool. These reasons should help you appreciate what you have and question the choice of living an unconventional lifestyle.

1) We have a small network. 

As two stay at home parents who've been away from the traditional workforce for years, my wife and I don't have a large network of parents who have kids at XYZ preschool who can vouch for us. As a result, we are at a large disadvantage simply because not enough of the community knows who we are.

One can easily imagine a colleague or a manager on the board of a preschool who provides a fellow colleague an in. Many large corporations have tie-ups with preschools as a benefit to their employees. That's just the way the world works. We take care of people who we know and like. Being away from networking activities for seven years is likely going to hurt us.

2) We have low-level jobs.

On our application, I say I'm an assistant high school tennis coach (not even the head coach) and a stay at home dad. My wife says says she's a freelance writer and a stay at home mom. We don't ever say we run Financial Samurai due to our desire for privacy.

I think being a stay at home parent is an extremely important job, but we can't compete with parents who are executives at a hot startup or partners in venture capital, private equity, or investment banking. I swear all the parents who attended the open houses we went to worked in these fields.

Society does not appreciate creatives as much as they appreciate high powered money making occupations. If society did, it wouldn't push our artists, writers, poets, and teachers out of the city. 

From the school's perspective, they want parents who can be ambassadors of the school in their large networks and also be financial backers down the road. If you work in private equity, you will naturally have lots of rich friends who will have children and donate big bucks down the road.

If you're an assistant high school tennis coach who makes $1,200 a month like I do, your circle of friends probably isn't going to be as desirable to the school. And yes, I spent one month's of coaching salary on preschool application fees.

But here's the main reason why I put down I'm a writer and assistant tennis coach, instead of an entrepreneur or ex-banker a lifetime ago. We want to support a school that appreciates creatives and educators. A school is about child development first, not about money and prestige. If a school is willing to accept us with our lower-income occupations, that's the family we want to join.

3) We lead unconventional lifestyles with no recognition.

It's funny. I dislike fame. But you better believe that if I was famous in a good way, my son would have a huge leg up getting into schools. Do you really think any college would reject Malia Obama even if she had terrible grades and test scores? Of course not. Alas, we are nobodies.

The only thing we do is help people achieve financial freedom sooner in order to live their best lives possible. Helping people achieve financial security is nice, especially since we do so for free, but a school would rather have parents working conventional jobs at well-known companies. It's part of the cachet, even if the employer is known to feature fake news and manipulate your private data.

The only reason I'd ever give up my privacy or lead a more conventional lifestyle is if I could help my son. And I'm not sure preschool is worth the price.

We really cherish being able to spend as much time as possible with our son as stay at home parents. But we recognize we will be viewed as misfits given less than 1% of households have two stay at home parents.

4) We do not come from a wealthy legacy family.

I know many people in San Francisco who live in multi-million dollar mansions, but who have occupations that cannot afford such luxurious lifestyles. What's going on is that multi-generational family money has allowed them to live a life of leisure.

For example, one family founded a newspaper and sold it for $660 million in the mid-1990s. Surely the $660 million has grown to over $1 billion today. By setting up multi-million dollar endowments at several schools (preschool, middle school, high school, college), their heirs get guaranteed entrance to these schools forever. Are the heirs bad people? Of course not. They're just like everybody else, except with tremendous advantages.

We know that kids of legacy donors have a 70%+ acceptance rate at Harvard versus <6% for the overall admissions rate. We also know that many schools of similar stature conduct similar practices for the wealthy and powerful. This is the way the world works, and the rest of us have no choice but to compete with what we have.

5) We are not part of the majority. 

Schools without racial bias would generally reflect the overall racial makeup of the city e.g. a preschool should have a similar demographic makeup as San Francisco: 48% White, 33% Asian, 6% Black, 0.4% Pacific Islander, 0.5% Native American, 6.6% Other, and 4.7% Bi-racial or Multi-racial.

Unfortunately, based on the data we've read and what we've observed after visiting several preschools, about 75% of the student population is White versus 48% for the entire San Francisco population. A ~27% difference is statistically significant, which means something is up. 

Perhaps the huge discrepancy is because of legacy and family connections, which has carried on for generations. After all, these preschools are private, and it's natural to take care of their own.

Although I belong to a private tennis club where the racial demographic is quite skewed like at many private preschools, I'm not sure we want our son growing up in such a homogenous environment. As a kid growing up overseas attending international schools, I found it wonderful to be immersed in so many different cultures.

When I entered the real world, it was much easier to assimilate and grow. 

See: How The Rich Get Richer: Competing In A Rigged Game

Preschool Admissions Process: Just Keep Trying

Navigating the preschool admissions process: tips and tricks for getting in

Whatever you do, know the odds are stacked against you. The preschool admissions process can make the grittiest person want to give up.

You can either give up, or you can keep on going. I've always chosen the latter. As a parent now, I've got no other choice but to stay on the ball.

Of course I will always have fear of rejection. I fear the continuous rejection I've experienced will continue on with my son. And unless we move to Asia or Honolulu, it stings knowing that my son will one day be discriminated against and rejected like his old man was growing up.

But on the bright side, the difficulties I went through growing up helped make me who I am today. And frankly, I feel pretty darn good about my situation. It's healthy to sometimes get told you're not good enough so you develop a chip on your shoulder to prove your detractors wrong.

A part of me hopes we get rejected by the early start preschools we applied to for 2019 so that we can go on a great adventure and travel the world again.

