Some of my friends have children who are in the midst of the frenzied, nerve-wracking process of applying to colleges. Even if you don’t know someone whose kid is going insane over filling out applications, taking standardized tests, writing and re-writing essays, and biting nails over the university checklists, you would still likely remember your own experiences or that of your friends and family.

Everything else in childhood seems easier and sunnier, right? Would you believe applying to high school in New York City is almost as panic inducing? Well, it is. My younger daughter recently submitted her application for high school and it is much more complicated and nerve-wracking than in probably any other part of the United States.

I realize that most Americans simply attend their local high school. Some have a choice of two or three schools from which to pick. Some students have to choose between regional public schools and a private or parochial school. In many cities the choices are a little more complex. And then there is New York City, the largest school system in America.

Toward the end of 7th grade each public school student and many private or religious school kids as well, receive a Directory to the public and charter schools throughout the five boroughs. This year’s directory is over 650 pages. Let that sink in. There are a few hundred high schools in NYC. Yes. And there are also schools that run from grades 6-12 and even a few that run from grades 9-14 (those kids get an Associate Degree at graduation).

NYC students can apply for their local schools, but some neighborhoods do not actually have a designated “zoned” school. Many schools or special programs require an audition (such as music, art, dance, acting, etc.) or an interview (with staff). A handful of very prestigious schools only accept students who score well enough on a special required exam called the “SHSAT” (pronounced shh-zat) or fully known as the Specialized High School Aptitude Test.

Students are allowed to apply to up to 12 schools, and more if they take the SHSAT. There are open houses at schools, as well as high school fairs (held at the city’s largest school building, Brooklyn Technical High School, which has 9 floors.) In early December students bring in applications to their schools and it takes about 4 months for most kids to find out where they will be accepted.

Does this start to sound a lot like applying to college? But even some colleges have rolling admissions. NYC schools do not! What if your poor child gets no offer from a high school, or one she or he really detests? There are two more rounds of applications for those unfortunates. It can be maddening. Students, families and even local politicians are frequently talking and writing about this. Trust me, the local newspapers have run stories about all aspects of this!


My daughter enrolled to take that SHSAT and we had to ask for her test day to be rescheduled (the first day they offered her was the same day as her Bat Mitzvah ceremony—uh oh!). She thought she did so-so on it. She also auditioned for a music program and an art program at one of our local schools. But every day, and I mean, every day since September there has been discussion about the high school applications, about where her friends want to go, the reputations and programs and offerings of these schools. It becomes nearly all-consuming—just like applying for college.

I hope my daughter gets a good offer, and I hope she enjoys high school when she finally gets there. She will have a few years to “relax” before she starts the whole college application process. Yikes!

Ellen Levitt

Ellen Levitt is a married mom of two daughters, a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York, and a fan of the local baseball and basketball teams. She is a veteran public school teacher, the author of six published books (the most recent is WALKING MANHATTAN from Wilderness Press) and wishes she had more time to play the piano and guitar. She is a graduate of Murrow High School in Brooklyn and Barnard College in Manhattan. Look for her on Instagram @ The_World_Of_EL and Twitter @EllenLevittEL