Choosing a high school: Commonly asked questions

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

How do I get started?

Talk to the adults in your life, including teachers, counselors, and parents or guardians. Review the articles and school profiles in this guide. Get a copy of the District’s high school directory published every fall and meet with your counselor. Seventh and 8th graders should attend the High School Expo, scheduled this year on September 28 and 29, where all District and charter schools are represented and you can ask questions. In October, the Philadelphia School Partnership will launch its website,, from which you can get information on academics, extracurricular activities, graduation rates, college enrollment, safety and other factors.

When should I start thinking about high school choices?

It’s an important decision, so it’s good to start early: no later than the beginning of 7th grade. High schools look at attendance, grades, and test scores from that year in determining who is qualified to attend.

What is the difference between a special admission and a citywide admission high school?

Special admission schools set a high bar, with test score cutoffs and specific requirements regarding grades and attendance. Citywide admission schools give less weight to test scores, but still set minimum standards regarding grades, attendance, and discipline records. The principals at special admission schools decide who gets in, while citywide admission schools put all qualified students into a lottery.

What if I want to go to a charter school?

You should contact that school directly as early as you can. Charter schools are required to conduct lotteries if they have more applicants than spaces, but each has its own application process and deadlines. They are not permitted to discriminate or deny admission to students based on test scores, disability, or English language proficiency. They can limit enrollment to certain grades and a particular area of study but must make their admissions standards clear. Many charters have detailed applications and strict deadlines in order to be entered into the lotteries.

How can I find out the admissions requirements of a school?

This guide and the District’s high school directory include the admission requirements for each school. Your counselor can help explain the requirements.

If I don’t meet the exact criteria of a selective school, should I apply anyway?

Yes, but only if your record comes close to meeting all the requirements. They often admit students who do not meet every criterion. Principals at selective schools may seek recommendations from counselors and principals from the schools that applicants attend. Interviews can also make a big difference.

Certain schools have lots of applicants – how can I improve my chances?

Before you apply to Masterman, keep in mind that nearly all the high school slots are filled by students from their middle school – your odds may be one in a hundred. Some of the other most selective schools may admit only one out of every 10 applicants. But there are schools in the city that are not as well known yet have similar programs. Check them out. Applying to charter schools is another way of improving your odds; you’re not limited on how many you can apply to.

Should I visit the school as part of the admission process?

Yes, to get the “feel” of a school. Some schools allow applicants to shadow students for all or part of a day. Some require interviews or auditions. Check with your counselor.

If I get rejected from all my choices, what should I do?

If you get on the waiting list of a special admission school or a charter school, there is a chance that you will be admitted. You should keep in touch with your counselor and with the school you want to attend. These schools manage their own waiting lists.

If you are on the waiting list for one or more citywide admission schools, your name will be entered in a second or even a third citywide lottery to fill the spaces in those schools once students accepted in the first round have made their choices and some have opted out. You should keep informed about these lotteries. While decisions for citywide admission schools are not made at the school level, it doesn’t hurt to let the principal know of your interest.

What is “directed admit?”

Once the selection overall process is completed, each District school with an 8th grade is asked to submit the names of several students who the school feels would benefit from attending Central or Girls High. Each region then submits two or three names each for Central and Girls to the Office of Student Placement, which makes the final decision. This affects only a very small number of students and only applies to these two schools.

Are there high schools that will help prepare me for a trade or career?

Yes, there are 97 state-approved Career and Technical Education programs in Philadelphia, some of which lead to a certificate or credential along with your diploma that can help you in the job market. State-approved programs are those in which students take academic and technical courses for three years in their chosen field. The programs are on the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board’s High Priority Occupation list, which indicates that the program is meeting the workforce development needs of the region. To see which schools offer these programs, check the school profiles listed in this guide.

I want to go to my neighborhood high school. Do any have special programs?

Many neighborhood high schools house special programs in such areas as health occupations, culinary arts, criminal justice, communications, graphics, and automotive technology. The District’s high school directory includes a summary by area of interest of where these programs are located.

Can I apply to a neighborhood high school in another area?

Yes. Keep in mind that students outside the feeder area are selected by lottery and only after all neighborhood students are accommodated.

Should students with IEPs apply to selective high schools?

All students are encouraged to apply to any high school that interests them and for which they meet the basic qualifications. A court decision called LeGare requires the District to maintain a minimum percentage of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) in selective schools. There are separate lotteries for special ed students (and English language learners) at the schools that have lotteries.

What are the rules for English language learners?

All schools are required to serve English language learners, and the District encourages ELL students to apply to selective schools. A court decision called Y.S. requires the District to maintain a minimum percentage of English language learners in selective schools and bars schools from denying qualified ELLs admission by claiming a lack of services.

Besides my counselor, where can I get help with high school placement?

At the Parent and Family Resource Centers. Applications, high school directories, and explanations of the policies and procedures for the voluntary selection process are available at six centers located around the city (see box). They can help you navigate the District’s website, where there are detailed school profiles.

Where can I find official information from the District?

At the website of the District’s Office of Student Placement. The District also publishes its own high school directory.

A version of this article in Spanish is on page 10.