How amazing would it be to relocate to Honolulu this summer and enjoy the islands until the fall of 2020 when he's eligible for a larger number of preschools at 3.5 years old? There's always a bright side in everything. 

If you're a parent in a big city applying to a top preschool, let me leave you with some following thoughts.

Final Tips For The Preschool Admissions Process

* Get on the ball and apply early since you will eventually have to apply. Make sure you meet every deadline and send follow up letters to show your continued interest. Schools want to hear about the progress of your little one. The latest you can usually apply is the fall before your kid is planning on attending.

* It's worth building relationships with parents who have kids attending your target preschools or board members of your target preschools. Worst case, you'll make some friends or know you don't want to be part of their community.

* Attend all recommended “get to know you and the school” events. These include lunches, dinners, fundraisers, etc.

* Create a picture collage and tell your story. Don't just upload one picture in the application, make a collage of pictures that show progression over time. Preschools want to have a good community of parents they can rely on to be good ambassadors and available volunteers.

* Attending an “elite preschool” might worsen your chances of getting into a good grade school program. Therefore, look to diversify. It's not the end all be all if you don't get into the top-rated preschool.

* So long as the preschool has a good reputation, has a good teacher:student ratio, and has involved parents, it should be good enough. Don't underestimate the value of proximity either.

* Consider parent co-op preschools, public preschool if you qualify, or for-profit education systems like Gymboree that accept everyone.

Related post: How To Get Into A Great Preschool Or Private Grade School – Now that we've gotten into three great schools, here are more thoughts

Your Child Will Get In Somewhere

Apologies if this post has raised your anxiety level. I just like to write out my thoughts because I'm thorough. Thinking is free after all.

At the end of the day, we're only applying to preschool, so don't sweat it! I just thought it'd be fun to chronicle this journey. Don’t let lack of effort close options for your child.

The most important things we can provide our children are love, time, and attention. Besides, the internet has democratized learning and opportunity.

What Happened With Us – 2021 Update

By 2019, we got into one out of seven preschools. Fortunately, the preschool he got into was our neighborhood preschool just five minutes away. We got in because we got to know a teacher who worked there. Every week for 1.5 years, we kept bumping into him at the science museum.

We sent our son to preschool for five months before deciding to homeschool him due to the pandemic. For now, we plan to homeschool until Fall 2021. At least he got to experience some time in preschool. We're also glad to be able to spend so much time with him.

We're doing a lot of the things he would have done in preschool. For example, we do arts and crafts every day and go on field trips three times a week. It's also nice to save $2,000 a month!

We found out in March 2021 that our son got into one of the preschools we originally got waitlisted to for Fall 2020. It was just as well as we wouldn't have sent him anyway due to the pandemic.

We've decided to accept this preschool's offer and enroll him in Fall 2021. The school is a language immersion school that goes through the 8th grade. We are thrilled to have gotten in and we hope our son loves the school as well. If he does, our daughter will have an easier time getting in as well.

Finally, in July 2021, we found out we got into the “Harvard Of Preschools” for Fall 2021. We had originally applied to this school in 2017, three months after our son was born. Crazy right?

We will likely not forfeit our enrollment deposit at the language immersion school and accept the last-minute acceptance. It was a tough decision, especially since our daughter would automatically get into the Harvard Of Preschools too. But it's only preschool and our son's current language immersion school is excellent.

At the end of the day, I'm sure your child will get in somewhere. The preschool might not be your top choice, but so long as the teachers are caring, that's what matters most.

Why Households Need To Earn $300,000 A Year To Live In A Middle Class Lifestyle Today – it's expensive raising a family in a big city

Is Private Grade School K-12 Worth It?

What If You Go To Harvard And End Up A Nobody?

Readers, have any of you gone through a similarly rigorous preschool admissions process for your children because there was too much demand and not enough schools? Do you think schools should refund the application fee, or at least part of it, if your kid is not accepted? Why don't preschools want more racial and socioeconomic diversity? Do you think highlighting Financial Samurai would be helpful since we don't have full-time jobs?

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118 thoughts on “Navigating The Preschool Admissions Process: Getting In And $1,000 Application Fees”

  1. As a parent with a child slightly older than Sam’s, what I would say is that daycare/preschool adds a lot. Kids like being around kids their own age. They like interacting, learning and socializing with their peers. Homeschooling by itself doesn’t replace preschool, it’s more likely homeschooling plus a bunch of activities and classes that also cost money.

    The money part. Although Sam can probably easily pay for the daycare cost without working, the logical way to look at it is Sam can work on this site, or consult and make significantly more per hour than the cost of preschool. In this case, it’s not like Sam is paying more to jump the line or more to get better quality. Sam is just paying for care at whichever place he likes that has a spot.

    Going back to the applications, of course you want your kids to go to the best options. This isn’t college with published rankings, but more like yelp with peer rankings and what you like. At the same cost, of course you want to choose the best, but the other question is, do the other schools that you don’t like as much also require you to visit and apply, and may not potentially have a spot either? If that is the case that preschool spots are limited and Sam needs a preschool spot to work, then why readers being so hard on Sam?

  2. Safety is the most important thing when it comes to selecting preschools. This is based on a video from an educator in China where preschool competition is much more fierce. They teach 2 year old kids to program there.

