Practical Tips for Applying to NYC High Schools

Practical Tips for Applying to NYC High Schools

by PALNYC Guest Writer Jennifer Elk

(Parent, 8th grader Speyer Legacy School)


I hope to share some practical tips for applying to NYC area high schools. I was a “first timer” in the fall of 2017, applying to NYC specialized, NYC public, and private day schools. As I write this my family is in the “waiting phase” to see where our 14 year old daughter will be accepted.

I wish I could tell you there is an easy way to find your way through the daunting ‘phonebook’ directory of private schools. You will want to discuss with your schools director of secondary school placement or advisor what type of school you think will be a good fit for your student and listen to their recommendations. I recommend you keep an open mind, and visit some schools that may not have been on your radar. If your student is far too busy with school work and overwhelmed by the amount of morning and evening “visits”, you can attend some information sessions and open houses alone first and later go back for the tour with your family. Try not to take logistics into consideration. You may change your mind in the process as to the distance your student will commute to a school that is just right for them. If your really unsure about a school and the website does not speak to you, ask your school advisor.

My daughter is a high achiever and a perfectionist since her early years. She holds herself to her own standard of excellence, without comparison or competition with peers. She puts 110% into academics which means she may have fewer extra curricular activities than her peers. It is hard to put into words what we looked for in a school but we knew that we wanted a similar educational philosophy to her current school, passionate educators, and a place where she will not feel ‘in competition’ with others, rather to be inspired to continue on her own path.

The biggest surprise along this arduous journey is that we wound up loving some schools that we didn’t have any expectations about. In fact my daughters top 3 choices after visiting 17, were schools that I did not even plan to apply to a year ago!

Below is a Timeline to help with your journey.  Remember to stay calm, focused and organized. If you’re stressed, your student will absorb your stress. Remember millions of families have done this before you and millions will after. These months will fly by so try to get some enjoyment out of each place you visit and the people you meet.

All the best to you and your student!



2 years out

  • Keep your ears open. Students who attend a school you may be interested in are your best source of information, and their parents your second best source.
  • Explore websites for the types of schools that interest you.
  • Your student should know that in 7th and 8th, grades do matter. The 7th & 8th transcripts will be seen by high schools. Students should take pride in their work, homework assignments and grades.
  • Attendance matters. Keep in mind no more than 10 unexcused absences are a requirement to apply to some schools. Make sure when your student is home sick from school you contact your school so it’s an “excused absence.”


1 Year out

  • Attend high school fairs. You can attend both private and public school fairs at any time. Feel free to explore a year in advance of applying.This can help narrow the field.
  • Try to visit at least 1 private and 1 specialized high school with or without your student. This will help you to start to see and feel some of the differences.
  • Read about the SHSAT, ISEE and SSAT exams. Get a general understanding for what they are.

Tip:  Don’t listen to the school choices of friends, or follow their lead. I promise you, that once your in the process, your choices will be very different from your friends. Fit is paramount and knowing your child will be your best guide.

6 Months out (spring of 7th grade)

  • Now is a good time to start to plan for the SHSAT. Download and read the ‘Specialized High Schools Student Handbook’ from the NYC DOE website. Most students taking this exam have prepared with a prep. course. There are some free courses that you can apply for but most are not free. Consider summer test prep. Summer prep. means your student will be able to put in more practice time and have more time to prepare.
  • Create a ‘Ravenna’ account. Ravenna is a web hub designed to allow you to complete applications for many private schools in one centralized location. You will create an account and than use it when admission season officially begins after labor day of your students 8th grade year.
  • Now is a good time to decide on either the ISEE or SSAT private school entrance exam and purchase a practice book.
  • Set up an account on the testing site for the test your student will take.
  • Register early for the ISEE or SSAT exam to get the dates you want. Note: Your student can take these tests up to 3 times, once per offering season and submit the best score. Ask your advisor for more information on the private school testing timeline.
  • If your student will apply to performing arts or special music schools, look up audition requirements so they can practice over the summer.            

Tip: Don’t worry now about registering for the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admission Exam), your school will register your student for that in the early fall.

2 Months Out –  (After Labor Day).

  • This is the time you will find applications available on the Ravenna Hub. Dates vary among schools, but most are available the first week in September.
  • Start your spreadsheet. It really helps to be organized! You will want to list the schools you plan to apply to, and all of their key dates for information sessions, open houses, application due dates. In the coming weeks you will add your reserved open house dates, tour, and interview dates.
  • Not all schools applications are available through Ravenna so be sure to note the links and login info. for other schools on your spreadsheet.
  • Keep checking websites for open house dates and register asap. Many schools offer limited open house dates.
  • Be sure your registered for the ISEE or SSAT. You can select dates and testing location for the fall and winter season exams  now.

Tip:  Keep an open mind. After you get recommendations from your school, draft your list. Your list may change between September and November. I added 2 schools to my list in mid October, and edited a few in early November after open houses.

Back to School 8th grade year (Admissions Season)

  • In mid September book a meeting with your schools’ secondary school placement director/advisor to get their recommendations for schools that may be a good fit for your student.
  • Start filling out applications! The preliminary sections of the applications with fee must be completed in order book your tours and family/student interview.
  • Now is a good time to look at the common essay topic choices on the applications. Allow your student to read the essay topic choices even of they don’t begin their essay until October.
  • This is a good time to tell your school advisor if your student will take the SHSAT for admission to specialized high schools.

Tip: I allowed my daughter to begin her common application essay in October after the SHSAT exam. She was relieved that one exam was completed and able to give it more attention and focus.

A few more notes on private and boarding school admissions exams.

  • Make sure your know when the 3 seasonal exam testing dates will be available and register early to get dates you want. The summer before 8th Grade is considered the “spring season”. You can typically take the first exam as late as August and it’s considered spring. You will probably want a ‘late’ fall testing date as your 2nd, and an ‘early’ winter testing date. Be sure you choose a winter date that allows you to get the results to the schools your applying to before their deadline. My daughter didn’t take an exam in the Spring, but did take the exam twice once in the fall and once in the winter.
  • It seems that preparation for the private school exams are a somewhat taboo subject. You may find out like I did that your students friends are doing it. Use your judgement and discretion to decide on tutoring to prepare.


NYC DOE Specialized High School Process

NYC School Finder Checklist

NYC Specialized High School Checklist

NYC Specialized High Schools Directory

NYC Public (inc Specialized) High School Directory

DOE High School Admission Presentation




  One thought on “Practical Tips for Applying to NYC High Schools

  1. Parmelia Quackenbush
    March 14, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    This Top Tips from Jen Elk is GREAT!!!! I would add that one resource ANYONE applying to NYC public schools (both main round and specialized) should absolutely consider is the blog “High School 411” put together by Elissa Stein. It covers EVERYTHING and is a font of information. Also, the Parents League can help advise on anything having to do with Private Schools. Finally, to prep my son for the battery of tests, he started taking two sample tests/week beginning in March (the tests are in the Fall). We just ordered study guides and tests from previous years from Amazon, or I got them at Barnes & Noble. By the time the tests rolled around, taking them was no big deal. It must have worked, as he got well above 600 on the SHSAT(got into his first choice specialized), and three 800s on the SSAT, so we didn’t bother taking the ISEE.

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