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How to Stay Cool Under the Pressure of NYC's High School Admissions Process

By Morris Cohen | November 5, 2013 6:36am
 In preparing your child for the stress of the high school application process, look for areas in your and your child’s life where they have demonstrated past resilience.
In preparing your child for the stress of the high school application process, look for areas in your and your child’s life where they have demonstrated past resilience.
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Shutterstock / littleny

NEW YORK CITY — It's almost as stressful as applying to college — except the kids are only 13 years old.

Last week, I learned that my next-door neighbor had to postpone her daughter’s 13th birthday party by more than a week because they were so focused on the high school application and testing process that there was no time for celebrating with friends and family. She was overcome with stress and worry that her daughter, who is in eighth grade, might not get into a good, let alone great, New York City high school.

My neighbors are certainly not alone.

Right now, eighth-graders across the city are wading through the annual New York City public high school application process. Some of these students have already taken the high-stakes entrance exams that are their only way into the city’s most selective schools, such as Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science, which draw thousands of applicants vying for a few hundred spots. 

Other students who haven't applied for the selective high schools are also wracked with stress, as they pore through the Directory of NYC Public High Schools in search of a good fit based on name, or location, before the city's Dec. 2 application deadline.

It's a monthslong application and waiting process that can be confusing and stress-inducing for both students and parents alike.

While there’s no question that the process is a worthy investment of time and energy for parents and students who want the best for the future, the amount of stress it provokes can be so extreme that it undermines the process.

Here are some ways to survive the stress around this process, and keep your kids grounded.

1. Remember: You’re not Crazy, And You’re Not Alone

At times, the NYC Department of Education is a Byzantine and confusing organization. It’s unclear how some schools select who gets in, and many high school administrators will candidly talk about not having enough input into selection of their student body themselves. The “selective” high schools have few seats open, and there are thousands of applicants each year.  Oftentimes, high school open house hours are inconvenient for working parents, so parents may feel as if they are making less than informed decisions when it comes to helping their child fill out their school preferences on application forms.

In my 15 years working in and with the NYC DOE, I never met a person who had a positive thing to say about the process, from parents to students to guidance counselors to principals.

All this is to say that sometimes we can feel a sense of comfort in the fact that we are not alone in a clearly dysfunctional system. If you don’t experience that "we're all in it together" feeling in your own life, try to talk about the subject with other parents, administrators, counselors, or even local politicians. You will probably feel a sense of validation in your assessment of the process. Hopefully this can take your stress level down a bit.

“But,” you say, “now that we can all agree that it’s a dysfunctional process, what can I do?”

2. Resist Falling Into the Domino Effect

The “Domino Effect” refers to a chain reaction that begins with one action triggering another subsequent action, which then triggers another, and another.

Parents sometimes fear that if their child doesn’t get into a good high school, he or she won’t be accepted into a top college, which means he or she won’t get the skills required to get a high-paying and satisfying job, and won’t be able to have the kind of life that they deserve. One domino falls, and all the others follow suit, so the thinking goes.


This fear has been cultivated in our society as a pernicious lie. We live in an incredibly big world that offers our children opportunities we haven’t even thought of yet. We have no idea what the job market or the world will look like in 10 years, in a positive way. You do not know what will pique your child’s interest in the future, what they will become passionate about in high school, college or beyond. The world is full of stories about people overcoming amazing obstacles, missteps, mistakes and tragedies and turning their lives around. Have faith in the opportunities that abound in the world.

 High stakes testing produces high stress in children, and their parents.
High stakes testing produces high stress in children, and their parents.
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Shutterstock / Operation Shooting

To this end...

3. Cultivate Resilience in Your Child, and Yourself

In preparing your child for the stress of the high school application process, look for areas in your and your child’s life where they have demonstrated past resilience. Remind them of how they conquered setbacks and obstacles in the past, even trivial ones like clearing a level in a video game. Remind your child (and yourself) that even if they don’t get accepted by the high school of their choice that it is not the end of the world, that there are still options. 

Speaking of which...

4. Knowledge (and Networking) is Power!

Don’t know which high schools have good academics? Performing arts options? Strong science departments? Internship opportunities? Don’t worry. There are many resources out there to help you find the diamonds in the rough.

A good place to start is Insideschools.org. As an independent organization, they make visits to schools in order to make assessments. Think of them like Wikipedia, a good place to start, but by no means the final word. They even have a feature on high school applications. Just pay attention to the date at which they visited a school, as sometimes it can be several years old, and therefore the information may be out of date.

Another way of gaining information is by networking with other parents, guidance counselors, administrators, the PTA and the parent coordinators. In my experience, these individuals have intimate knowledge about specific schools and can give their thoughts beyond just the “company line” about a school. You never know where a conversation that starts out with “Hey, my daughter is looking at good, quality high schools, what’s your experience?” can lead.

5. One Size Does Not Fit All

While entrance into Stuyvesant may be a tremendous opportunity for many, it is not the right fit for all, or even most students. Knowing your child’s learning style, where and how they thrive in school, and what’s important to them is the key.

For example, if your child is diligent and gets excited bout class projects, but underperforms when it's time to take exams, a portfolio assessment school like Vanguard High School in Manhattan may be a good option. 

If your child is passionate about performing arts, but wants other options besides the highly competitive LaGuardia Performing Arts high school, perhaps look into Talent Unlimited (also in Manhattan), or the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens.

Does your child do better with a more flexible and independent schedule and class structure? Maybe Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow high school is good for her.

The better you know your child’s learning style, the better you’ll be able to help him or her find the best school match.

6. Final Thoughts

While academics are important, it’s just one piece of the pie. Your child is a complex human being, with complex needs, strengths and challenges. It's important to appreciate this, and feel empowered to help them flourish and thrive. With some networking and searching, the right high school is out there. 

And remember, you can always change course and transfer to a different school. This is an option that many parents, students and educators often overlook.

Try to stay calm, and exude a positive outlook on the process, for if you are completely stressed out by it, this will most likely promote stress in your child as well.