Applying to pre-kindergarten is in essence a journey of self-discovery. Think of your future as a diaper full of potential that’s just waiting to be explored. Once you get it open, who knows what you might find … maybe even a lifetime of success and happiness! You may be only 23 months old, but your fate is in your sticky, jam-smeared hands—so be sure not to fumble it. There’s only so much room at the top of the play structure nowadays, and it’s a long way down to the damp, dirty sand below.

An effective application strategy begins with a solid understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. It’s important to show potential in specific, clearly recognizable areas; generalists tend to get lost in the crowd. At the same time, you’ve got to project a total package that stands out from every other nice smile and skinned knee she sees today. To inventory your aptitude, ask yourself these four questions:

1. What is your skill set? Are you better at digging holes or nesting Tupperware? How many blocks can you stack—or do you prefer trying to fit them all in your mouth instead? Can you handle a fork and spoon, or is everything still finger food? (If you’re still getting the booby, please see the companion volume The Other Side of the Playground: Coping with Homeschooling.)

2. How smart are you? Do you still scream in terror when someone has “got your nose”? Does that four-piece puzzle have you flapping your hands in frustration and reaching for your binky? If you’re already on the slow track, you should gear your expectations to a less demanding career, like photographer’s assistant, pigeon feeder, or playground loiterer.

3. How’s your rhythm? Do you get music at all, or is it just a bunch of noise and clapping? The ability to carry a tune can be your ticket to gifted programs for years to come. On the other hand, tone-deaf caterwauling might land you in the wrong kind of special school, fitted with a highly unflattering helmet. If you’re not sure, it’s best to err on the side of restraint.

4. When you go places on an airplane, does the extra mommy who changes your diapers instead of your real mommy go with you? This is a good sign that your family is “wealthy,” and a broad classical education will prepare you for the positions and privileges of your class. On the other hand, if you’re left home alone for long stretches of time and the rug always smells funny, you can probably skip the Language Lab section of the Baby Einstein DVDs.

Next, draw a road map for the years ahead. What colors are the lines from now to then? Do they loop or cross? (If you find yourself compelled to use the white crayon, please see the companion volume No Exit, No Return: When the Twos Are Too Terrible.) Ask Mommy to put your road map on the fridge, then tear it up and draw a new one tomorrow. How is it different? How is it the same?

Once you’ve uncovered the inner you, it’s time to focus on the interview itself. Mommy may have told you you’re the sweetest little baby in town, but it’s the lady at the place whose opinion counts now. Preparation can make the difference between a knock-’em-dead performance and a meltdown that makes Daddy want to knock you dead. To keep your interview on track, remember these five tips, one for each little piggy (note: always keep your shoes on during the interview):

1. Make good eye contact—it’s a great way to showcase your attention span. There may be toys, cardboard boxes, even exposed lamp cords in the room. Act like you’ve seen it all before.

2. Maintain your composure. This is not the time to get all clingy-fussypants. Sure, it’s scary. Maybe that man really does want to bite you. You can cry it out in the car, when your parents are past caring one way or the other.

3. Use your words! Nothing says “late bloomer” like babbling. If you only know a few, find a way to work them all into the conversation; for example: “Red dog bite hot duck, drop down boo-boo penis.” Maybe it never really happened—they don’t know that.

4. Relax. Fidgeting can indicate early-onset ADD, while excessive rigidity can be read as an autism spectrum disorder. If you need to re-center, imagine yourself in a happy place. You know the one I’m talking about: warm, dark, and wet, with that nice pulsing sound all around you.

5. Don’t poop in your pants. Sure, it would be funny, and pleasant feeling—for about five minutes. Ten, 20 years down the road, when you realized you’d pooped your whole future away, not so much.

This may seem like a lot to deal with, but it’s the way your life is going to be for a while, maybe forever. The good news is, if you can hang in there for about seven more years, your doctor is going to put a new kind of candy in your lunchbox that will make it much easier to manage. It seems like forever now, but it’ll be worth the wait.

Ready … set … go!