  3. Asian Couple in Vancouver

    Thanks for the post Sam. I havent seen any other posters mention this, we hope to save on daycare costs and preschool costs by having the grandparents take care of the kids. MIL and FIL retired early. MIL is great with our 12 month old daughter and they go to library events or meet ups with other parents found on Facebook group for socialization. My wife will also soon be back on maternity leave for 1 year for our second child so our mother-in-law won’t be solo for too long. Luckily my parents and an aunt and her family also live in the area and they give our mother-in-law a break and help with the groceries and cooking.

    We got married and had our first kid soon after graduate school with plans for 3 (wife) to 4 (me lol) more so we’re quite young in our careers and unfortunately we can’t afford private pre school or elementary school. We luckily live in a good school area, so our plan is to have grandparents help take care of each of the kids until kindergarten, send all the kids to public, and save up for private high school and college. If we had the money we would definitely try for private preschools, just to guarantee them a spot from K-Grade 12 at the prestigious private schools around here.

  4. I live in Canberra, Australia, population 400-500k. Here you need to register your child at birth for private school. Doing so gives you options. If you get into a good public school then you don’t have to take up the private school place. For daycare you need to get on the waiting list pretty much when the child is conceived… There can be up to a 3 year waiting list…

  5. Considering both of you have the time and flexibility of being stay at home parents. I’m genuinely curious what pre-school offers that you can’t do yourself? Socially, I’d imagine there are plenty of clubs/classes your child could partake in and academically, I don’t see how you can do much better than 1 on 1 teaching time. The subjects your child does well in, you can continue to build to more complex topics and the areas he struggles in, you can take your time to ensure he fully understands them. Compared to a class room setting where you tend to progress along the path of the average learner and those who learn faster are left bored and those who struggle are left to figure it out on their own time.

    1. I think it’s helpful to provide a classroom setting to three times a week before kindergarten starts. Also, it gives us a break from full-time parenthood after 2 1/2 years.

      Are you a stay at home parent? If so, how did you deal with preschool?

  6. This + house prices is exactly why we left the Bay Area when our first child was born. We now live in one of the 20 wealthiest counties in the country. I went to half a dozen pre-schools to interview THEM, took my kid for a visit to a couple, and was done with the process in a couple of weeks. The experience was good so we’ll just second kid to the same place.

      1. If we could have comfortably afforded a nice house, it would have made the decision harder. We were on about $320k at the time, so your linked post is directionally correct, but for $4k/month in house payments we would have been living in a shoe box.

        The other main factor was the culture you’re describing in this post. Interviewing for preschool, high pressure on kids in elementary to keep up with peers who get hours of after school tutoring, kids stepping in front of the CalTrains due to stress, etc. etc.

        It’s great the east Asian and Indian cultures value education so highly, but it’s created this ratchet for more and more education and education status that only goes in one direction in SV. Sure, it would be easy for us as adults to drop out of that, but a kid in school is influenced more by their peers than parents.

        We ended up moving to an East Coast suburb, paying $120/ sq. ft. for a house, and really no regrets. I do miss hiking in the redwoods though.

        1. Cool. Yeah, I’ve read and heard a lot of disatisfaction towards Asian cultures who emphasize the importance of education more than anything else. But I’m not sure What the solution is.

          I want to work on communication skills and interpersonal skills for my son the most since we don’t remember hardly anything in school. I also want to give him the gift of being bilingual or trilingual since our family speaks three languages.

          I honestly feel that I am too unconventional and relaxed as a parent because of my path. I do wonder whether being so chill about education on the importance of a fancy college will hurt my boy down the road. Therefore, I a lot Time to be that on the ball parent In order to have options.

  7. You sound like my husband. The tone in which you perceive your disadvantages shows you really think of these as disadvantages. As a reader, I dont see them as disadvantages at all, different yes, but not a disadvantage. There are so many, many ways to be successful in life, and yes I have kids.

    1. Are you fighting with your husband? What are some of the outlook differences between you and him?

      When there is a 95% rejection rate, you’ve got to get realistic about your situation. Otherwise, you’re just going to be bitterly disappointed all the time if you expect to always win.

      What did you guys end up doing with your kids for preschool? And what strategies and wisdom can you impart on the rest of us?

      I think it’s gonna be fun to chronicle the results. When you have to stay at home parents can homeschool and you have your own business, I feel the downside to getting rejected everywhere is limited. And in fact, there is a huge positive to getting rejected, so we can go travel or move to Hawaii.

      1. we disagree on this and private school :) I agree you got to be realistic, but it hit a nerve when you say “small network” as a disadvantage. I am an introvert, and yes my network is small, but I dont connect that to my sons ability to get into a good preschool. It is what it is. I accept myself and find a good fit regardless.

        We ended up jumping a few daycares/preschools before we got into one that we and the kids liked, waitlisted for over a year. The first school you get into, even if you perceive it to be great, will likely not be the final one!

  8. Both of my kids went to a great preschool, my daughter is still there and will go to KG in August. They have academic program that prepares her for school, but more importantly teaches her the socialization skills that are so important for the transition to school…eating & packing away lunch, going to the bathroom alone, standing in line, sitting in a group and focusing on the teacher etc. I truly believe the socialization aspect is more important than the academics at this age. In America we are very focused on how our kids compare to others, this is not the case in other countries. I just read a book called The Happiest Kids In The World, it compares the US & UK to the Dutch system where kids aren’t expected to be reading until ages 6-7. This book really made me check my behaviour as a parent.

