"First-choice letters," a part of the private school admissions process in which parents declare a kindergarten to be their child's top pick, may be headed for the dustbin of Manhattan history.
Private kindergarten programs have historically accepted — and even solicited — the letters, in which parents essentially promise their child will attend a school if accepted. The declarations, also known as "I love you letters," are thought to offer applicants an extra edge.
This year, however, a group of admissions officers at the city's top schools, the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York, released a new policy in a post on their Web site. "Formal expressions of first choice," they wrote, "will not be encouraged."
Coming in a year that even the schools themselves are describing as really, truly, we-mean-it-this-time the toughest year ever to get into private school, the move was supposed to be a bone to families, a way to alleviate an already stressful process.
"I think everyone agreed that, the more we can defang the process and just have it be natural and open, the better," an Upper West Side headmaster who sat on the committee that recommended the policy change, Steven Nelson of the Calhoun School, said.
Without tricks like the first-choice letters, Mr. Nelson said, the admissions system works more smoothly, giving every family — rich or poor, savvy or not — an even shot. "It sorts itself out with remarkable elegance," he said. "First-choice letters don't do anything but politicize it and skew the system one way or another."
Echoing an explanation given by Harvard and Princeton universities when they dropped early admissions programs, Mr. Nelson said that one consideration was families who need financial aid. They cannot afford to promise themselves to one school because they need to shop for the best aid package, he said.
Admissions insiders, however, are saying that rather than tamp down anxieties, the new first-choice policy has become this year's latest headache.
"I think it's a positive step, but I just wish they had made a stronger statement, because people are confused," an admissions consultant based on the Upper West Side, Robin Aronow, said.
The problem, Ms. Aronow said, is that the statement only discourages first-choice letters; it does not outright ban them.
As a result, the matter of whether to send a letter — along with the old matters of whether to hand-write it or type, whether to e-mail or send or personally deliver — remains up in the air.
Some parents, calculating that a lighter supply of first-choice letters could make theirs stand out more, are writing the letters anyway.
Others, fearing retribution from their preschool directors, many of whom are members of the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York, are not writing them — but worrying whether that will hurt them in the end.
And perhaps the silent majority are undecided. "Families are in a quandary," Ms. Aronow, said. "They still don't know whether they should send them or not send them."
Still, the worst off may be the schools themselves, who may now lack one more way to figure out which students are likely to come, if admitted, and which are not.
Puzzling out how many students have to be admitted in order to fill a school's spots is already a difficult problem. Last year at Calhoun, for instance, admissions directors far underestimated their own popularity, expecting that only 30% of those they offered spots would attend — when actually 50% did, Mr. Nelson said.
The president of the admissions consulting firm Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, Emily Glickman, said that, facing this dilemma, other indications of interest will replace the straightforward letters. "It's all verbal, wink-wink, on the telephone, behind closed doors," she said.
The director of the Epiphany Community Nursery School, Wendy Levey, said people in her position will have to step up to communicate interest.
Nursery school directors already play a major role in the process of sorting applicants to schools. In telephone calls going on throughout this month, they speak to schools to find out which of their children the schools find interesting, and then to the families, to see whether they like the schools back.
Ms. Levey said that, without first-choice letters, the role could become even greater.
"Now, I'm pretty sure all the nursery school directors will just be prime brokers," she said. "The schools are going to rely more on us, and they're going to say, do you think this family is really serious?"
Another consultant, Amanda Uhry, who is the founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, said parents' concerns are overblown. First-choice letters never made a difference in admissions, she said, and they still won't.
Mr. Nelson said his school always received the letters "with the appropriate twinkle in our eye and grain of salt." "If somebody says I love your school more than hot fudge, and if you give us the great honor of offering a place in your brilliant institution for our child, we will be forever grateful and we will lavish you with wealth and love — that would probably be a disqualifying letter," Mr. Nelson said.
He laughed at other over-the-top declarations, such as, from a family this year, a full-color published brochure about their child.
He said other indicators of interest — such as being appearing genuinely to like a school's philosophy — are more believable, and do count. "We certainly don't want to make offers to people who have no interest in our school at all," he said.