It used to be that when it was time to find a school for the kids, most Americans looked no further than the neighborhood school.

Now, however, with the expansion of open enrollment policies and the growth of the charter school movement, competition to get into public schools with good reputations has become more wide-spread. A competitive admissions process is not just a private school phenomenon anymore.

“About a quarter of kids go to a school other than the one they’re assigned to,” says Bryan Hassel, co-author, with Emily Ayscue Hassel, of The Picky Parent Guide: Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence. “Some fraction of the other three-quarters choose where they live because of a school, which is another way of exerting school choice. About 50 percent of families are exercising school choice.”

With the ever increasing assortment of options available to parents, it’s become important to not only research the schools themselves, but also the various rules, written and unwritten, of admission.

In many communities, the admissions process can be fairly complicated. In New York City, for example, parents greatly increase their chances of success by learning the system. “New York City has 32 districts, 10 regions and 1,400 schools,” says Pamela Wheaton, Deputy Director of, a website devoted to New York City public schools. “In some districts in the city you can apply to schools that aren’t in your neighborhood and ask for what is called a variance. There are some programs that are open city wide. High school is pretty open, but there are some schools in certain areas of the city where unless you live in the district you can’t apply. What counts for admission to many schools are the scores on the seventh grade test, but there are several systems. One is an Educational Option, which is a way of ensuring a mix of high-, middle- and low-achieving kids. So there’s a specific formula of how they accept kids. Fifty percent are selected by computer and 50 percent are selected by the schools.”

Basic rules of the game

Regardless of how simple or complicated, competitive or not, your district’s system is, there are some basic strategies that can be applied to help your child get into a great school.

1. Look for those up-and-coming, hot new schools

“The first tip to figuring out strategies is to broaden your perspective on which schools you would want to apply for,” says Deena Zacharin, former director of the Office of Parent Relations for the San Francisco Unified School District. “The best way to do that is to go see the schools themselves. Schools often have reputations that are seven to 10 years old. It takes a long time for a reputation to turn around with a school. But when you go and see the school, you see all the wonderful things that might be happening there.”

2. Avoid the herd mentality

Parents should look at a school’s test scores as a measure of how well students achieve, but that is only part of the picture of a school. “You really have to talk to the principal and see what is going on in the classroom to determine if it’s a good fit for your family,” says Sandra Halladey, founder and former associate director of the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools. “Just because it’s a good fit for all your friends doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your family. What your next-door neighbor or your best friend might think is a wonderful school and is a perfect fit might not be the same for you.”

3. Don’t mess up

Don’t lose out because of missed deadlines or incomplete paper work. Hassel cautions: “If it truly is a purely mechanical system, such as a lottery, then the most important strategy is to make sure that you get things in on time. Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up is one of those basic technical requirements.”

Even after you’ve gotten your child into the school, complete all the steps. “Make sure that you read all the paper work that you get from the school district and that you respond in a timely manner to all the deadlines,” says Halladey. “If you’re offered a seat and if you don’t go within the required time frame and accept that seat, then you’ve lost it.”

4. Get your information from the right source

“Make sure you get information from the correct source, which is the district office,” warns Halladey. “Your school secretary or teacher might not have the latest information.”

5. Investigate your district’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) admission rules

If you believe your child is a bright student, a GATE program might be an entree to a better educational opportunity. Find out if GATE programs in your district are only offered in certain schools. Some GATE programs ask for nursery school assessments, while others might not require anything until third or fourth grade, when a GATE test is administered.

6. Consider new schools

Often public schools create small academies within larger schools, or new public, charter or private schools are opened, after the regular enrollment process is over. These schools may have seats available for months before word of their existence spreads. Check with your district for more information about new public and charter schools. Choosing a school without an established reputation is a risk, but new schools can provide exciting opportunities to form communities and to create positive change.

7. Find out if you can apply to more than one program at a school

“Some larger schools have several programs-such as one in art, or one in government,” says Wheaton of “So if that’s the school you want to go to, apply to all the programs, because once you get in you can transfer to the program you really want.”

8. Write directly to the school principal

“One tip, even for the public school system, is to write a cover letter to the school that really zeros in on what we call your ‘child’s fit’ with the school,” says Hassel. “It certainly can be provided, even for the more mechanical lottery type systems. It never hurts to try, right? Plus, it’s part of building your relationship with the school, if your child does ultimately go there. This letter should be brief and to the point.”

9. Apply to schools that require auditions or special admissions procedures, as well as to regular lottery schools

Some schools require auditions or portfolios of past work for admission. If you feel that your child has a special talent or a strong interest in a particular field, preparing for these schools will create more options for your child.

10. Use all preferences that apply to you

“Find out what kinds of preferences are built into the system,” says Hassel, “and make sure that you’re taking advantage of those that apply to you, such as sibling preferences and neighborhood preferences. Often public school lotteries have preferences for race, although race is supposed to be counting less, but with court decisions it’s possible that income counts. There are all kinds of preferences that are built into the system. There is nothing that you can do about those preferences, either you have them or you don’t, but make sure that you get any advantage that you can out of them.”

For example, there’s a twist on sibling preference that can sometimes be used. “It may be that getting your kindergartner into a school is easier than getting your second-grader in,” says Hassel. “If you get your kindergartner in, maybe your second-grader can go there the next year with the sibling preference. Understanding how that works can be really helpful.”

(Note: Sibling preference deadlines are often earlier than regular enrollment deadlines. Be sure to know the different enrollment deadlines.)

Finally, if it applies to your situation, find out what the inter- and intradistrict transfer rules are. Every state has rules that govern the use of interdistrict (between districts) and intradistrict (within a district) transfers. For example, in California, you can legally apply for a transfer to a district in which you work, regardless of whether you live in that district. The district must consider your request, although they do not have to admit you if there are no seats available. Knowing the rules of district transfers might allow you to place your child in a school in a better district, however it probably won’t help you land a spot in an oversubscribed school.

Always have a Plan B!

If your child doesn’t get into that must-have school on the first go round, here are a few Plan B tips.

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