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How NYC School Waitlists Work – And How They Don’t

Waitlists had long been a fact of life for New York City Kindergarten and Gifted & Talented admissions, Hunter College Elementary, and other public charter schools.

But Mayor Bill De Blasio only added them to middle and high school admissions in 2019. (Previously, there had been a Second Round for teens who didn’t get any of the choices they listed on their application.)

At the time, then School Chancellor Richard Carranza triumphantly pronounced, “You’ll know your spot and if the seats do open up, you get an offer — it’s that simple.”

As with all things in NYC schools, it was not, in fact, that simple.

Problems that popped up in 2020, the first year waitlists went into effect, included one coveted school making no offers at all, then sending out acceptances to students who’d already been placed elsewhere. According to this mother, “I heard that each year the DOE gives extra seats to the schools in case some kid(s) don’t show up in September. But the schools fill these seats at the very beginning of the admissions season, instead. A DOE representative told me that even if a seat frees up now, there is no guarantee the school will pay attention to the waitlist because they already have the extra seats filled. So, what is the point of this waitlist? It would make sense if the DOE would allocate extra seats after the first round of admissions so the schools could choose kids from the waitlist to fill these extra seats. But, as it is designed now – with a July deadline and no extra seats – it is totally ineffective.”

A new wrinkle popped up during the 2021 admissions season. All public middle schools were unscreened, which meant that grades, test scores, interviews, portfolios, and auditions were no longer a factor. Every school, including Honors programs, those with accelerated curriculums, and arts conservatories, was directed to accept students based strictly on lottery

As a result, many families who, in the past, could apply their children to schools with rigorous academics or specialized music/drama/dance training and expect them to be evaluated based on concrete metrics, found themselves placed in programs where only a handful of students were performing at grade level, schools which, often, they hadn’t even applied to. (Yes, this is a distinct possibility. Do not listen to those who claim, “They have to give you one of the schools on your list, so the trick is to only put down one school, and then you’re in!” They don’t, and you’re, most likely, not.)

As soon as middle school placements were released earlier this month and high schools this past Friday, social media filled up with frantic parents begging their peers, “If you’re happy with the school where your child was accepted, please, please release your spot on the waitlist at other schools so our child can have a chance of getting in!”

But here’s the problem with that scenario: Students are only waitlisted for the school they ranked ahead of the one they actually got. So if you were given your 6th choice, you were waitlisted at schools 1 through 5.

Assuming you ranked your schools in the order you truly prefer (something I always urge families to do, there is no point in trying to game the system, since you will be given your first available choice), sure, you might be happy enough with your placement in your 6th choice school. But there is nothing to lose by staying on the waitlist at your 1st through 5th choices, since a spot might still open up. (Some families opt for the stability of definitely knowing where they’re going in the fall, but most of the ones I work with are taking their chances.) 

You don’t need to remove yourself from waitlists for schools which you ranked behind the one where you were placed, ones you presumably like less, since you aren’t on those waitlists. Which means that families who didn’t get any of the choices on their list won’t benefit, even if your choices overlapped and you are not attending a school that they would still like to. 

There is another myth out there that accepting a seat at one school takes you off all other waitlists. That’s not true. You can accept the seat you were offered, and keep working other waitlists for as long as they remain open. 

In response to the social media pleas, some parents announced that they were removing themselves from waitlists. But the waitlists they referred to were ones where their child was ranked in the 500s and 600s. There is very, very little statistical chance of their children getting into such a school.

Removing yourself from such a waitlist is a meaningless gesture. If the desperate family is ahead of you on the waitlist, your departure doesn’t do them any good. And if they’re behind you, even moving up a spot, they now have as little of a shot at getting in as you once did!

One more wrinkle: I often hear from parents who tell me, “A friend of mine just turned down a spot at School X, where I am waitlisted. But my number didn’t move! How can that be?”

The answer is: Schools over-accept. Based on past attrition, they know approximately how many of their offers are turned down every year and so admit more students then there are available seats. That’s why the waitlist can remain stagnant even when you know a spot has been turned down. They are still working off the reserve.

Finally, new families in a higher priority group (Individualized Education Plan, Free/Reduced Price Lunch, English Language Learner) adding themselves to waitlists after the initial round of offers can actually cause your spot to drop, a process that we explained in detail, here

Waitlists were supposed to make getting in NYC middle and high schools easier, fairer, and more transparent. 

Let us know if you feel that has been the case.

What do you think?

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