    My daughter’s preschool tuition is $1010 per month for 5 days, it seems like an absolute bargain compared to SF! You should rent a place up here and send him to preschool 3 days a week…the Napa Valley is a beautiful place to be and very family friendly!!

    1. Seems pretty cheap! I wonder about the Dutch though. Yes, they are always considered one of the happiest countries in the world. But I haven’t heard much productivity out of that wonderful country in a couple decades.

  9. HI Sam,

    Our neighbor had told us about a parent co-op preschool that we took advantage of for both our boys and it has been a highlight of our early years with our children. My husband and I were able to take advantage since both our schedules working for network tv gave us funky flip flopped hours where we were able to share our required days with the co-op. Some great advantages were:

    Number one being able to share in their early learning experiences and to really get a handle on how they both differently handle the learning process that has helped us now that the boys are in middle school. One boy handles challenges and stresses totally differently than our other boy. When our 8th grader currently has difficulties we have learned a few tricks of the trade to get him back on track instinctively.

    We met so many other wonderful parents that we still have stayed up to date with as our boys have grown. One is still my second son’s best friend in 5th grade!

    You learn so much from other parents that have been either going through the same struggles so you don’t feel so alone or have older kids that have been through the same issues. There is also always someone that is going through something worse than you to help you keep things into perspective.

    The cost savings is considerable!!!

    You never get this time back and it does go fast. Our co-op was one day on and one day off but there are all different kinds of schedules you can arrange.

    I remember how bittersweet it was when our last finally went off to kindergarten on his own. (also schools like the fact that you volunteered in a co-operative – shows that you are still willing to go the extra mile)

    I looked up to see if there were any co-ops in your area and came up with this link:

    I hope this helps!

  10. That’s a crazy situation to be in, I would not want to be competing on behalf of my kids at such an early age! What do other families do if there is such a high rejection rate, yet a large number of people that can afford to pay tuition? I presume that a large number of families have two parents working full time that are unable to homeschool. I live in the north bay and have no experience of this insane process.

    Interestingly I read this article from the WP this morning, the pressure starts with parents of preschoolers and goes all the way on to college and beyond. I like to think that I’ll not submit, but who knows what the reality will be.

    1. What did you end up doing with your kids?

      All I want are options.

      I’m happy to live the unconventional, vagabond, entrepreneurial lifestyle. But I’m also curious to see about the conventional and whether we can get in.

  11. I did an expensive and competitive preschool for my son but it doubled as a daycare since I work full time. I found that the primary benefit of preschool was the socialization for the kids and parents. I still had to teach my child to read and do math at home because he didn’t have the attention span to learn well in a group environment at that age. He went on some great field trips and learned lots of songs and got exposed to different sports and another language. He also made some great friends who he’s still close with now in elementary school, and I know their parents well from volunteering and school events. He had lots of play dates that were sourced from preschool, and it felt like there was a birthday party every weekend. Since our community is pretty small, we run into each other in school and sports programs, etc., and it feels like many of the kids will remain friends through high school, but that’s probably not true and things will change as people move or develop specific interests and make new friends.

  12. On top of your suggestions to increase your odds at admission, we did one thing that I didn’t realize was out of the norm at the time. Instead of doing the open house circuit, we called the school and asked to do a site visit at their convenience. During the site visit just my husband and I met with the administration and saw classrooms in action. That visit was purely one-sided at the time in my view, we wanted to see if the place would be a good fit for our son. However, in hindsight it also exposed the administration (the people on the admissions committee) to us and let them know they were going to be dealing with generally useful and rational humans interested in raising a generally useful human and not self-entitled tools who would make their lives painful. While we are in flyover country this school routinely gets four to six times the number of applications for their space allowances. Early educators aren’t paid well and doing business with likable people does enter the equation.

    1. Cool. I think every preschool we applied to requires mandatory site visits, before and/or after. We’ve gone to 4, and waiting for the other 5 after getting word or not.

      We wouldn’t send our son to the preschool without a site visit and spending at least an hour or two. Got to get a good feel first.

  13. Living in Austin Texas we have found the wait getting into some of these schools for our daughter was a 2 or 3 year wait. What helped getting in was attending school functions, opening houses and making an effort to be a part of the community before we were even accepted. It’s not enough to just complete an application. Getting accepted into a top tier school makes it easier to move around to another school for kindergarten, Montessori or another school. It’s a stepping stone and any new school you apply to later looks at the previous school history and can give the benefit of the doubt that your child has already been through a process for one of these top tier schools. Being self employed, I beg you to check out Acton Academy in addition to the Eagle and Parent blog, it has upended and changed our concepts of what an eduction is and can be. Parents are moving across the country and around the world to attend these sochriatic schools.

    1. Very cool. Will check those sites out.

      I totally agree about getting involved in the community. We are stay at home parents, so we WANT to be immersed in the community and do a lot of volunteer work with the school and such.

  14. Count me in among those who are not really surprised by the info in this post. I am not really shocked or feel critical to your decision to spend the money you did on the applications (wait till your son starts applying for college with the ease of the Common Application…you’ll double or more the preschool amount…).

    I am surprised by one comment (“if he doesn’t get in, we will home school him”). In my experience, pre-school isn’t about learning very much. Since my wife and I both worked full time when the kids were pre school age (well, we still work full time…), we looked at pre-school as a way to get the kids into a place where they (and we) could socialize. Almost all of our best friends to this day are parents of the kids our oldest went to preschool with (he’s a junior in college now). Those friendships have meant the world to us. So, consider a preschool with parents that will likely have the same values as you, because that will be most comfortable for you and your wife, and potentially facilitate friendships that will enrich you in ways not monetary.

