First Choice Letters…Are They Important

First Choice Letters…. Are they important?

When applying to nursery school, you may hear park bench rumors that you will only be accepted if you submit a “first choice” letter. You may be saying to yourself, “what is a first choice letter?” A first choice letter basically states to a school that if the school were to choose you, you would 100% accept them back.

This is a written communication stating unequivocally that if a school were to offer you a contract, you would sign and return it without hesitation. Ethically, you can love all of the schools you apply to and be thrilled with an acceptance, but you can only have one first choice. Unfortunately, many parents feel pressured to write a letter to the school where they feel they have the best chance of being accepted rather than the school they feel is truly the best match for their family. The first choice letter is more commonly known (and used) in the on-going school process (beginning in kindergarten), but unfortunately, many families feel pressured or compelled to write one for nursery school.

Many of the most sought-after nursery schools in NYC are members of the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY), an umbrella organization that sets notification dates and recommends principles of good practice for its member schools. Several years ago, ISAAGNY recommended that its member schools no longer solicit first choice letters nor consider them. At the same time, many schools are more likely to make an offer to a family they like who make it clear that they like them back (remind you of getting asked to the high school prom?)

Although ISSAGNY schools are supposed to discourage first choice letters allowing families to potentially have a choice when the admissions season is coming to a close, there are still schools that like to hear that you liked them. This is when families get stressed, as it’s difficult to know which schools like a first choice letter and which schools disregard them. This is also when NYC parents get a bit crazy and will write “love letters” or first choice letters in the hopes that they be accepted to at least one nursery school. You can feel free to ask during your tour if the school would like to hear from you toward the end of the admissions season (if it is where you would like to go). Some schools (even though they are not supposed to), will say yes. This information will help you in the process.

Keep in mind that while ISAAGNY sets rules for its member school, it doesn’t set rules for you. It is always appropriate, and in fact recommended, that if there is one school that really stands out for you above all others, you convey that information to the school, either in a thank you note or a more formal letter at the end of the process. Whether you choose to use the words “first choice” or simply relate your sincere conviction that the school would be a great match for your family really is up to you.

During the admissions process, for parents, it is difficult to assess which schools take first choice letters seriously and which disregard them. Despite the ISAAGNY rule, there are still schools that are very dependent on the letters before they will make an offer, often because they are under pressure from their Boards to get “full yield”… i.e. a returned contract for every contract they send out. Other schools disregard first choice letters altogether because they have been burned too many times by families who write multiple first choices without returning a contract (please know that not only is this an unethical thing to do, it can come back to bite you if the Directors happen to talk, if not in the nursery school process then further down the road). In your communications with the schools, it’s fine to ask them directly whether they want to hear from you. The first choice or “I Love You” letter (stating your reasons for wanting to attend the school without using the binding words( will only make a difference if your child is already on the admit pile, but when it comes to a final decision, stating your intent could be the bit of leverage that keeps you off the wait list.

When speaking to our clients, we always remind them that it is proper etiquette to write a thank you note after a tour and/or interview. You want to convey that you appreciated the time that the director/admissions director (or even parent) spent speaking with you and how much you loved their school. Directors love to be reminded of how fabulous their school is. After all, they wouldn’t be the director of their school if they weren’t proud of it.

So, when going back to the original question…are first choice letters important? The unfortunate answer is, they can be. You just need to keep in mind a couple of things:

  1. If the school wasn’t considering you in the first place, a first choice letter will not help.
  2. First choice letters do not hold the same weight at every school, so you are taking a gamble when writing that it will mean something at your desired school.

At the end of the day, it’s a parent’s choice if they want to put “all their eggs in one basket” so to speak. Parents typically don’t know if the school they are writing to is one that appreciates the letter or a school that truly disregards them. We always suggest that if there is a school that really stands out above all other schools, you should absolutely convey that to the school. The reason behind that philosophy is that if “School A” needs 1 more boy with a summer birthday and it is between your genius son and another parent’s genius son, if you wrote the first choice letter, who do you think is going to get the letter of acceptance? I can assure you that a first choice letter will only have meaning if your application is truly being considered. It doesn’t mean you are going to get in, but it may just be the little extra leverage needed to get the desired spot.