Some Brooklyn Public High Schools Are Harder to Get Into Than Harvard


There are countless diatribes out there about how hard it is for students applying to colleges these days, and there are perhaps almost as many on the subject of how hard it is to get into good preschools here in New York City. And while those complaints are all justified (I remember well when my father told me that there’s no way he would have attended an Ivy if they’d accepted women when he’d applied), they also can’t really be separated from the fact that the universities and preschools and, for that matter, secondary schools which are notoriously difficult to gain acceptance to, are private. They are, in effect, exclusionary by nature. It might not be fair, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that some of the most difficult-to-get-into educational institutions in the city are not private ones at all, but are rather the city’s public high schools. That’s right, some Brooklyn public schools are harder to get into than Harvard. 

Every spring, New York City’s 7th grade public school students bring home a 500+ page directory of the city’s public high schools. Divided by borough, this book is impressively comprehensive and does much to assuage and stoke the fears of not only the students, but also the parents of the students—particularly if those parents have any sort of grasp of statistics. Why? Well, the city’s public school system is frequently talked about holistically, i.e. the city’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high last year of 66%. And while that number might seem shockingly low and dismaying to some, there are others who can find hope in those numbers, especially when compared to the graduation rate’s nadir of 44.3% in 1994. However, it only takes a quick scan through the directory to see that an abundance of schools have graduation rates as low 33.3% (DreamYard Preparatory School in the Bronx) while others have a perfect 100% graduation rate (The Brooklyn Latin School). Unsurprisingly, the schools that feature the highest graduation rates and the largest percentage of students moving on to college or career programs post-graduation are incredibly difficult to get into.

Here’s a tale of two schools: The Brooklyn Latin School and the Brooklyn Lab School. These two schools happen to be on facing pages in the directory, but other than that, they share little in common. The Brooklyn Latin School had a 100% graduation rate last year, with 87.1% of its students attending college or an equivalent career program. Located in Williamsburg, the school offers and International Baccalaureate diploma and stresses community involvement through a mandated 150 hours of volunteering or other local engagement; over 30 extracurricular activities and clubs are listed as being available to students. The Brooklyn Lab School is in East New York,, and had a 50% graduation rate last year with 30% of its students enrolled in college or career programs following graduation. It offers many Advanced Placement classes as well as multiple college-prep programs and a variety (though not quite as extensive as Brooklyn Latin’s) of extracurricular activities. The Lab School was deemed “proficient” in a 2012-2013 Quality Review; Brooklyn Latin was found to be “Well Developed.” And the acceptance rates for both schools? For 108 seats, the Brooklyn Lab School had 216 applicants, thus accepting 50%. And Brooklyn Latin? For 150 seats, there were 16,675 applicants, meaning that the chance of getting one of the seats was less than 1%.

It’s the same story citywide. The most competitive schools (particularly those whose only acceptance criteria is the SHSAT, a test offered in the fall and used by schools like Brooklyn Latin, Brooklyn Tech, and Stuyvesant among others) have acceptance rates hovering around the 1-5% mark, while the schools with lower graduation rates are exponentially easier to get into. There has long been an outcry that the elite public high schools are too difficult for students without access to test prep (mostly low income, frequently black or Latino) to gain entry, but the problem isn’t simply that a lot of students can’t get into the best schools, it’s that there aren’t enough good alternatives. The problem isn’t just that Brooklyn Tech is harder to get into than Harvard, but that there aren’t enough good second tier schools in our public high school system as there are in the university system. In other words, it’s time to start treating the city’s public school system (the largest in the world) holistically, and look at it as being the segregated institution that we now know it is. The problem isn’t amorphous and hard to understand, it’s all right there in the numbers, and it just might be the starkest example of inequality that our city has to offer.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. I agree with your comment that the city lacks second tier high schools but would guess that the 1% accepted into the top tier schools include large numbers of Asian minority students who come from modest income families.
    The fault is not just in the quality of the primary schools or teachers in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods but in the lack of emphasis on education in the family structures of those areas.