    Also, the other kids in the preschool you choose (and chooses you I guess) will be your sons de facto “friends”. Thus, if you don’t mesh with the parents, it can be awkward, because play dates for 3-5 year olds don’t happen at the kid’s insistence, but rather parent’s planning. If you don’t fit in (for whatever reason), it can be awkward.

    As others have said, I wouldn’t stress about the academic rigor of the pre-school. Your son will learn to read etc when he is ready, not on the pre-school timetable.

    1. I agree about the importance of opening up to socialization, hence one of the reasons why we’ve applied to preschool.

      What would you say is the alternative to preschool if a child does not get in, if not homeschool?

      There are a lot of dads and moms groups and meetups for playdays 2-3X a week.

  15. What exactly defines a “top” preschool? SAT scores? Nobel laureate alumni? Or, it’s where everybody goes–more like a trendy restaurant?

    If the latter–and I can’t imagine hard data that makes things clearer than this–then I think there would be an opportunity to find the best fit for yourselves, rather than following the herd. Close to home? Similar ethics / spirituality? (in Dublin, they call this the “ethos” of the school) Flexibility / range of experience? (i.e. student-led) It would be like having a favorite restaurant being some out of the way, hole in the wall. Only, with your family’s future at stake.

    And further, how often does such opinion change? If often, then that’s another sign this may be a fad, with little lasting consequence. If never, then it’s just another way for some privileged group to reinforce and limit its ranks. What is the balance between genuine merit and just another form of conspicuous consumption?

    Dublin is just as crazy in one respect: there are frequently waiting lists for creches. (a cross between day care and preschool) But proximity is just as important as curriculum for a city with a lot of people using public transport and/or biking. There are tons of choices, generally following a Montessori practice, but with a variety of available approaches. This means things are competitive enough that there is no application fee. Costs are in line, because they are often not publicly supported. (although that, too, is an option if the creche wants to follow the requirements) But the decision here seems much more based on your own criteria, rather than some general consensus of “the best.” There is no experience or trial to pit one versus another, to determine such a thing.

    1. Low student teacher ratio, proximity, where the kids go after, online reviews, history, etc.

      Again, the price is roughly the same the matter of the rating, so why not apply to the better ones.

      What did you end up doing for your kids?

      1. We found a non-profit International Baccalaureate school, so our son is technically in pre-K rather than preschool. He goes 1/2 day, with tuition about $5k. (full day will go up to $8k) We had 2 IB schools (the other part of Nord Anglia, a for-profit company) and 2 small Montessori schools that we chose among–they all had openings for us. None of them had application fees.

        If our son was not performing as well as he does, (he tested as reading at a 2nd grade level last April) we would be looking at a local, free public school.

  16. Wow, Sam. That’s such a tough process, unlike anything we see out here in the burbs.

    As part of our upcoming move, we were just doing the public school vs. private school debate for our kids. Definitely a tough call, but we went with the public school option a bit further from jobs — it makes a difference that we have four (4 kids x 12 years x $___ adds up!). But, with one child living in the city, it makes total sense to focus on high-end private schools for FS Jr.

    All I can offer is to put your best foot forward and diversify applications. Apply to 10 schools and then pick among those you’re accepted to. I’ve always been pretty disappointed by the process when getting “rejected” for private schools at the elementary or below, but it’s just a reality. Once you find your school / community, the #1 factor in success is the combined teacher / parent combo, which you’ll thrive due to staying at home.

    Good luck!!


      1. We’ve been doing Montessori and have been very happy with those programs. Currently paying around $14,000 a year for pre-K, I suspect we’ll find something similar but haven’t lined it up yet.

        If you haven’t considered Montessori schools (focused on self-directed learning), I highly recommend looking into it as an option…!

  17. In the context of thinking you are a pretty good guy and well-intentioned, you are a numbers person – do you have any proof that an upscale preschool is the best choice for your child? Or is it just the best choice for you, which is what it seems to me. Who you are and the way you act day to day is how you add value your child’s later life.

    1. Yes. There is scientific correlation between the amount of care and love one gives a child and how they do academically and how much are they become as adults.

      We figure we might as well give our son the most love and care as possible and let nature take it’s course.

      1. You don’t have it Sam. You know hyper pre school is not the same as care. It may be the opposite for all you know and your claim of correlation does not hold up.

        Beyond that, it is a common error to assume intentional acts make the difference when it is really te repeated unintentional acts that we are typically not aware of that really make the difference.

        1. Have what? I Know I only make $1200 a month as an assistant tennis coach, but it takes time to build up my pay. Although, we did win the championship last year, which is the first time in school history so that should count for something.

          We applied to a lot of progress of preschools that are play based. Not sure how “hyper” they are considered.

          1. You do not have the correlation you claim — upscale preschool does not equate with care.

            Read about the players on World Champion Little League teams for some insight.

  18. Joseph Beckenbach

    You “want the best” for your child, yet seem (to me) to be unconsciously buying into “the more elite/expensive, the better”. You and your wife might have decided that directly, but I feel this article doesn’t demonstrate that.

