Seven things families should know about high school admissions in Chicago

Chicago’s high school admissions window opened this week. For thousands of students and their families, so began a process marked by anxiety, questions, deadlines, and, yes, educated guesswork. 

The city’s universal application, GoCPS, is now in its third year. While still controversial, the site has streamlined a process that used to be overly cumbersome and left some students stranded without offers. But even with a single application and a match for upward of 90% of students, there are plenty of unknowns — from the odds of getting a first- or second-choice to how high a student will score on the admissions test for selective enrollment high schools. (To read one father’s critique of the process, click here.)

While the high school application derby may be daunting, a trove of research on the ins and outs of Chicago high school admissions offers useful clues to families. Here are seven tips, grounded in research, that can help families who are trying to navigate GoCPS. 

Are you a student or parent or educator who has been through the process and has a tip you’d like to share? Click here to tell us or scroll down to take the survey below. Or share with us on Twitter or Facebook.

  1. The odds aren’t as bad as you think if you’re willing to put your eggs in more than one basket.

Let’s break down the numbers. 

Last school year, about 26,600 prospective high school freshmen made their selections from a menu of 250 programs in about 130 high schools. Among the most competitive: the 11 selective enrollment high schools that base acceptance on test scores. 

Chicago offers an array of options from dual-language programs at three high schools to STEM programs to a performing arts school, military academies, and vocational programs such as in culinary arts. These are the “choice” programs. 

Students can apply to up to six selective enrollment high schools and 20 choice programs on one application. They rank selective enrollment programs and choice programs separately. Offers can come down from each.  

Last year, only about 16% of students got their first choice of a selective enrollment school. But taken together, slightly more than half — 54% — got their top pick of either a selective enrollment or a choice school. 

Nearly 30% got one of their top three picks for selective enrollment schools. And 81% got a match among the top three of their selective enrollment or choice programs.  

2. The process favors students who select more schools. 

Last school year, 92% of students received a match of a school on their list. 

Research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has studied the GoCPS process, shows that students who rank more programs are more likely to receive an offer than students who rank fewer programs. The numbers bear that out: Students who did not receive a match applied to an average of 2.5 schools, compared with an average of 7.1 schools for all applicants. 

3. Students who want to attend their neighborhood high school can opt out of the admissions process entirely. 

Every student in Chicago is guaranteed a seat in a neighborhood high school. Students who plan to attend their zoned school are not required to participate in GoCPS. The district encourages those students to submit a letter of intent form so that schools can plan for enrollment, but does not require it. 

There is a neighborhood schools movement afoot in the city, but despite calls for more investments in such programs, four years of data show growing percentages of high school students choosing schools outside of their zoned campus. 

Whether that trend will continue this school year remains to be seen. The district has not yet released its 20th day student count, which provides the first look at current year enrollment trends. 

4. There are often multiple ways to apply to one school; insiders encourage families to try them all. 

Researchers are forthright about the advantages that some families have in the application process — be it the money to pay for test prep, the car to drive to open houses, or the ability to hire personal navigators. 

Grace Lee Sawin, the founder of Chicago School GPS, has for many years run a business that helps pair families with schools. Swain offers students this wisdom: “You’re not applying to a school, you’re applying to a program within a school.”  

One example she gives is Amundsen High School, on the city’s North Side. Prospective students can apply for admission to any of three programs: a general education track, a game programming and web design track, and the International Baccalaureate track. Swain says she advises families who want to go to Amundsen to apply to all three — even if the application requires applicants to list and rank each separately. 

“There are different ways to get into a school,” Sawin said. “I tell families, once you’re in, you can ask about making a lateral move (to another program) if the choice isn’t right.”

5. Research offers some hope to students who don’t get into selective enrollment schools.

Admission to the selective enrollment programs heavily depends on a student’s grades, score on the NWEA/MAP standardized test, and score on an admissions test for selective schools. Each selective school sets aside 30% of its seats for applicants with the highest scores, then divvies up the remainder using a rubric of scores and a tier system that attempts to account for income inequality among families. (To find cutoff scores by tier for each of the selective enrollment schools, click here. Many choice programs also have score requirements; click here for that list.)

But inevitably some students find themselves out of the competition — maybe they’re poor test takers, or they’ve got a blemished academic record, or they don’t have parents who speak English well enough to help guide them. Here’s the good news: Researchers say they’ve got alternatives. 

Students who barely miss the cutoff for admission to a selective enrollment high school tend to enroll in high-performing neighborhood high schools or special programs within high schools, like International Baccalaureate. Ultimately, many end up doing just as well as or better than admitted students on a variety of academic measures, including college-entrance test scores and college enrollment, according to research from the University of Chicago Consortium. 

IB, a rigorous academic program first developed for the children of British diplomats, is helping neighborhood schools make inroads with top students. District data shows that 23% of students who were admitted to both IB and selective-enrollment schools in 2017-2018 chose IB. 

In fact, according to 2012 research from the consortium, students in IB programs finished high school with stronger college qualifications than did students at selective enrollment high schools, even though the former as a group tended to begin high school with lower test scores than those of students in selective enrollment programs. 

“Overall, IB students showed stronger rates of four-year college enrollment, selective college enrollment, and college persistence than students who had similar achievement before high school but were not in an IB program,” said consortium Director Elaine Allensworth, who has researched educational outcomes for 20 years.  

6. Don’t sleep on follow-up: Many schools require another step besides an application.

IB programs require students to attend an information session for their application to be considered (the district lists them here). 

Other schools require auditions, portfolios, or interviews, depending on the type of program. 

“Find out if these are needed,” Allensworth said, “and make sure to complete the requirements or [applicants] will not be considered for enrollment at those schools.” One good resource: This school guide from CPS lists the requirements for every campus in the city. 

Not sure about a program? Many schools will offer open houses and tours for prospective families from now to December. The GoCPS website offers this running calendar of open houses for prospective families at both elementary and high schools.

7. Parents, educators, and students should be mindful that students are listening and internalizing how schools are described. 

Kate Phillippo, an urban education policy expert and researcher at Loyola University, spent years studying dozens of Chicago eighth-graders who were going through the admissions process. All of the students valued making a choice of where to attend high school — but many, when it came down to it, struggled with the process and how their parents and peers described schools. 

“Young people take these comments seriously, and judge themselves and others by the standards and expectations they we convey,” she said. “Young people need to hear from us that we see them as people, understand that this process is difficult, to say the least, and understand their capacity as far more than what can be known from a few scores and grades they got in seventh and eighth grade.”

Phillippo said that, after years of studying young people, she’s also learned that it’s important for them to hear that the family members and educators they trust will support them no matter what high school they end up attending.