Application season is in full swing and parents are wondering how to answer the following question, common in many private preschool and kindergartens:
“Tell us about your child. What are his/her strengths? What are his/her weaknesses?”
In such a competitive environment for preschool and kindergarten slots, should parents really ’fess up that little Hudson has a penchant for hitting, or Isabella is truly charming until she is told she can’t have what she wants?
Three New York admissions consultants weigh in.
Schools Want to See ‘A Child of Today’
Amanda Uhry is the founder and chief executive of Manhattan Private School Advisors, a national independent school advisory firm that works on preschool through high school admissions.
Parents should be honest. “He is too generous/polite/inclusive of others” is not a weakness. It shows a parent trying to work the system and come off with a portrait of a perfect kid, when schools know children are not perfect and do not expect them to be.
Similarly, strengths do not include “master chess champion” or “world cup elite sabre fencer” when a kid is 5 and has had six months of lessons in either. Be real. Stop using mundane adjectives like “gifted” and “empathetic” and use real anecdotes that tellingly, even amusingly, paint a meaningful picture of the life of a child of today — not of the person parents hope and imagine their kid may someday become.
An example of a telling (and an amusing) anecdote that might resonate at schools: A 4-year-old girl had just had a unit in preschool on “learning who I am.” She was at the playground after school. All the swings were taken by kids who would not get off and give her a turn. She asked them nicely if they might share time on the swings — so nicely that a mother remarked to her mother how polite and patient she was. The little girl overheard and said, “It’s because I have good elves with steam.”
The mothers said, “Elves with … steam? What is that?”
The little girl responded, “You know, when you feel good about yourself, and little things like people taking too long on the swings don’t bother you … you have good elves with steam.” She meant, of course, good self-esteem.
Provide Two Strengths and One Weakness
Dana Haddad is a former New York City admissions director, working both at Horace Mann School and Claremont Preparatory School. She is the founder of New York Admissions, which advises families on private school admissions for children from 10 months to 17 years old.
Parents should be honest about who their children are. With that said, every strength is the flip side of a weakness. I advise parents to “brag” honestly about their child. When providing a strength and weakness, I advise them to list a strength, offer an example, and also list a second strength and give the weakness that goes along with it.
For example, I would suggest to a family that felt that their child can be overly sensitive to explain that their child is very empathetic and aware of the feelings of others around him; the flip side to this is that he/she can be overly sensitive at times.
Providing an example of this helps children “come to life” in the eyes of an admissions director. It also helps to illustrate how the strength and weakness manifests itself with that particular child. This is an honest answer and also allows parents to provide the school with two strengths and one weakness.
Show, Don’t Tell
Joyce Szuflita is the mother of 17-year-old twins who are headed to college this fall, and president of NYC School Help, helping parents in Brooklyn navigate the school-search process.
Honesty is always the best policy, and an essay that is nothing but a list of glowing achievements would leave me wondering what a family has to hide. There is a difference between revealing your deepest fears and worst moments and describing a challenge that a school can truly help a student conquer.
If you have ever been to a job interview, you should have an idea of how to spin a challenge as a positive quality. As far as the strengths go, you are proud parents, not early childhood experts. Show, don’t tell, and let the admissions committee interpret how brilliant your child is.
That means telling stories about your child rather than listing skills and developmental benchmarks. It also makes your child more memorable and makes your application much more interesting to read.
For example, my daughter, as a young child, had an unusually single-minded focus when she put her mind to an activity. She enjoyed herself digging in the snow or making a clover-chain, but she would often focus on her chosen activity to its absolute conclusion, occasionally to the exclusion of other games or play.
I would hope the school would nurture her tenacity and focus, as well as help her to learn to experiment in a broader way with a variety of experiences.
Jenny Anderson covers private schools for the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @jandersonNYT.
Marina del Rey
West Los Angeles