Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.
Educational consultant and clinical social worker Robin Aronow founded School Search NYC after recognizing a need for support in navigating New York City’s pre-k-12 public and private school system. Now a leading expert on educational options for New York-based school children of all ages, Robin spoke with Noodle Pros about her background, process, and advice for kids and parents.
Tell us a little bit more about School Search NYC and the work that you do.
I do consulting with families for nursery school through 12th grade placement. Usually the children are either starting school for the first time, looking to make a change in school, or relocating to New York City. And I’m somewhat unique in that I cover both private and public schools, whereas many consultants in New York will only really cover private. I consider myself a bit of an authority on the public school side of things, particularly in Manhattan.
What is your personal educational background? How did you get into this line of work?
I actually have a PhD in social work, so I have worked over my whole career both as a school social worker and as a private therapist. Then about 20 years ago, when my third and youngest child was in nursery school (and I was one of the older parents), I noticed that other parents in the class were asking me lots of questions about school. One of them actually said to me, “Hey you should get paid for doing this!”
I thought that was sort of a novel idea, so I decided to go to my child’s nursery school director and talked to her about admissions support. What I learned from that conversation was that most nursery school directors are in the field because they love educating young children — but they don’t really like what we call the “exmissions” part. So she was happy to have me take that over for her.
Then through word-of-mouth, other nursery schools heard about me, I started working with parents privately, and the business grew into what it is now — a 24/7, 365 days a year kind of venture.
What are some things that are uniquely challenging and uniquely wonderful about the New York City school system?
I think both what’s wonderful and challenging is all of the options that are available. It’s challenging because that can be really overwhelming to families; even just considering private schools, there are probably at least 60 of them out there. And as far as public schools, we have everything from zoned schools, to district choice schools, to Gifted and Talented, to Dual Language, to charter schools… So many options. And I think that figuring out the right situation for your child, and learning how to navigate one or both of those school systems, can be challenging to parents. But at the same time, there are just so many wonderful choices out there.
In the private school world, parents do have the luxury of thinking more about what type of learner their child is — would they be better off in a more traditional school, or should they go somewhere more progressive, are they better off getting out of the city and living on a campus, should they do one style when they’re younger and one when they’re older, should they go to a spiritual or religious school — all of those different kinds of scenarios. In the public school world, where you live is generally more important. You still have different kinds of options for schools you can apply to, but it may be harder to get into a school if you don’t live in the right area.
What are some questions that you typically ask in a first meeting with one of your students?
A lot of that has to do with the age of the child, but generally, regardless of the age, I meet parents first. Then if I’m dealing with a middle or high school-aged student, I will include them in the process as well. Because they are ultimately going to be the best advocate for themselves.
The first meeting is an opportunity for parents to tell me whatever they want to about their child. I’ll ask them the same questions that a private school essay might ask: What are your child’s strengths? Where is there still room for growth? What are their main interests? Things like that. And then we might talk about how well the child will handle separating from the parents, if it’s a younger child, or how much they really want this, if the child is older. Because for older children, they’re going to need to be able to present their personal feelings about their choices to the schools.
I also like to learn a little bit about the parents, and about what their own educational background was like. Do they want something similar for their child, or do they want something different for their child? Will they consider public schools, for example? I’m a big public school advocate, but I also think that all of my families need to be looking at their public school options as a backup for children ages kindergarten and up.
What is your perspective on parental involvement? Is there ever a time where parents should not be involved with school admissions?
In the application process — and that’s what I’m working with them on — parents are going to have to be involved. So I don’t ever think that there’s a time when parents should not be participating. What the extent of the participation should be may differ by age as well as just child-by-child. Obviously when we’re talking about kids who are applying for nursery school or elementary school, it’s basically the parents who are going to be interviewing and writing the essays questions, as well as making the final decisions as to which schools the students should be applying to. So parents have to be very intimately involved there.
But as kids get to the age where they have to be tested, that’s where sometimes I will tell parents to back off a little bit, or have more confidence in their child. I might also tell them to bring other people into the process, to give their student extra outside support. Because there’s a lot of tension around testing, and I think that kids pick up on that and become barometers for their parents’ stress.
As we move into middle school and high school, again, the kids are going to be more involved in the process. Parents should avoid making their children overstressed about admissions, but at the same time those kids are going to have to interview themselves, and they’re going to have to test, and they’re going to have to fill out their own essay questions for many schools, and parents will have to guide them in those kinds of things while letting them take the lead.
Parents shouldn’t ever be writing the essays for their kids — in the same way I would never write an essay for parents, I would never write an essay for a child. The essay has to be in their own voices. I’m happy to take a look at what they’ve done and make some suggestions for what could be added or changed, but it should be the child’s work.
Oftentimes parents have to submit essays on their child’s behalf as well. Can you talk a little bit more about the parent essays, and your advice for parents?
With younger kids, when parents are writing the essays, I always suggest to them that over the summer, before things get crazy, they should write a one-page essay about their child introducing them to the admissions staff. At some of the schools that’s actually the entire essay. But even for schools with different questions, you can generally cut-and-paste from that one prompt.