    • Thats a nice generalizatiin yo make that allows you yo hide the real problem. How convenient for you to say no no no its not our problem fot not supplying them with good schools and its theit fault for not valuing education. FoH

      • Education is threefold: the schools, the parents, and the students. I grew up in East Flatbush with very little money but alot of support from my parents with regards to education. In elementary school, my teachers used to tell my parents that they were among the few parents to show up to parent teacher meetings.

        My mother did everything she could and sacrificed to make sure my brother and I received outside help and guess what? My brother attended Brooklyn Tech and I attended Bard High School Early College. The schools in our area weren’t the greatest so my mother made sure we were in gifted programs in both junior high and high school.

        While in high school, I would cut class and almost got kicked out but I took it upon myself to get my stuff together and in 1 semester pulled my grades up enough to graduate. So its not only up to the DOE, its up to parents and students to receive the best.

  2. There should be more focus on education in the home because of the lacking education preparation provided by nyc public schools prior to taking exams such as the shsat or ssat. I went to a no-name somewhat inadequate junior high school in brooklyn, had no prep material whatsoever and still managed to do well on the shsat. It’s not about being low income, it’s about efforts made towards preparation utilizing whatever resources available, including good old fashioned trips to the library. Having attended BTHS, I can inform you that this school is far from elite having attended class with students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a good school, it just takes hard work and extra elbow grease to get in.

  3. Murry Bergtraum HS is the worst High School in the city, Do not allow your child to go their. They should turn it into a campus and reopen it.They set you up for failure with 60% of classes a online course that doesn’t help or substitute teacher.. I could go on on and on but I got bette rthings to do.

  4. Most of the attendees of the specialized schools are low income. The majority of students in those schools get title 1 federal funding due to their family’s economic status.

  5. Writers love to put race and economic status into the reason high schools like mine, Brooklyn Tech, as well as other elite NYC high schools are harder to get into than Harvard. Conveniently, they ignore that (1) plenty of junior high schools that have a mix of kids, like the one I went to, are factories for these schools because they actually prepared us for the test, and (2) the number of “minorities” at the elite schools has *dropped* since the 90s.

    They need to call more attention to the junior high schools that don’t even tell kids about the test (yes, they exist), and ask the elephant-in-the-room question: why on earth have “minority” numbers actually *dropped* in those schools in recent years? That’s backwards!

    Journalism is taking a huge hit if surface-level articles like these are the norm. All this does is provide ammo for “activists” who focus on the wrong issues. Other than that, the article’s insistence that all NYC schools step it up so there will be less need for elite schools is on point.

  6. My son is an incoming freshman and we just went through this nightmare. The system is without doubt broken and this article is correct that the system lacks sufficient second tiet schools. Interestingly, there are actually a fair amount of them in Manhattan. Howecer almost every single one of them gives preference to District 2 stzudents. To the point where were told, if you dont live in district 2 dont even waste the space on your application. Where is District 2? All of Manhattan below Harlem, excluding the Lower East Side. Aka rich white manhattan. My son was a straight A student in JHS but not the best test taker. After he didnt get into a specialized school he had no chance of getting into any other decent HS because of district preferences. And thats ehat happened. He wasnt accepted into a singl other high school on the first round of applications. They system is beyond broken.

    • Ben,

      I found your comments about District 2 interesting, and your son’s story distressing – and I’d like to here more. Where will he be going in the fall, and will he take the SHSAT again? Please contact me through my website ( if interested to discuss further – maybe I can help him get ready to take the test again.


  7. This was the worst experience ever applying for High school in NYC is the worst .My daughter has been awarded National Junior Honor Society all three years while in middle school she never brought me any grades below a 90-100 and was not picked by any High School on her application. Round 2 I was given the worst High Schools in NY to choose from. I medical appealed it due to her epilepsy and was denied again being forced into sending my child to a horrible school so she can help raised their rating is a shame how I had no choice but to sent my child now to a High School Charter because we didnt have a choice for public school.Shame, Shame, Shame on you NYC Board of Education.