Simply Learning Tuition is a leading independent education company offering specialist advice throughout a child’s academic journey, from school selection through to university applications and mentoring. Here the company’s founder and managing director Nathaniel McCullagh shares his thoughts on preparing children for a school interview.
I am often asked how to prepare a child for a school interview – and people are surprised when I tell them that work should start a long time before the day itself.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the first step for success at interview is to ensure that you are applying for the right school in the first place.
This means going to all possible visits. Many schools hold group events and this is useful as a filter when initially reviewing your options, but for a school you are seriously considering try and visit on your own, rather than as part of a group.
During your time there don’t be shy about asking exactly why the school is the right school for your child. This will give you a great chance to show them you are serious about signing up.
Speak freely about your child’s suitability for the school and try to look beyond what is in vogue. Both parents and children come under tacit pressure from their peers to rank schools. The truth is that the correct matching of child and family to a school is far more important than choosing a school considered to be socially or academically superior. Feel free to mention your son or daughter’s characteristics, such as whether they are arty or sporty types for example but rather than trying to sell them, ask from the perspective of trying to ensure the school is a good fit.
Don’t be tempted to hide any special educational needs your child has, instead be as honest as possible. The best schools provide excellent support – and your child will quickly begin to struggle if the school is not able to support them.
Drill down to find out exactly what is required by your top choice schools. (Ask on the visit and if you miss the visit then call them to find out). For example, St Paul’s Girls’ School will need focused preparation for the comprehension paper. They want to identify the brightest and most capable candidates and are therefore looking for girls to ‘react perceptively to a range of stimuli’. The school explains that many girls enjoy this ‘unusual paper’, which is true, but it does no harm for your child to have a good awareness of what to expect.
When you prepare a list of target schools make sure this includes at least one good ‘back up’ and mention this in the interview, so they know you are realistic. It’s OK to mention more than one school, but they should not be direct competitors.
Regarding the interview itself, schools essentially want to know that your child is a suitable fit – how they will fit in academically and socially – and that they are committed to playing a full part in all aspects of school life. Very often schools will tell parents that there is no need to prepare – they just want to see the ‘real’ child. While this is partly true, it belies the fact that there is intense competition for some schools and therefore the school interviewers must be looking for differentiating factors. This comes down to assessing how the child’s mind works and sets it above other candidates.
So it’s useful here to help your child to practise answering ‘open questions’ such as; “What would you do if you ruled the world?” And it’s vital to build their confidence – particularly around talking to adults. Often there is no right or wrong answer to a question they may be asked. The interviewer is looking at ‘how’ the child approaches a question, rather than whether all their facts are correct.
Over-preparation and hot-housing will ultimately backfire. The warm glow of success when you think your child is at the best school will soon fade if it doesn’t turn out to be the best school for them. Remember you can always change school.
Also bear in mind that the school is to an extent interviewing you as parents, as well as your child and wants to know that you are a ‘safe pair of hands’.
Have a policy on tutoring – at some pre-preps it is de-rigueur and you will be expected to pay for it.
Up to 50 percent of the success of an application is based on the reference from the child’s current school – so it is time to tactfully turn on the charm there. Make sure you tell or remind your daughter’s teachers about any extra progress that was made over the summer (she finally managed to crack long division perhaps), or new information (such as discovery of a learning difficulty). In general, showing a healthy interest – but not an obsession – will help your son or daughter stand out positively from the crowd.
Finally, I am told time and time again that a thank you note goes a long way! I would suggest writing the day after the interview or visit and don’t send gifts (which may be seen as bribery).
Nathaniel is the founder and managing director of Simply Learning Tuition, a leading independent education company providing introductions to private tutors who deliver effective one-to-one academic tuition. It also offers specialist advice throughout a child’s academic journey, from school selection through to university applications and mentoring.