An "Insider’s" Perspective On Private Elementary School Admissions

Are a few letters of recommendation and a phone call really all it takes to get in? It depends on who you ask.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation about our book with a private school mom. She is successful and accomplished, with Ivy League degrees. She and her husband live in one of the toniest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. She has successfully navigated the private elementary school admissions scene at several top schools, including John Thomas Dye. She is funny and nice.

The conversation turned to Beyond The Brochure when this mom asked me what my book was about. I told her it was for any parent who plans to apply to private elementary schools. I explained the thesis of our book, which is that private school admissions is an insider’s game, but anybody can play the game if they first understand its hidden rules.

This mom and her husband are the quintessential “insider” family. Therefore, she had difficulty understanding why we would write a book like Beyond The Brochure. With her family’s connections, there would be no need for anything more than a few well placed phone calls and letters of recommendations to make the application process a mere formality. Acceptance letters for this family have always been forthcoming. The idea of receiving a rejection letter simply never occurred to her.

I pointed out that for many families, rejection from top schools is a reality. The competition is fierce and parents don’t always understand what’s happening behind the scenes in the admission offices. The application process for many parents (including me) can be very stressful.

The topic turned to “feeder” preschools i.e. those preschools that send lots of kids to specific elementary schools. See our blog posts about “feeder”schools: Feeder Schools To Harvard-Westlake and Feeder Preschools To Private Elementary Schools and Westside Feeder Schools

We also discuss “feeder” schools in the book.

This mom pointed out that parents pay tuition to get access to the preschool director’s contacts at “feeder” preschools so again, why would they need a book or an education consultant to help them? Did she realize, I asked, that even at “feeder” preschools families get rejected from competitive private elementary schools? But, they are buying entree into top elementary schools by attending these preschools, she reiterated. I thought to myself, what if your child doesn’t get into one of the “feeder” preschools?

This, my friends, is the “insider” parent perspective on private elementary school admissions. We wrote Beyond The Brochure to give every parent the same information as the “insider” family. It doesn’t really matter where you get the information about private school admissions…from a friend or a book… the point is to get it–and use it!
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Christina Simon: Los Angeles, California, United States I'm the mom of two kids who attended The Willows School in Culver City and Viewpoint School in Calabasas. My daughter is a graduate of Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism ('23) and my son is a sophomore at UPenn/Wharton ('26). I live in Coldwater Canyon with my husband, Barry, and our dogs. Contact me at

10 thoughts to “An "Insider’s" Perspective On Private Elementary School Admissions”

  1. I just bought your book and finished it really quickly. Thanks for all the useful information! Unfortunately, we had already submitted our application for the school that I am keen on before I read all the advice. We left the section on the application where we were invited to share 'any other important information about our family' blank. However, I feel good about what we wrote about our child. After reading your book I realize how important it is to share information about the family. Should I wait for the tour or interview to offer the admissions director a revised application or should I call right now? Did I blow it?

  2. Hi Anon:

    Thanks for buying the book and reading the blog!! Anne and I both feel that the section of the application you left blank is generally to give a family the chance to forewarn the school about something unique, out of the ordinary or unusual about your family. The fact that you left it blank is fine. We don't think you should revise the application or call the school. Leave your application as it is. But, make sure to round out your "family messages" or information about your family in the parent interview. You should have the opportunity in the parent interview to discuss your family in detail. If the parent interview is focused on other topics i.e the weather, you will need to try to guide the conversation towards your family's attributes and importantly why your child will be a GREAT FIT for this particular school. Not any private school, but the school where you're applying. Try to be specific with examples i.e. the sports program, the reading program, the similarity to your preschool, etc. Obviously, private schools want kids that they can teach and that will be happy and stay at the school and, of course, parents who will contribute their volunteer time and contribute financially, if possible. You can help them understand that YOU are that family! Also, see our previous post about "Family Messages". Good luck!

    Christina and Anne

  3. Hello Christina,
    I could not find any posts about this, but have been given some names of parents at two schools we are applying to so that we can talk to them about the school and the community. In your opinion, what are the crucial questions to ask those parents about the school? Are there questions you wished you had asked other parents before your admittance? Things that from a parents perspective make one school stand out over another?
    Thank you, and I look forward to your answer.

  4. Hi Anon 12:26. Great question and one we haven't addressed before! I think the most important question to ask is "Does the school have a no-tolerance policy against bullying." If not, ask how the school handles bullying, from both sides (if it is your kid who is the victim OR your kid who is the bully (God forbid). If they say there is no bullying at the school, that's a red flag because it is everywhere. The issue is how the school handles it, no matter who the parents of the bully might be (for example, even if they helped donate a building) the issue must be addressed proactively and with fairness. Ask for specifics. "Is there a written policy or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?"

    Another issue you might want to ask about is, "are the parents in K and 1st grade accessible for playdates?" Or, "are playdates with nannies?" One isn't better than the other, it's just helpful to know in advance.

    What about teacher quality and turnover? "Do the parents at the school think the teachers are effective?" "Is there a lot of teacher turnover?" If so, "does it cause disruption in the classroom?"

    Finally, you may want to ask whether there is a dominant culture in the upper grades. For example, is the school heavily focused on athletics. What if it is, but your child isn't athletic? Will there be enough to keep your child interested? The same goes for a very artistic school. If the focus is primarily on the arts, but your child is an athlete, are there sports programs your child will be able to participate in?

    I think those are most important questions I'd want answered. The only other question I might ask would be about volunteering.
    If you're a working parent, "what opportunities are there that don't require you to be there during the work day?" In general, "what is the volunteer experience like for parents at the school?"

    I hope this helps!


  5. Hello Christina:

    Thank you for your answer. You mentioned several things i would not have thought of, and I will be sure to ask. Is it also okay to ask some of these same questions in the parent interview? (such as the bullying question and the culture question and the teacher question?) It seems to me the answer would be yes!!

    Thank you very much for being so helpful and for publishing your blog.

    Best wishes!

  6. Hi Anon, actually I don't think these are good parent interview questions because they could set off alarm bells for the admissions director. The exception would be the question about how the school handlesbullying. See previous blog posts and our book for suggested parent interview questions. Again, thanks for reading!

  7. Thank you for writing back. Can you explain why? Are they viewed as confrontational? Or as if we don't know enough about the school? Thank you for explaining…

  8. Hi Anon, yes, I think you're right. The questions above might be viewed as confrontational. The best kind of questions for parent interviews are those about the school's programs, educational philosophy, etc. You want to seem well informed and supportive of the school's mission.

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