The words are whispered under a cone of silence in moneyed Manhattan: cutthroat, ruthless, Darwinian, cruel.
Whispered, too, are the shimmering prizes: the future keys, it's said, to Harvard, Princeton or Yale.
Welcome to the quest to win a spot at New York's Baby Ivies, the private preschools and kindergartens where big money and bigger egos clash over whose 3- or 5-year-old will gain the first edge.
The recent college-admissions scandal has only confirmed what the Baby Ivy crowd has long known: Some wealthy parents will do just about anything to get their kids into the "right" school.
For New Yorkers willing to drop $50,000 on kindergarten, few rites of passage can seem as anxiety-inducing as the annual running of the toddlers. Affluent parents hire admissions whisperers, test-prep consultants and more to polish their sticky-fingered applicants. Like the Grownup Ivies -- which send out their admission decisions on Thursday -- the Baby Ivies cull the weak, interview the hopeful and decide which lucky candidates slip past the velvet rope.
How intense is the competition? Trinity School, on the Upper West Side, stopped accepting applications for the current academic year once they hit 642 for its 60 or so kindergarten spots, according to Kevin Ramsey, director of communications.
That puts its acceptance rate at about 10 percent, roughly the same as Cornell University's. Trinity's tuition, at more than $52,000 for the K-12 school, exceeds Harvard's -- albeit without room and board.
Other New York Baby Ivies such as Horace Mann, Collegiate, Dalton and Brearley generally don't reveal their acceptance rates. Horace Mann provided a glimpse into its numbers in filings related to a 2017 bond issue: On average, its kindergarten receives 346 applications for about 36 spots.
Spokespeople for the schools either declined to comment or didn't return emails.
Given the unofficial code of silence, parents are afraid to speak openly about admissions. The schools' reticence, meantime, only adds to their mystique.
"No school will tell you how many spots are open," said one former admissions director. "Their numbers are sacred to them."
Omerta aside, every Baby Ivy parent has heard the stories. Some of them are even true. For instance, there's the one about the secular couple who joined a house of worship on the hope this might somehow boost their child's chances. Or about reference letters from ambassadors or even presidents. One such letter was delivered in a leather box, via Rolls Royce.
The college-admissions scandal revealed the lengths to which some parents will go, including brazen schemes to buy spots at Yale, Stanford and other elite schools. While outright bribery hasn't been exposed at the Baby Ivies, few parents doubt that, in general, money talks.
Private schools, after all, are big business, and numbers gleaned from 2017 public filings provide a sense of just how big. Collegiate, for instance, had about $342 million in assets. The head of school at Horace Mann made almost $1 million. In its annual report that year, Trinity lamented its endowment-per-student ratio -- at about $71,000 per child -- was "one of the smallest in the city.''
Even New York's entry-level 1 percenters -- people who would be considered rich elsewhere -- grouse about the hefty tuition. The scramble over Baby Ivies underscores the city's wealth inequality, but not in the usual way: It represents the gap between the haves and the have-mores.
"I see families earning $500,000 who consider themselves middle class and the working poor," said Roxana Reid, founder of educational consulting company Smart City Kids. "It's an outrageous statement, but it's connected to insane costs related to housing, education and taxes, and just quality of life in New York.''
And so, year after year, the games commence. One father recalled a private-school official who kept saying his child would have difficulty gaining admission.
The father's response: "How can we help?" Those four words changed the tenor of the conversation.
"It showed we were speaking the same language," the father said. His child got accepted.
Other parents offer donations, buy tables at charity galas or chase after board members on vacation in Anguilla, Deer Valley or Southampton.
The Mandell School, which has closed, had stated in its application that offering a "donation" would disqualify an applicant, according to former head Gabriella Rowe. "Ironically, it made the school even more desirable," said Rowe, who now runs a technology accelerator in Houston.
Parents, it seems, will try just about anything. Rowe recalled getting an unusual package from one parent: a box containing a toddler-size sneaker. "Now that we have one shoe in the door, we hope we get the other," the accompanying note said.
Plenty of parents edit or even write their children's college-admissions essays. With the Baby Ivies, parents are asked to describe their kids and family. A month on a private yacht in Greece, for instance, might be held up as evidence that a tyke is worldly.
"There's a lot of that -- trying to show off," said Dana Haddad, founder of educational consultant New York Admissions.
Then comes the prepping, testing, interviewing and visiting. Some parents apply to more than 10 schools.
"If they get into two, that's a raging success," said Amanda Uhry, founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors.
As with colleges, consulting is a lucrative game. Uhry charges her full-service clients anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000. Reid's fees start at $375 an hour.
Parents blame other parents, and sometimes themselves, for the spiraling competition. As in higher education, administrators and consultants can feed on parental anxieties about success.
Rowe, the former Mandell School director, wonders where this leaves the kids. Parents, she said, send a clear message: “I competed in the process, and I won.”