The numbers game of getting in


Getting into New York City public high schools has become a numbers game — now more than ever.

With the likely elimination of all geographic admissions priorities this year, eighth graders have a world of possibilities, but no guarantees that they’ll make it into the schools they want next fall.

Now is the time to research schools and visit them in-person or online to gather details about the programs they offer. With more than 400 public high schools and at least 700 different special-interest programs available, the choices are vast.

In previous years, all of that work would be complete by now. But in this pandemic year, the city Department of Education has not yet opened the admissions process or set a deadline for applications. The DOE has posted an online admissions guide, in English and nine other languages, on its Web site.

“Ironically, there’s a window of opportunity to do your due diligence, develop your list of schools, and cast your widest net possible,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former DOE enrollment director and president of NYC Admissions Solutions.

The New York City high schools with the highest amount of applicants in 2021.
The New York City high schools with the highest amount of applicants in 2021.

Only students who have already registered for the Specialized High School Admissions Test — the sole basis for entry into eight specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — will be considered for those schools.
But all students can apply to any other NYC high school using an online form that allows them to list up to 12 separate programs and schools in order of preference.

Many coveted schools have become highly competitive, with Ivy League-level rates of acceptance, as calculated. Manhattan’s Eleanor Roosevelt HS, for instance, accepted just 3 percent of its applicants for fall 2021, while Townsend Harris HS in Queens had a 6 percent acceptance rate.

Final decisions are determined by a DOE algorithm, a complex computerized process that results in a single admission offer for each applicant.

“First and foremost, pay attention to fit,” Frumkin advises parents. “Is this school a good fit for my child?”

That means looking at all the factors important to students and their families: school size, length of commute, honors and AP courses, sports, arts, extracurricular activities, the presence of metal detectors and even the availability of lockers.

Students should take full advantage of all 12 choices they can list on their application.
“The inclination is to narrow your list down. It’s actually the opposite. It’s a time when families should be building their lists up,” Frumkin said.

Don’t just list your dream schools — be willing to “compromise” to fill out all 12 slots.
“You should stretch as much as possible to list programs you’re willing to consider,” Frumkin said. “More often than not, a program that you place at the bottom of your application is likely a heckuva lot better than a program the DOE would assign if you left it blank.”

Some schools have acceptance rates similar to Ivy League colleges — like Townsend Harris High School which admits 6 percent of applicants.
Some schools have acceptance rates similar to Ivy League colleges — like Townsend Harris High School which admits 6 percent of applicants.
Ellis Kaplan

Last year, 97 percent of students who listed 12 choices got matched to one of them. However, only 38 percent of all students listed 12. That means thousands who didn’t get into the schools they listed surrendered their power to choose others, and the DOE chose for them.

As you fill out that list, consider the mathematical odds of admission for each school. A student who includes only the most popular schools — without being in a priority group like low family income or having a disability — is taking a big risk.

In addition, sixth-through-12th-grade schools that guarantee automatic admission to continuing middle schoolers have few seats left over for new ninth graders.

“I want families to look at the numbers,” Frumkin said. “Am I looking at a school that makes a lot of offers or not? It’s a mathematics game.”

That crucial data can be found on the DOE’s MySchools Web site, MySchools.NYC. Click on a school of interest, and then on one of its programs to see the number of applicants last year, the total number of seats and whether those seats were filled.

The New York Post has a guide to the top high schools in the city.
The New York Post has a guide to the top high schools in the city.

Compare that data for each school the student is considering to understand the odds of admission.

The order in which schools are listed on the application is important. Students are considered for programs in the order they list them, starting with the top choice. If they don’t make it into their first preference, they are considered for the next one, and so on.
But the ranking order will not affect how schools assess their applicants. Each school ranks prospective students based on their own varying criteria — grades, prior test scores, language and so on — or puts them in a lottery.

NYC public schools don’t know how students have ranked them so that doesn’t impact who they admit.

“The misconception that comes up a lot [is] if you don’t put a program first, you can’t get it. Not true,” Frumkin said. “When you’re being ranked by a school, or assigned a lottery number, it has nothing to do with how you ranked the school on the application. You shouldn’t feel pressure to rank a school in a certain way, or put it first” if it’s not, in fact, your top choice.

“Your job is to be honest with the algorithm and your order of choices,” he added. “If you try to game the system, it can easily backfire and you get something you don’t prefer.”

Charter high schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, have a separate admissions process. Families must submit a separate application to each school, generally by April 1 each year. If applications exceed available seats, a random lottery is held.

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