The Way Things Work: Lab School admissions

A storied history and a reputation as a feeder for the nation’s top colleges make the Lab School a highly appealing choice for students and parents. Getting Lab to choose you, though, is another story.

By Jordan Holliday

Without the parents lined up out front, waiting in their cars to pick up their children, a passerby might never guess that the buildings housing the Laboratory Schools are any different from the rest of the U of C campus. The creeping ivy, the Gothic architecture, and the gardens lining the front of Blaine Hall are a notable break from the nondescript architecture that typifies most suburban schools, but are right at home on East 59th Street.

The collegiate facade of the buildings isn’t lost on prospective families when they visit: It seems fitting for a school that was the brain child of John Dewey, that has a century-old tradition of innovation in primary and secondary education, is among the priciest in Chicago and most prestigious in the nation, and whose graduates are some of the most sought-after applicants at colleges and universities. Lab has much to recommend it, so it’s a a highly appealing choice for students and parents.

Getting Lab to choose you, though, is another story.

Admittance to the Lab School depends heavily on who your parents are and more than a little bit of luck. Because of this, many prospective students will their receive their first rejection letter before they even know how to read.

Nursery School is the earliest program that Lab offers. It is a pre-kindergarten program for three-year-olds, and those admitted will have made it through a process far more selective than that of the average university, and a good deal tougher than what applicants to the College face.

Last fall, Lab received more than 400 applications for just 100 available Nursery School spots. The stakes of the application process are raised even higher by the fact that most of those admitted will be “lifers,” as Director of Admissions Bill Newman calls them—eventual graduates of the University High, or high school, at Lab. For those who don’t make it in the first time, the odds tend to get worse. It is possible to reapply—besides Nursery School, ninth grade is the most popular enrollment point, and other grades take some new students as well—but the classes don’t grow much beyond the original 100 spots, and, with high retention rates, openings are hard to come by.

The admissions office’s task is daunting. To distinguish among the hundreds of toddlers vying for thick envelopes, the admissions staff holds play days on Saturdays. The children who attend are separated into groups of nine; then, preschool faculty members evaluate applicants on criteria such as attentiveness, involvement, and ability to separate from their parents. The parents meet with the admissions office and submit a questionnaire in which they describe, among other things, their children’s interests and any organized programs they’re involved with.

Even with the information his staff gathers, Newman admits Lab faces a trying task in deciding which children to admit.

“It’s not a science,” he said.

Helping the admissions office make its decision is a University directive requiring Lab to have a certain number of students whose families are affiliated with the U of C, as well as giving preference to the children of certain groups of employees. Children of full-time faculty are priority one; children of Lab faculty, priority two; siblings of current students, priority three; and children of staff, priority four. The definition of staff is broad. According to Newman, it includes anyone from the Dean of the College to a custodian.

Currently about sixty percent of the students at Lab have parents affiliated with the U of C, and nearly all of those parents are full-time faculty members. That leaves few openings for the children of staff, for instance, which has rankled some who feel the priority levels give undue preference to a select few University employees.

But as Newman points out, part of the Lab’s mission is—and always has been—to educate the children of U of C faculty. The admissions philosophy is to accept faculty-affiliated applicants whenever possible, which occasionally it is not. Some priority-one applicants, particularly in high school admissions, appear unprepared for the school’s rigor, and in those cases Newman and his staff help the families look for alternative choices.

Still, the school’s commitment to working with faculty children makes Lab a powerful recruiting tool for wooing talent to the University. During each application cycle, the admissions office sets aside a few extra openings, knowing that new hires will be made and that the presence of Lab may well have been a consideration for the incoming professors.

Newman has had to push back on that front, though, reminding academic departments and their recruiters that a spot at the Lab can’t be guaranteed for anyone, and some children of faculty will be turned down. Just a few months ago, when kindergarten decision letters came out, five children of faculty were initially placed on the waiting list—a tough place to be in, since yield among kindergarten acceptances is more than 90 percent.

As competition for acceptance letters from the nation’s top universities has increased, so has the importance placed on high schools preparing their students for college applications and academics—two fronts in which Lab excels. The most recent data set shows more than 60 alumni have matriculated at Ivy League schools in the past five years, and The Wall Street Journal recently ranked the Upper School as the fourth-best private “feeder” school in the nation, sending more of its graduates to top colleges than famed prep schools like Philips Andover in Massachusetts and Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

That track record has made Lab a top choice for Chicago-area parents.

In an average year, transfers out of the eighth grade class will open 20 to 30 spots for new students. This year, Lab drew 133 applications for these openings, and, in concert with the admissions committee, Newman identified 50 students he hoped to accept. That plan fell apart when the night before mailing acceptance letters, he learned that an unusually high percentage of the eighth-grade class was returning, and that only 10 spots would be available.

“I had to call an emergency committee meeting,” Newman said, “and there we were, ’til 11 o’clock at night, eliminating 35 of the kids we had accepted, and whittled that down to 15 acceptances.

“It was incredibly painful. We left a lot of quality kids on the table.”

Tales of pushy parents who lose all perspective on the admissions process have practically become a genre unto themselves. Magazines, newspapers, and internet message boards are littered with accounts of the mother who sent gift baskets to the kindergarten admissions office, the father who hired a “coach” to help his daughter apply to middle schools, or the couple who had their child on the preschool waiting list before he was born.

The Lab may be less eccentric, but only slightly so. Students and parents send in DVDs, audition tapes, and other supplemental materials, all meant to attest to the applicant’s preparedness for Lab. Newman said he’s sure that “educational consultants,” as they’re known, are advising some of his applicants, though he sees them less than when he previously worked at a boarding school.

Still, packaging and preparation can only accomplish so much. Newman interviews all applicants for fifth grade and above, and younger students must complete a day-long classroom visit, which allows the admissions staff to tease out the reality from the spin.

What distinguishes Lab, to hear parents tell it, isn’t that the school does things that others can’t, or that it has things other schools don’t. The difference, they say, is that at Lab, the best of those ideas are implemented every day, all throughout the school.

Which is why, when the wait-list and rejection letters come, as they do for the great majority of applicants, they sting perhaps a little more than usual. But as several parents whose children were turned away said, they knew the odds ahead of time and knew better than to expect acceptances.

Lab, to them, is still a considerable resource for the community, and they felt lucky to even have a shot at sending their children there. They might laugh at the thought of their three-year-old being rejected from preschool, but they’ll still apply; as one parent put it, “Hey, it’s the Lab School.”