The private school interview is key to the admissions process. It’s the school’s best opportunity to assess your child’s character, interests, maturity and social skills, and is often the difference between an offer of a place or a ‘thanks but no thanks’.
While state schools are prohibited from interviewing any but potential sixth form or boarding students, the interview is a routine part – some might say the most important part – of almost every private school admissions process. Widespread tutoring ensures that plenty of candidates will pass the written exams with flying colours, so it’s down to the interview to sort the highly tutored from the highly teachable. As a parent, you probably feel you can get on top of your child’s ability to shake hands, smile and look adults in the eye more than their ability to decipher algebra or conjugate Latin verbs. And, while a school may breezily describe the interview as ‘just a chance to get to know the child better’, this hardly quells fears about sending young Daniel or Daniella into the lion’s den. But relax, an anxious child will never be at their best and it’s ultimately all about finding the perfect fit.
Private school interviews: what are they looking for?
Different schools look for different things and the personality of the interviewer is the most variable and unpredictable aspect of any interview. Some may dislike boastful children or those who say their favourite leisure activity is video games. Others may prefer sporty types to avid bookworms. But some schools do make a strenuous attempt to counteract the sense of one adult sitting in judgement on one child. Bedales School, for example, takes prospective pupils for a three-day residential assessment during which multiple interviews may take place as well as co-curricular activities where candidates can be observed and assessed by teachers. At Rugby School, every child is interviewed by at least two people.
The best interviewers can and do overcome the limitations both of the written examination and of the child. One registrar told us, ‘children, even very shy ones, like to talk about themselves, their friends, their families and their pets. I get them to describe what they did on Sunday, or I turn my back and ask them to describe something in the room. Sometimes I even get a child to sing or dance. I am looking for sparkly eyes and interest. If a child just sits there like a pudding, you usually don’t take them.’
Some schools get over the ‘what to talk about’ dilemma by asking children to bring along a favourite object. Rugby sensibly provides a questionnaire about hobbies and interests to fill in in advance, which not only provides a talking point, but also allows parents to feel they’ve done what they can. If, however, the child pitches up with a copy of Proust or boasts a collection of Roman ceramics, parents shouldn’t be surprised if the interviewer is somewhat sceptical.
Typical private school interview questions
Every establishment has a different approach to assessing prospective pupils but certain questions get asked again and again at private school interviews because the answers they prompt reveal much about the candidate. Remember, the interviewer is taking everything in – the candidate’s answers are important but how they answer and interact with the interviewer will count for just as much. If your child can confidently (and simultaneously) shake hands, make eye contact and smile, they’re off to a flying start.
- Why do you want to come to this school? We’ve heard every answer under the sun to this question, from ‘I don’t. My mum wants me to,’ to ‘Because the school is really good at football’ (the school did not play football). It’s a chance for the candidate to demonstrate that they are aware of the school’s strengths and are excited about the prospect of getting involved.
- What do you like most about your current school? Here’s an opportunity to talk about their achievements and any extracurricular activities they have been involved in.
- Tell me about your favourite book/a book you have recently read. Ideally, the candidate will be a keen reader and always have a book on the go. This is their opportunity to show enthusiasm for a book, recount some of the story and describe what it is they like about it. You should assume that the interviewer will have some knowledge of your child’s reading matter and will quickly establish whether they have indeed read and understood it.
- What do you like to do with your spare time? Above all, interviewers want to see passion or, at the very least enthusiasm towards something. This could be a hobby or a sport or anything that is a positive, constructive use of time. The interviewer would expect video games to feature but this should be balanced with something else. If the only thing the candidate can come up with is Netflix, then maybe a little more thought is required.
- Which is your favourite subject at school? The interviewer will be hoping that the answer will start a conversation. However much it might feel like maths is the clever answer, a candidate should answer truthfully or they may find themselves subject to a spot mental maths challenge or conversation in French which they are not prepared for.
- What would you do if you were Prime Minister for the day? This genre of question often provides a little light relief towards the end of the interview. The purpose is to key in to the candidate’s interests and maybe see how engaged they are with current affairs. There are no right or wrong answers and the interviewer will expect answers ranging from, ‘End global poverty’ to ‘Free pizza for everyone.’
We list the above interview questions with a degree of hesitance. They are for consideration and conversation but we warn against you and your child rehearsing the ‘perfect’ answer. The worst thing a candidate can do is learn their answers to these questions and then try to recite them back during the interview. The interviewer will want to have a conversation, not be the object of a monologue. With every type of question, your child should not only be able to answer ‘what’ but also offer up the ‘why’ without being prompted: ‘Nadal is my favourite tennis player because...’. There may be a chance for the candidate to ask one or two questions towards to the end of the interview. Again, don't rehearse these again and again but having something up your sleeve will stand you in good stead.
London prep school interviews and beyond
The London prep or senior day school interview is perhaps the most straightforward. Oversubscribed at every point, the selective urban independent tends to concentrate on the academic. The majority usually only meet the child after a written exam has been sat and results ranked, and for the more academic schools, the interview itself will probably contain a significant component of maths, comprehension or reasoning. The aim here is to probe intellectual strengths and weaknesses in order to select from the central bulk of candidates or even to pick scholarship material.
