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Dulwich CollegeA place at an academically selective private senior school is the holy grail for many parents. These schools hand-pick the best candidates, know how to get the most from pupils and open doors to leading universities but the admissions process is complex and must be successfully navigated before the offer of a place lands in your inbox.

Can parents prepare for selective school applications?

You’ve done your homework - been to the open days, studied the prospectuses, balanced larger playing fields against smaller classes, shorter journeys against longer bills. The first thing to recognise is that applying to a selective school will mean an entrance examination. While the mere thought might make you go cold, the right approach and preparation means the process can be successful, even enjoyable, and one in which you have a surprising amount of control.

Many parents feel that the moment they embark on the process of applying to a selective school, they are in the hands of an unfriendly system that is unlikely to spot the merits - however obvious - of their offspring. The more desperate you are to get your child into this or that school, the more dark and forbidding its front door appears! It can be helpful to establish at the outset that the right school for your child will, more than likely, happily offer him or her a place and if it doesn't then it was probably not the right school.

However, it is true that most good schools are oversubscribed and inevitably lots of deserving candidates don't get in. It is, therefore, essential that you have a fallback school - ideally more than one - a school you like and your child likes and one to which you would be perfectly happy to send them - even if it is not your first choice.

Perhaps the most important thing at this stage is your child's - and your own - approach to these admissions assessments. It cannot be stated too strongly that no child should ever be left with a sense of having failed. This can do severe damage which will not just go away but be with him or her for the rest of their lives. The business of applying to this or that school should be a 'let's give it a go' venture, not a matter of life, death, family honour, tradition, pride or, above all, fear of letting one's parents down. There is never only one possible school - as many families who, feel that their world has collapsed at the arrival of the 'wrong letter', discover.

What to expect from the school admissions process

Your first task is to register your child with the schools of your choice. The deadline is usually in the autumn the year before you would like your child to start – make sure you’re got all the key dates written down. There may be a financial outlay – both a registration fee and a deposit later on - to secure your place. Always make sure you understand what the agreement involves and under what circumstances you get your money back.

Entrance exams

Most schools examine in the same ways - testing English, maths and verbal or, sometimes, non-verbal reasoning. Common Entrance, an exam which many boys - and some girls – sit at preparatory schools is a more complex affair. We can assume that, if your child is sitting these examinations, the preparatory school concerned will have explained the process and you will be clued up about it. Entry at 6th form level will probably depend on a combination of GCSE results, a school report and interview.

These days, especially in London, some schools have organised themselves into consortia. This is so that your child doesn't have to sit a separate examination for each of the 10 schools to which you have applied. Your first choice school will mark the examination and share the results with the others. Scholarships are different. The individual schools may well want to set their own scholarship papers. You will need to research this if you are considering putting your son or daughter in for a scholarship and the school will happily send you details. But, scholarship candidate or not, you will definitely face - the entrance exam! 

Getting an academic assessment 

If you are in any doubt as to your child’s academic level, you may want to get them assessed. Ideally an assessment will be done by an experienced teacher from an academically selective junior school - someone who knows exactly what the senior school is looking for and will be able pinpoint gaps in your child’s education. You need someone who would be prepared to see your child once, try out their English and maths and give you an honest appraisal of their general aptitude, some idea of their chances of success and what it will take to prepare thoroughly. You must not expect such a teacher to make promises! An honest assessment is a useful tool and can save much heartache and disappointment later on. It may well be that the person who does the assessment also offers tuition and has a track record in coaching children for the exams at the school of your choice.

Finding a tutor 

If you don’t get an assessment or the person you used isn’t taking on tutees, there are some tried and tested ways of finding a tutor. It may be that a teacher at your child’s school takes on this kind of work – there are advantages in you child being tutored by someone who already teaches them. An experienced tutor will have heaps of past papers, have all the techniques at their command and will make your child feel confident quickly. Note, however, that you may need to find separate teachers for English and maths. 

There is a tendency for senior schools to tell you that no coaching is necessary. When the entrance assessment consists solely of verbal or non-verbal reasoning then this may be true (although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice) but there are few children who wouldn’t benefit from at least light coaching with their English comprehension, algebra and exam technique. Applicants coming from state school will not have been primed for entrance exams in the way a child attending a prep or independent junior school will have been and so tuition may help make up any lost ground.

At home

In the meantime, there are things you can do at home. Ideally, your child should be reading enthusiastically but, in any case, it is never too late to start reading together. There are also books to help bring your child up to scratch. Maths, too, can be fun and there are books of maths puzzles and problems readily available. 
If the school will be testing verbal/non-verbal reasoning (not all do – check first), it is vital that your child is familiar with the format of these papers as well. These, too, are available at good newsagents and some bookshops although note that some will be more suitable than others for the particular exam that your child faces.


Some schools interview all their candidates and even parents too. Some interview twice! Others interview only scholarship candidates. Most interview those who have passed a minimum standard in the exams. Interviews might be with the headteacher or with other senior teachers. There may well be further tests done at the interview. For example, if your child did well in the English paper but less well in maths, she may well be taken off by the maths department and given some additional exercises. This should not be a cause for alarm but it is as well to be prepared for the possibility. Read our article about school interviews.


Finally there is the two or three week wait before the letter comes. It is not always the best idea to stop the coaching at this time. For example, if the teacher has been working with your child on matters other than preparation for the exams, it may be worth considering continuing lessons, if the teacher is prepared to do so. This is especially so if your child has deficiencies in maths or written work. There are always areas of learning which the senior school will expect your child to have an idea of. In any case, a surprisingly large number of children actually enjoy the lessons.

SEN and selective school admissions 

Mercifully, it is now accepted and understood that many of the brightest individuals have special educational needs such as dyslexia which may mask their true abilities. If your child has an SEN, discuss it with their tutor and alert your first choice school before the exam. That way, when they are assessing the papers and determining who to recall for interview, they will be apprised of the special circumstances.

It is also wise to have him or her assessed by a specialist, ideally much earlier in their school career than year 6. There are various ways of doing this. The first thing is to express your concern to the class teacher. The teacher should, whether she thinks you have a point or not, make a referral to the school's SENCo. You have the right to do this yourself if the teacher fails to do so.

Your end goal should be to end up with an assessment or a report you can copy and send to the senior school of your choice before the exam.


Do you want help from The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants?

Our expert education consultants can provide your family with one-to-one help on all of the issues raised in this article and many more. We regularly help parents understand the particulars of UK independent schools and assist them in mapping out potential educational pathways for their children.

If you would like to find out more about our services, visit the Education Consultants homepage or, to speak directly with one of the team, email [email protected] or call 0203 286 6824

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