I encourage parents to think about writing several different categories of information. One is their child’s strengths in regards to cognitive development, fine and gross motor skills, and social emotional skills. Parents should avoid providing a long laundry list of adjectives; just come up with a couple and have some good anecdotes to support them. Admissions directors are reading hundreds of these, so ones that really give a specific flavor for a child are just more productive.
They should then write a paragraph about their family. Family values, what do they like to do together, that sort of thing. And if the family is diverse in some way — in cultural background, language, religion, anything like that — that information should be included here as well.
Next, they should write a paragraph about the type of school environment that might be best for their child, whether it’s progressive, or traditional, or something in-between, and whether they’re looking for a campus school or a city school, religious or secular, all-girls/all-boys or co-ed; and they should try to tie those goals to the school they’re applying to.
Finally, they just need to bring the essay together at the end with a concluding sentence or two.
When the kids are older, essays tend to ask questions like, “What are your child’s interests and passions both in school and outside of school?” And again, “What are you child’s strengths, and what are their areas for growth?” And they may ask again about learning style, and about the parents’ own educations.
I have found that when families map these questions out over the summer, they are in really good shape during the busier part of the year when they have to write and submit their actual essays.
You mentioned that parents might be asked to identify areas of growth for their child. Are schools looking for really honest responses to that question?
What I advise families across the board is that if at any point they’re going to be indicating an issue in a particular area, it is better that they be proactive on their applications, and talk about how they handle that challenge, than for it come up inadvertently in some other way later on.
Many students will have to take standardized tests as part of their school placement. What is your perspective on tests and test prep?
I personally do not favor prepping young kids for tests like the Hunter College Elementary School test or the Gifted and Talented test. I don’t make value judgments obviously — I understand why parents pursue prep for those tests, especially when they think that everyone else is doing it. But the concept of prepping a child for an IQ test sort of goes against my philosophy, and I think that if you have to do a lot of prep just to get into a program at that age, it might not necessarily be the right fit for your child. That said, for Gifted and Talented testing, the DOE does make some materials available to parents. I have a little bit less of an issue with parents going out and getting materials that may help their child get more comfortable with the exam.
And as the kids get older, and the subject areas move towards reading and math, they are probably at a disadvantage if they haven’t been prepped for the tests in one way or another. There is definitely something valuable in learning tricks for taking the test, and in getting up-to-speed on content that will be expected. And if that prep ends up helping students in their regular classwork as well, that’s also to their advantage.
What is one common misstep that you see students or parents making when it comes to admissions?
I would say feeling that a child can only go to school X,Y, or Z, and pushing them in a direction that may not be the most appropriate for that child or for which the likelihood of getting in may not be that high. I never keep my families from applying to any school they want to, but I try to be very honest with them about their chances. I had a family who was moving here from another country and came to see me with a translator; they did not speak a word of English except for “Dalton,” “Trinity,” and “Horace Mann!” And I kind of said, “Those are lovely schools, but I don’t think they’re going to happen for this student.” But the father kept repeating, “Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann.” So I think that being close-minded is one of the mistakes a family can make.
I do have some families who say to me, “My child is in a good school now, but if we decide to change, we want it to be for a more rigorous institution.” And in those cases, I would say to go ahead with applications to those competitive schools, with the understanding that it may not happen.
I also think that it’s really important for working parents to be involved in this admissions process, and to not outsource the work to their assistants. There are parents who will have their assistants make appointments with me, rather than coming in themselves. While this isn’t ideal, I will do it. But the problem is that they are doing the same thing with the schools. And though of course these parents are busy, so are the people in the admissions departments. Parents need to show prospective schools that they will find the time to personally make a phone call, or personally set up an appointment, or personally ask a question on behalf of their child.
Last question: what is one big piece of advice you would give to students or parents who are overwhelmed with the NYC admissions process?
It may be to say that there are just so many good options in the city. And while you or your family may have your heart set on a particular school, there are other very good ones out there.
I also think that what’s most important in the process is being genuine to who you are — and to what your interests and strengths are — and being able to convey that back to the school to which you’re applying. So students need to take a deep breath, take a step back, and stay involved with the activities that they truly like. Don’t just pick up an activity because it’s going to look good on an application. School can see through kids, so if the kids can advocate for themselves, that’s usually very helpful.
I give this example all the time with my own middle son. He was applying to middle schools, private schools as well as public, and I was not doing this professionally yet at the time. He was a very strong student, and we applied to just a handful of schools. He didn’t get into any of them. So I called one of the admissions directors and asked her if she could give me any feedback on what happened. And she said, “You know, we like kids who are honest, but we really like kids who want to be here.” I asked her what she meant. It turned out that when she asked my son, “Why do you want to be here?” he said, “I don’t, I want to go to the public middle school with all my friends!” Although, by high school he was tired of being in classes with 32 kids and decided to put the effort into getting accepted into private school, which he did!
So the fact is that when the kids really believe in what they’re doing… they do a much better job.
Are you interested in working with Robin Aronow? You can reach out via the School Search NYC website.