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Applying to NYC High Schools: A Survival Guide

A mom shares her recent experiences to help simplify the byzantine process

Stuyvesant High School

Stuyvesant High School

I had heard so many horror stories about the NYC public high school application process. Too much choice. Not enough choice. Bla bla. You know what? My family and I lived through it—without tears, too much stress, and maybe even enjoyed it at times.

And now that I’ve gone through it, I want to demystify the process for one and all!

First, the basics:

1) Before you start anything, will be your bible. It’s a vibrant community of parents and students, along with great stats and reviews of ALL 400+ NYC high schools.

2) How the process works:

  • The NYC High School Admissions process is a citywide choice process.
  • Any student can apply to any school in all five boroughs.
  • You may list up to 12 choices on your application; list them in order of preference.
  • Schools and programs have different admissions methods to determine how candidates will be considered and admitted.
  • Your teen is matched to your highest choice possible that has also listed her/him

What should I do and when?

Spring of 7th grade:

  1. SHSAT prep. If your child is interested in applying to one of the 7 specialized high schools, she will need to take the Specialized High School Scholastic Aptitude test. Most schools do not offer test prep; ask around for tutor suggestions or check out Kaplan. Get a leg up (like everyone else!) and start looking into tutoring programs at the beginning of the 7th grade school year. Start SHSAT classes in the Spring.
  2. Create a Facebook group, a High School Search Brain Trust (what me and my parent cohort called ours). Keep the group on the smaller side, 15-20 members. This will be a great place to share feedback with people you trust, ask questions, and find tips on when coveted tours are taking place–and a safe space to kvetch!


Tip: Try to include parents with kids at different middle schools, not just your own. Everyone will have different info to contribute based on what info his or her 8th grade high school counselor shares.


3) Don’t miss anything from the 8th grade counselor. You’ll likely get some info, such as basic dates, be on the lookout for more high school announcements, etc from your 8th grade guidance counselor at the end of the 7th grade.

Beginning of 8th Grade:

  1. Attend any and all presentations your 8th grade guidance counselor offers. That’s non-negotiable.
  2. Start the conversation with your teen: which schools have you heard about? Anything sound interesting? Are you OK taking the subway to school each day? Once you have one or two high schools in mind, you and your child should go to Use the filter to sort by interest, location, and more.
  3. Create a spreadsheet with your initial choices. I used it to track the tours, interviews, etc. My daughter started out adding her feedback from each tour, but that fell by the wayside pretty quickly.

Late September: High School Tours Are Announced

High school tours are the only way you and your teen will get to know the values, vibe and fit of each potential high school. If you are putting down 12 options, plan on visiting 14-18 schools in total. How do you know when the tours are announced?

  1. Your guidance counselor should be sending out tour announcements and alerts the first few weeks of school.
  2. Visit the Web sites of your potential top school choices. Often. They should have updates on tour signups.
  3. Your FB group will be invaluable here to find out what schools announced their open houses.

October-November: Tour-a-Palooza

Most high school tours are set during in this time frame. Stay. Calm. Enjoy the process. Ask questions. Listen to your teen and her POV if the school would be a good fit. Also, remember you are the parent! Your instincts on a good fit are important, too.


The Citywide High School Fair is usually held in October. While large and at times overwhelming, it is a one-stop shop experience that allows you and your teen to speak to students and counselors at many of the 400 NYC high schools. My tip is to take a break outside of the school every hour or so, with water and a snack.


Early December: Applications due

My daughter’s guidance counselor always advised to list as many schools as your teen would absolutely be ready to attend. With the first round of acceptances, there may be about 8% of students who do not get placed at all. Why? No one can be certain. However, if you only list the most competitive schools, include schools you may have little chance to attend (some give preference to a local zone), or only list 2-3 schools, you are narrowing your options to a precarious degree. Just use common sense.

March: School admissions announced.

And…scene. Good luck!

Denise Tilles

Denise is a Brooklyn-based working mom with one high-school bound daughter, Leigh, and an upcoming applicant, 6th grader, Honor. Denise and her husband, Douglas, are parents committed to making the NYC school system more inclusive for students of all abilities.



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