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How I May Be Setting My Son Up to Fail

Yes, I’m back, as a repeat contender in the Worst Mom Ever category. So if you’re thinking that you’ve done one thing or another to your kid(s) and you’re feeling guilty about it, I’m here to make you feel better about yourself.

You may recall my story from this time last year about why I told my daughter she’s smarter than my son – and if you thought that made me a horrible person, then you’re going to love this one. And yes, it’s about setting up said son for failure. Maybe. Kind of.


After practically pulling all my hair out last year trying to navigate the ridiculous system that is applying for public middle school in NYC, I’m now in the throes of the public high school application process, and boy is it a doozy. I’d say I’ll try to make it brief, but if you know me, you know that’s not really feasible. So just try and enjoy the ride.

In a nutshell, my son can choose up to 12 schools for his application. He’s coming out of a special placement middle school (that’s the advanced curriculum) and had a 98.5% average overall for 7th grade. Not too shabby. His state tests were pretty good – a 3.79 in English and a 4.27 in math, both out of 4.5. Generally speaking, getting at least a 4 in both subjects puts you in a better position, but even the top schools we like say they’re looking for a 3-4. Of course that’s probably just for show, as obviously the kids with the higher scores will fare better.

To add insult to injury, some of these regular public high schools also have additional application requirements of their own. These can range from extra essays, interviews and even graded writing assignments that have been done in school so they can see real examples of the kids’ work. But overall, I’m working with a pretty smart kid who, in theory, should be able to get into one of the better high schools. Right? Well…not really.

The process is such that, due to the thousands and thousands upon thousands and thousands of kids throughout the five boroughs of New York City, there are many thousands of kids applying to the same schools. The catch is that none of these schools have thousands of seats for 9th grade. So what happens is that you have 25, 50, 70, sometimes over 100 kids applying PER seat at these schools. The “system” considers these schools to be a “reach”. Despite what your kid’s grades and test scores are. Any school with more than a dozen applicants per seat is a reach. And they tell you that you can’t fill your application with 12 reach schools, you must have some “targets”. Let me repeat – even though your child fulfills or even surpasses the requirements for a specific school, it’s a reach if the stats show there are 12 or more applicants per seat. So where does that leave you?

I’ll tell you where it leaves you. It leaves you feeling pissed off that you have to take off some of the better schools that are perfectly reasonable choices for your kid’s academic level, and replace them with lesser schools to be sure you get matched to a school at all. Because if you don’t get a match from your initial list of 12, you’re in the even less desirable position of needing to submit a second round application, which only consists of the schools that didn’t get filled in the first round. I think you can probably guess from my tone here that those aren’t going to be the schools we’re hoping for.

So if you’re thinking this sounds like the most ridiculous, chaotic system ever for a poor 13 year-old to have to go through just to get into public high school, I haven’t even gotten to the best part. The specialized schools.

Ahhhhh, behold the specialized schools. For those of you who don’t live here and/or aren’t in the know, these are like the Ivy Leagues of the public high schools. If you’ve heard of Stuyvesant, that’s what I’m talking about. This is a group of eight schools located throughout the five boroughs, all of which are more elite than even the best high schools on the regular public high school application. And there is a separate application just for these schools. So your child can apply for 12 public high schools, and then apply to 8 more of the specialized schools, if you’re so inclined. But the competition is fierce. 40,000 kids applying for 6,000 seats in total at the specialized schools. These are schools that require a special standardized test of their own, much like the SAT. In fact, the test itself is called the SHSAT, the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

It may (or may not) surprise you to learn that many families start tutoring their kids for the SHSAT a year or more before they even take it. Maybe many years. I did not. I had my son start working with a tutor when school started this year, which means he’ll have had 2 months to prep for this test. To most people in the world, that may sound reasonable. I thought so. I also thought that we’d get back his SHSAT score before having to apply to the specialized schools, to give us a better idea of how to rank them on the application.

You see, each school has its own base cut-off of acceptable SHSAT scores, and some are higher or lower than others. So maybe you have a super smart kid that didn’t score quite high enough to get into Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, but maybe their score could get them into the High School of American Studies at Lehman College or Brooklyn Latin. But of course, allowing parents to see their child’s score before actually applying to those schools would be silly, no? Instead, you are forced to rank your order having zero idea of what the score is. When do you find out the score, you ask? Oh, in the spring – when you find out whether or not your kid was accepted into one of these schools.

Except that when you rank a school as your first choice on the specialized school app, and your test score didn’t make the baseline cut-off, you’ve now essentially wasted your chance at acceptance anywhere. Because so many kids are applying to these schools, that they basically get filled with kids who’ve ranked them first AND have the test scores to get in. They rarely have to move on to the kids that have ranked them number two or lower. In essence, although you can list 8 on the specialized school app, you’re really just applying to one. Whichever school you list first.

Ok, so throughout all of this you may be wondering how/why I’m setting my kid up to fail. Which was the whole reason you started reading to begin with, right? So here it is: I am really not sure my son can score high enough on the SHSAT to get into a specialized high school at all. Especially considering the competition. My son does well in school, yes. It doesn’t seem to me like he puts in all that much effort, dare I say he’s lazy? He likes getting good grades, but I think that’s only because it’s been fairly easy for him. But trying to get him to really focus and understand the importance of putting forth a lot of effort seems to be lost on him. He’d rather come home and lay on the couch to play on his phone or watch Netflix than do homework and study. Yet he seems to be getting by just fine.

But that’s not what the real world is like. In the real world, he will be wholly unprepared. He will find reasons to blame everything and everyone around him for why he didn’t do well on something when he “should” have. As little effort as he puts in is always more than enough, in his mind.

And so I have created a situation where he believes he has a shot at a specialized school. He has gone to the open houses and seen the lines literally around the block to get in, filled with thousands of probably extremely gifted students, with whom he is competing. He has seen the Holy Grail that is Stuyvesant, with its beautiful ten-story building and fancy million-dollar library and indoor swimming pool. And he has seen and heard my parents talk about themselves going to specialized schools, and he has seemingly come to understand the sense of pride he might feel by being able to attend one. He’s starting to get that being able to say he goes to one of these schools will mean something. I think he wants it. And I’m pretty sure he won’t get it.

Many parents choose to protect their kids from the disappointment that rejection brings. In a society and culture where every kid gets a trophy, lots of parents try their best to steer their children away from the hurt and sense of failure that comes from not being accepted. Not me. I’ve been encouraging my son to put the phone down and study his practice tests, even though the scores he’s getting aren’t making him a top candidate. I’m building up the excitement and letting him know how proud we’ll all be if he gets into one of these schools.

And you know why? Because when he doesn’t get in, I want him to understand that in order to really achieve what you want in life, you have to do better, put in more effort and try harder than you thought. I want him to know that you can’t coast by in life, just expecting everything to fall at your feet. I want him to think about the kind of discipline and labor it takes if he wants the honor of being one of the best.

I’m hoping this will inspire him to be more aware of what it takes to strive for what he wants. I’m hoping this will actually help him to maintain his straight-A average throughout high school, so he can continue to feel proud and feel the pride of his parents and grandparents. I’m hoping this will help him study harder for his SATs, so that he can go to one of the colleges or universities he sees on the bulletin boards during all of these school tours.

It’s a lesson I think is invaluable. So judge me for putting my kid in a situation in which he may be getting set up to fail. Or don’t. The truth is you can’t always get what you want just because you want it. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll actually get in.

Jess xo


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