Even the most academic schools, however, are not necessarily just looking for those guaranteed to deliver a stream of A*s. Some use interviews as an opportunity to create as balanced a community as possible:
‘I didn’t want all extroverts or all eggheads,’ said one ex-junior school head. ‘Most children who sat our exam scored between 40 and 65 per cent in the written paper, so I was looking for an individual spark. At the age of 7, particularly, the interview is a crucial counterbalance to the exam. Those born between September and December always scored higher marks in the written paper. At interview we would go back to the list and bring in some younger children.’
Boarding school interviews: what are they looking for?
Most boarding schools feel that the interview can identify serious pastoral concerns. ‘We sometimes discover that a child really doesn’t want to come to boarding school,’ said the registrar of Rugby. ‘The interview is also very helpful in establishing the academic level the prep school is working at. We ask children to bring in their exercise books. Some London prep schools are so geared up at that point that all the child is doing is practice papers. Country prep schools tend to be more relaxed.’
Although most heads are honest in their report about a child - after all, their reputation depends on it - the interview can also benefit them. ‘Occasionally, a prep-school head knows perfectly well that a child is not suited to our school, but the parents just won’t listen. Coming from us it doesn’t sour the relationship with the school.’
Boarding schools, of course, tend to have another layer to their selection process and interview when they match boys and girls to an appropriate house. Here the parent, even more than the child, can be in the spotlight. Dr Andrew Gailey, formerly Eton vice provost and Prince William’s housemaster, always tried to strike a balance of the sporty and industrious, the musical and the generally decent in his annual selection of 10 boys but, for him, the parental part of the equation plays an even greater role. ‘The boy is going to change, but you have shared management of the child’s adolescence with the parents and you have to have some common bond for that to work.’
That’s a common theme for those interviews where parents appear — notably in London pre-preps. Most of the time the school is really interviewing you, and it’s you who need the preparation while your child can happily be him or herself. A balance between steady, respectful (schools are ever keen to avoid the parent from hell) and interesting (but nor do they like dull ones) is best.
School interview preparation tutors: should I hire one?
Despite the best intentions of concerned parents, professional interview preparation is usually seen as unnecessary, both by those who interview and by teachers. 'We occasionally hear from parents anxious about how their 3-year-old will compete at interview with their tutored peers. They ask whether they should hire someone to prepare for the 4+ entrance assessment?’ says Grace Moody-Stuart, director of The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants. 'On the contrary, you'd be better off setting fire to your money. The best preparation at that age comes from talking to your child, engaging them with them, playing games and reading stories.'
Further up the system, the advice is equally non-prescriptive. The head of a west London pre-prep does her best to relax the 7-year-olds she sends to prep school interviews by providing them with as much factual information as she can beforehand. ‘I try to prepare them for what they’ll find. I usually describe the head — because I’m a smallish woman they might expect all heads to be like me — and I’ll tell them what the school looks like. Beyond that I just say, “Look them in the eye, answer carefully and be honest.” Children sell themselves.’
Some pre-preps and prep schools provide mock interviews, some will carefully guide children on what books or hobbies that might show to best advantage, but most interviewers say they always know when a child has been coached, and honesty - at least in theory - is the quality they’re looking for. ‘I tell children,’ says one private tutor who prepares children for 11+, ‘to say what’s in their heart, not what their teacher told them to say.’
Older children, particularly those moving at sixth form, may benefit from being taught how to ‘sell themselves’ effectively. At this age, it’s considered seriously uncool to brag about achievements or talents and their natural inclination may be to play these things down, but learning how to put it all on the table, leaving the interviewer in no doubt that they are a good fit for the school, is essential.
Online private school interviews
Some schools, particularly those with a steady flow of international pupils, are all set up to conduct interviews online. It may be that this option is only offered to candidates who would have to travel great distances for the interview. However, other schools, including day schools such as City of London, tell us that these days they interview a significant number of children remotely.
The best candidates will approach online interviews in much the same way they would were it to be conducted in person and so everything in this article remains relevant. But, a few practical points are worth mentioning. Make sure you have a reliable internet connection and that your device or computer, webcam and microphone are positioned on a stable, solid surface. A tidy, well-lit room is ideal but if there are obvious books or pictures behind the candidate, be prepared for the interviewer to take an interest and throw in a question about them.
Unless requested to stay by the interviewer, parents should beat a hasty retreat to the other side of the door, at the least. However much you want to encourage and prompt, the candidate is bound to perform better when not drawing cues from a parent hiding in the corner of the room. We've been asked recently what a candidate should wear for an online interview. What would he or she be wearing if it were a traditional face to face interview? Their current school uniform or anything which is respectable and comfortable should suffice. You certainly don't want your child sitting in front of the camera feeling awkward in a starched shirt and tie if it's not what they're used to.
Photo credit: City of London School
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