    When in Silicon Valley with our very young children, we had similar ratios of expenses as yours. My wife and I decided that “the best” for each of our pre-K children was at home. Part of it was having one grandparent around occasionally, part was an extremely active and safe neighborhood we helped keep that way, and part was recognizing that (at least for our ancestors and ourselves) quality of help in early education didn’t seem to change what paths (and doors) were open to us later in life.

    A potential job description for you, in case you feel you absolutely *must* play games with the status-minded (and their minds? ;-) — “family-office portfolio manager”. That’s not even bending the truth, unless you handle the household investments at the kitchen table. :-)

    1. Heh, Sam send me $1 for an Etsy business my kid will start and you are an angel investor located in the SF area with investments across the nation.

      I’ll buy you a Starbucks coffee the next time you are east coast and you’ll have 500% returns…

      You can obviously and honestly state you are highly successful as an entrepreneur and leave it as that rather than assistant coach without gaming the system at all.

      1. Here’s my hope for why I say I’m a writer and assistant tennis coach:

        The school that admits us based on this background is the type of school we want to attend and support.

        School is about child development first and foremost, not about prestige, power, and money. As a teacher myself, I just want to teach and not get deep into the politics of money and power.

    2. Again, it’s like looking up a restaurant on Yelp before going to eat. If I’m going to pay $70 for a dinner, I might as well try out the five star rated restaurants rather than the two star rated restaurants for the same price.

      Cost is not an issue for us. It’s actually the last of our concerns fortunately. We’re focused on the quality of teaching, quality of care, proximity, flexibility of schedule, and where the kids go after.

      I really think 2 to 3 days a week would be great for preschool. But I know running a preschool is a business and many programs have mandatory five days a week.

      What were some of the activities you did for your child to help with socialization at age 2 to 5? Was one of you or both of you stay at home parents? Thanks

  19. All I can say is Wow.

    I didn’t realize how cutthroat preschool admission can be in the big cities and so glad that I didn’t have to go through the process. Like you I would probably have been guilted into it.

    It is wild at how expensive it is and in the grand scheme of things preschool has absolutely no bearing on how successful a child is going to be later on.

    I personally feel it is not until middle school and high school that what you do in academics really makes a difference in your future and at that point may explore the best options for your kids.

    Best of luck Sam with the process. It is impressive that you did not reveal that you are Financial Samurai in the applications which probably would have given you a huge leg up.

    1. I agree regarding middle school and high school being much more important. At this stage, it’s all about love and attention. And who can give more love and attention then to stay at home parents right? That’s why I’m torn sending my kid off to preschool at age 2 1/2 for more than three days a week.

      I like this one school that has a two day a week program. But it only has four spots for non-sibling applications when over 100 apply.

      There are schools that are five days a week, but I think that’s too much for a 2 1/2-year-old boy. We want to spend time with him!

  20. I grew up in Baltimore city. My parents knew that public schools were out of the question if they wanted me to have a future of non-incarceration or to not be killed. But they did send me to public pre-school, since even kids in Baltimore don’t have enough dexterity to shoot a gun at that age. But they’re close

  21. Very insightful article. I don’t have experience from a big city perspective but can attest to this situation in a fairly small coastal town. We are on the waiting list right now for the one ideal preschool our town has. They allow entry beginning at age 1 as kind of a “pre” preschool. Idk if we’ll get our kid in that early but still an option if only for a couple days a week. Price is less that half of your prices per month. I think the situation with trying to get in is a little similar because there simply arn’t very many preschools here relative to the population of children. We went and visited/got him on the waiting list a month after he was born and had 4 people ahead of us.

    I don’t think there’s much to worry about yourself. You could always just say you are a finance writer without mentioning FS. I wouldn’t. I did have a question for you Sam relating to the privacy issue. How do you manage your privacy with your connection to FS and your family/relatives and friends? Do you just not tell anyone you have a blog?

    Also, as far as if the upper eshelon preschools rejecting you based on race or what have you, why would you want your son to attend there anyways if that is how they do business? Just my thoughts.

    1. Age of one sounds more like daycare? Good luck getting in.

      Given there is a 95% rejection rate, there’s no point telling people who will likely reject you and then you have lost some privacy to strangers.

  22. Hi Sam,

    I was in your shoes about two years ago! Currently, my son is in senior preschool level at a private preschool in SF. He’s turning 5 next month. I have decided to place him in public school going forward. I moved to millbrae two years ago so that he would be able to attend public school from K-high school since the school district is pretty good here. They assign schools based on the street you live on. Thought the application process for public school in millbrae is not as bad as when I helped him apply to private preschool in SF, it is still a bit of paperwork. I’m currently filling out the forms and compiling all the documents needed.

    Good luck! Hope your son gets into a good school. I feel your “struggle”. :)

      1. We bought in millbrae two years ago. The ultimate reason was for the school district. I heard Burlingame has a good school district as well.

  23. Home school is the way to go! All the same access to information, but without the brainwashing! Teaching math, reading, and writing is the easy part. After that, the further learning will be up to you as the parent.

    1. Homeschool is a definite back up plan since we can both do it. We just want options. I’m just doing the math I am looking at the acceptance rates, it’s a necessity to apply it to this many schools.

  24. I am not a parent yet but this post is a bit silly. How a child does in pre-school as little bearing on how they do in high school or beyond. You can likely just send them to any old pre-school and you would be fine. Sure there might be huge differences but not ones that will affect their future significantly. Kids catch up with their peers eventually, and if there is any difference in kindergarten, they will catch up within the year and then everyone will be equal again.

