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Acing the Interview: Helping Your Child Apply to NYC’s Best High Schools

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In some parts of the country, teenagers have the comfort level provided by knowing that a seat in the local high school is assured to them, simply because of where they live. This is not so in New York. Despite the fact that there are over 400 high schools scattered throughout the five boroughs, most teens here can’t rely on the surety of a zoned school and need to apply to 12 high schools in order to be assured of a seat, particularly if their goal is acceptance into one of the best schools. Resumes, portfolios and high-pressure interviews used to only be the stuff of internships and job applications but now are required for entry into many of the city’s highest-scoring public high schools. How can parents help their child’s application rise to the top of the list?

Specialized High Schools – NYC’s nine specialized high schools top the wish list for many gifted kids, but the sought-after seats in these elite institutions of learning are extremely hard to come by. The criteria for entry into eight of the schools centers around the score achieved on the Specialized High Schools Admission Test (SHSAT). One specialized high school, the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, requires a competitive audition and academic record review instead of the test. Each specialized school receives tens of thousands of applications from 8th and 9th graders and typically grants less than 1,000 seats per term, making them amongst the most competitive in the city. For children who have their hearts set on one of these coveted slots, unending practice on sample SHSAT tests is integral, as is learning strategizing techniques for both the verbal and math sections. Families able to afford test prep tutoring should consider beginning to prepare their children for the test, in age-appropriate and low-stress doses, as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Reading the Specialized High School Students Handbook can also help kids acquire test-taking tips and become fluent in the application process.

NYC’s nine specialized high schools are:

  •         The Bronx High School of Science
  •         The Brooklyn Latin School
  •         Brooklyn Technical High School
  •         Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts
  •         High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the City College
  •         High School of American Studies at Lehman College
  •         Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
  •         Staten Island Technical High School
  •         Stuyvesant High School

Screened Schools – Not every high school worth applying to is classified as specialized. Other high schools, known as screened, offer kids a challenging and competitive educational experience. Criteria for acceptance varies in each of the schools as does area of focus. Based on location, some screened schools give preference to kids living in specific areas of Manhattan but also accept small percentages of students living in the outer boroughs. No need to change your zip code, however. A broad range of excellent screened schools are scattered throughout the entire New York metro area and accept kids from all five boroughs. Throughout middle school, your child should concentrate on key specifics most of these schools take into account, such as scoring high on standardized tests and getting good grades, although that will not be enough to lock in a yes at any of them. Kids should also:

  • Stay healthy: No school will consider potential candidates who had a high rate of absenteeism or extensive lateness record in middle school. Enough sleep, good food and a flu shot are not only common-sense basics for kids but also provide a solid foundation for future success, starting with their high school applications.
  • Build a killer portfolio: Many of the screened schools will want to see a portfolio, including letters of reference, report cards and examples of school work. Take care to follow the school’s instructions on how to prepare the portfolio and make sure that everything included in it is easy to read, clean, neat and chronologically ordered. Examples of work should be chosen not only for grade but also for creativity and clarity of thought. Letters of recommendation should be garnered throughout the middle school years from teachers and guidance counselors. If your child does volunteer work or is active in any clubs, letters of recommendation from these types of outside sources should also be included on letterhead.
  • Interview well: The portfolio will often be the basis for an in-person interview. The child will typically be asked questions that indicate their level of insight into the work they have accomplished. The interviewer will also be looking for clues about their interests, areas of focus and level of seriousness. All kids want to be accepted for who they are, but this is not the time for them to display an abundance of piercings, tattoos or belly buttons. Appropriate attire and an attentive demeanor are important and a big smile and firm handshake won’t hurt either. Children should be coached to tone down their jewelry and make-up so as to not detract from their faces. It is also critical to show up for the interview on time.
  • Audition like it’s Carnegie Hall: A number of screened schools focus on the arts and will require a music, technical theater, drama, dance or art audition. Audition instructions are typically given in advance and should be followed exactly and rehearsals for this all-important appearance are a must. A missed audition represents a missed opportunity as they are rarely, if ever, re-scheduled.

If only you could just tell them to be themselves, or somehow enroll the world to see them through your eyes. One of the most important things parents can do for kids during this process is give them perspective and balance as well as coaching. Despite their absolute best efforts, some kids won’t get into the schools they were hoping for. Let them know that disappointment is a part of life but success is possible to achieve via many roads. Also let them know you have their backs no matter what and that the one place they will always be accepted is home.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.