Image: Luke Bott

The calls start pouring in during the summer after seventh grade, half a year before students will have the chance to lay eyes on the ISEE, or Independent School Entrance Exam, the mini-SAT that has become the cornerstone of the private high school application process. 

When Neha Gupta, CEO of Elite Private Tutors, picks up the phone, she already knows who’s on the other line: an anxious mother, sometimes struggling to remain calm, other times frantic, always worried that she’s already too late. 

Too late for what, exactly?

“Getting her child into an elite high school,” says Gupta. “The competition is insanely high to get into high school right now in Houston.”

Competition has been fierce for years now, but with the city’s rapid growth, schools’ increases in tuition, and the growing number of students seeking tutoring for  months—even years—in advance of the ISEE, the competition for spots in the city’s choice schools has begun to look positively Manhattan-esque. 

Private school officials say they only expect things to get tougher as Houston’s strong economy attracts more wealthy families, including those relocating to Exxon Mobil’s new campus north of town.

“Students should begin to prepare for their high school admission on their first day of middle school,” says Iris Bonet, director of admissions at The Kinkaid School. “Schools will consider their transcripts, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities. Therefore, establishing a good track record as a strong scholar who has good character and is involved in activities in and out of school will prove helpful.”

That kind of advice is one reason why Elite Private Tutors, the pre-kindergarten-through-college service Gupta founded as an undergrad at Rice, has grown from three employees to more than 20 in recent years. These are not your typical tutoring sessions, either. 

“Trackable tutoring assessments” help pinpoint students’ weaknesses, turning a study session into a trove of data about areas requiring more focus and “parental support.” Kids also get coaching for their interviews and practice in essay writing to help them get a leg up. And, of course, it’s never too soon to get started—the most ambitious parents of preschool-age children have even asked Gupta to coach them on how to behave while being observed, in hopes of getting them placed in the private school pipeline early on.  

The most important part of middle school tutoring, though, is that test. “We really drill down data-wise,” Gupta says of her middle school students. “If your child is not doing ISEE prep, they are considered unprepared.”

Acknowledging the stiff competition, admissions officials at schools across the city say it’s important for families to look beyond brand-name high schools to, well, their children’s next round of competition.

“Finding a school that’s a good fit is better than trying to get into a school because of its name,” says Gretchen Hesse, assistant director of admission at St. Thomas’ Episcopal School. “You want to place students in an environment where they’re going to succeed academically so that they can get into a good college. Remember, that’s the goal.”

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