    Go for what you want, but don’t stress too much if you don’t get your top pick. And please don’t feel guilty. This is another example of keeping up with the Joneses. If anything, I’m sure these schools propagate the notion that your child “must” be at their school to succeed in life which is ridiculous.

    Sorry if this sounds harsh, it just infuriates me when the “must go private school” thing makes it all the way to pre-K.

    1. Thanks for your perspective as a non-parent. I’m sorry this post has infuriated you. What are some other things that infuriate you and maybe we could discuss?

      I don’t know, but for some reason very little makes me angry anymore. Maybe it’s just the freedom we have and more the go with the flow attitude. Since we are financially independent and have a business we can teach our son, we’re really not sweating it.

      However, if the cost of preschool is the same no matter the quality, what would be the reasons not to apply to the best rated preschools? I’m hoping someone can answer this question for me.

      As a non-parent, do you have any other advice for parents? What were some of the things your parents did to you that was good and positive and some of the things that were negative? What are the some of the things you wish your parents could’ve done more?

      Check out this post:

      1. Sam, I agree with you that if the cost of preschool is the same no matter the quality, why would you NOT apply to the best ones? Getting into “any old preschool” could be the fallback “Plan B”, or, actually, home school (with group excursions/structured play dates) is probably the best “Plan A”. ;)

        I do think proximity should be a high level selection criteria for a school. One of the biggest complaints my hubby has against his parents is that they made him attend a public high school that was much further away from their house than the one all his neighborhood friends attended. He was the first one on the bus in the morning and the last one off the bus in the afternoon for the hour long school bus commute. Although the more distant school was brand new, the only things he remembers is how much he hated that bus ride, how much he missed his neighborhood friends, and how disappointed he was that his parents never expended the effort to fill out the paperwork needed to transfer him to the nearer school (which his younger brother ended up attending once the school boundary lines changed).

        Over the years I’ve given his parents the benefit of the doubt that they simply wanted him to attend a brand new high school in a higher social economic area; he always told me they were too lazy to make the effort needed to obtain a school transfer for him. After many, many, MANY years, I’ve come to the conclusion that his reasoning was most likely correct. To this day he still thinks his parents never had his best interests at heart. It is a sad thing to go through life thinking your parents don’t love you.

        So yes, put in whatever effort you need to now in applying to those top rated preschools. Because you just never know what might happen, and you certainly don’t want your son to end up 30 years from now thinking you didn’t love him just because you never submitted some stupid paperwork.

        1. That is kind of sad about how your husband feels about his parents. But at the end of the day, how did your husband turn out? Where did he go to college and what does he do for a living? If he’s doing OK, and then maybe it was all worth it.

          1. Despite (?) his parents, my hubby turned out to be a wonderful, compassionate human being with a big heart. He started a union job at age 17, so made way more money (at the time) compared to his high school peers. Thus he didn’t much see the need to go to college, although not getting a college degree has been one of his biggest regrets. Hubby stuck with his union job for 33 years (to qualify for a pension), retiring “early” a month before turning 50 after suffering a heart attack about a year earlier.

            About three years after we married, I went back to school for a BS in Computer Science from a nearby UC campus. I ended up working as a system / software engineer for a local aerospace company for almost 29 years, retiring “early” at age 55 (with both a 401(k) and a pension).

            The one thing he does thank his Dad for is being the greatest contributing factor behind his stubborn determination to last 33 years in his union job, most of which was spent working six nights per week.

    2. Non-parents who give advice to parents house to be one of the silliest things ever.

      What makes you think you know anything about parenting? You haven’t even gone through the preschool application process so why do you feel compelled to give advice?

      Did you stay at the Holiday Inn last night or something and suddenly think you know everything?

  25. The amount and quality of time you spend with your kid has far more impact in terms of learning than any pre-school classes.

    “For very high scores on the shared environments (1.5 SD’s above the mean), there is no appreciable achievement disparity between children who had attended preschool and those who had not.”!po=68.3673

    So for parents of high socioeconomic status that provided high cognitive stimulus for their kids the effects of pre-school was essentially 0.

    That pretty much describes your family doesn’t it? Jumping on the asian tiger parent treadmill seems counterproductive…especially for someone that is FI with passive income that doesn’t have to be geographically anchored.

    Now if your kid was going to grow up in a insular environment where social prestige is tied to which preschool through high school they went to then maybe it’s worth worrying about. But that doesn’t seem like your family.

    1. This is great to know. Another reason why I’m not worried given we both spend so much time with him.

      If the cost of preschool is the same no matter the quality, what would be the reasons not to apply to the best rated preschools?

      1. There is still a spread in dollar cost between schools that might be minor to those that are FI but significant to other families. Also, there is an issue in terms of proximity and travel time.

        Why wouldn’t you apply to the best rated schools? There’s a difference in teaching styles between Montessori, Waldorf, religious, traditional, etc.

        We looked at Waldorf and said no even though it was highly rated by some and picked a lower rated Montessori due to proximity and low teacher turnover rate. We liked another highly rated school but the teacher turnover rate was huge which implied to me that there was systemic management issues.

        The super elite schools were about 20 mins away but impractical due to cost and time.

        School rating is very subjective in many cases.

  26. My city (94080, your neighbor) has a well regarded and affordable city run preschool. It has a 4 year waiting list. Our frugality and budget prevented us from even considering private so we waited. And waited. As a result, my two kids “only” got about 1.5 years on average in preschool.

    But that’s fine. The important thing is that they had a foundation for reading, math and most importantly – getting used to the school environment and schedule – so they hit the ground running in Kindergarten. In general, they are doing great at an above average (but not award winning) public elementary school in our district.

    That being said, I do have friends with the competitive parenting mindset who make me feel guilty about “above average.” These well intentioned folks go as far as renting small apartments in Millbrae or Palo Alto to be part of those districts. And every time my kid acts up or doesn’t perform in school, I start to think: should I’ve sent them to private school? a charter school? Should I sell my house so I can trade a mediocre Bay Area district for a top performing district in say, Sacramento?

    The anxiety over parenting in the Bay Area is real. Along with the extreme cost of living, it’s hard to settle down and have a family, even if you’re as financially secure as the Financial Samurai.

    1. That is one long wait list! Parents have to apply before they know they’re even having a child?

      Because I went to public school, I feel fine that the matter what route we take after preschool things will turn out fine.

      I think it’s important for parents to just get on the ball and understand the process because it can be quite arduous.

      I also feel pretty sanguine because worst case, our son has me and his mother to learn from. We want to teach him, and there is an online business to teach him practical knowledge as well when he grows up.

      In a way, I feel like when I did when I was consulting and didn’t need the money, or when I was going to business school and didn’t need to go to business school part time. I think this will be an interesting journey and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

      I really just like to write about my experiences and reflect down the road.

      I’m sure you guys will do just fine!

      1. Yes. Preschool applications are a racket. It they were honest and upfront about the odds hen id be less upset about how much I’ve spent on application fees with no spots to show for it. We have been waitlisted which is basically no mans land. I think it’s criminal to take families money knowing you will not be offering a spot to most of them. I’m totally over it.

  27. I remember when my sister found out she was moving to the Bay Area she was freaking out about finding a preschool for her son. You speak so many truths in this post for parents who live in big cities and the surrounding areas like the Bay Area. She was smart to apply as soon as she found out she’d be moving and got her son on the waitlist at a few schools. By the time she relocated a spot opened up so she was lucky. It wasn’t her top choice school but it was on her preferred list.

    I know parents who live in Manhattan who’ve gone through exactly the same thing as you Sam, so you’re definitely not alone. I think it’s worse in Manhattan but I can’t say for sure from my own experience.

    You’ve done a lot of research and done a lot of prep work to try and get your son into one of your top choices, so even if it doesn’t work out at least you won’t have any regrets. If you didn’t apply to any and waited until the last minute and couldn’t get in to any of them then you’d probably always wonder, what if…

    In any case I’m sure things will work out just fine no matter what happens. Best of luck!

    1. Yes, Manhattan seems even more competitive.

      Great to hear about your sister. I really think good things happen when parents are on the ball. You don’t want to miss opportunities out of not being thorough.

      I’ve seen this happen so many times!

  28. Wow, this is so stressful! I’m a little stunned you turned around and decided to apply to private pre-school after that how-a-private-school-will-cost-you-$1M post, but I guess this might be the best option in SF if you don’t want to move.

    All colleagues of mine send their kid to private pre-school here as well. At $60k, that’s the cost of college! We will probably move to a city where there is a good public school system (and no income tax!) so hopefully, we won’t have to deal with this. I went to a great college without expensive school so I think my kid can do the same if we go somewhere with a really good public or magnet school.

    Thanks for giving your perspective on it all! I’m interested to see how it turns out. Maybe the non-tech/professional/finance careers you guys put down will be seen as diversity in their eyes?

    1. There is a program called Free School For All in SF, but I don’t think we qualify for subsidy grants, nor would we want to take up subsidy space for other families more in need. But I’m more than happy to check them out if anybody wants to make some suggestions.

      $60K for preschool? Never heard of that. Which city? Manhattan? Preschool prices for our schools range from around $8,800/year for two days a week all the way to $31K/year for 5 days a week for dual language immersion.

      We prefer just 2-3 days a week since we want to spend time with him.

      1. Pre-K is preschool right? Horace Mann costs about there (tuition + activities fees + donations, etc), but I did mean to type just school though, my bad!

        1. Yep. I see it costs $36K – $51K! Damn! The $51K SF equivalent is $31K.

          The strategy many parents employ is to get their kids in early, even though they know the cost is extremely high so that they can just attend the school through 12th grade.

          There are different common entry points (rushes) e.g. Kindergarten, 6th grade, 9th grade.. so if you can go way early, or go off cycle and have the flexibility, this helps.

  29. Christine Minasian

    I am at a complete loss for words….
    Sam….you are better than this! Look what you achieved in your life and you didn’t go to an elite PRE-SCHOOL or University!!!!

    I need to go have a drink now….my anxiety is off the charts for you.

    1. Hope the drink tasted good!

      Most preschools are private or co-ops in the city or simply cost money. We don’t qualify for tuition subsidies, nor do we feel good accepting subsidies. They aren’t for us.

      If the cost of preschool is roughly the same, depending on days needed, what would the reason be to not apply to the top schools?

      It’s Kindergarten – 12th grade where we have the right to public options. Preschool, not so much.

      Happy to hear suggestions and solutions. I really don’t have much anxiety over this process. I thought it’d be interesting to highlight how rigorous it can be, and then share our success/failure rate later. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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