How do School select their students?

One November weekend, 40 British boarding schools, one education consultant on a mission to find out how schools select their students. Fiona Mckenzie, our Head of Education for private clients reveals all…



Securing a place at one of the many academically prestigious schools in the UK is highly competitive and can be a lengthy procedure. Some schools start the admission process up to 4 years ahead of the child actually joining the school in Year 9, with school visits, pre-tests, activity days, assessments and interviews leading to an offer of a place up to two years in advance of starting. While there maybe a lot of hoops to jump through, we wanted to know what are schools looking for when they are selecting their future pupils? So with the opportunity of meeting over 100 schools at the Boarding Schools workshop and dozens more at the Independent Schools Show in London, Fiona set out to quiz Heads and admissions teams about what makes an aspiring pupil stand out.


For many of the most academically selective schools demand far outstrips supply, so when 500 pupils apply for 250 places, you might think that the school would take the 250 students who perform best in the entrance tests. However, speaking to Heads there is definitely more to the selection process than pure academics. Whilst this is a necessity, schools are also looking for more than this. Nick Brain, Head of Sherfield school says “we are looking to identify and unlock the potential in each child”.


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The reason schools put the aspiring students through such a rigorous and varied assessment programme is to see each pupil in different circumstances, observe how they get on with their peer group, how they work as a team, how they solve problems thinking on their feet and whether they will fit into the culture and character of the school. The Head of Admissions at Loretto School, says “we are looking for someone who can balance hard work with fun and is willing to try new things”


Several Heads commented that they are looking for that “spark’. Is this child a contributor? Will they be prepared to try new things? Will they have a positive impact on the school community? Jochen Pilcher, Head of Admissions at Rendcomb College says “ we want a ‘joiner inner’, someone who will make the most of ecery opportunity that we can give them.”

Schools increasingly devise tests that cannot be prepared for, to avoid being presented with a set of students who have been crammed for an exam but do not have the genuine academic ability to thrive at the school. Admissions teams go through school reports in great detail to extract nuggets of information that indicate that this child would be suited to this environment. And of course , meeting the child in person is key to seeing how they would thrive in the school environment and whether they could be a good ‘fit’. Glenalmond College, they emphasise that “It’s not just about the academics but also interests outside the classroom”.

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Schools are extremely professional and practiced at selecting the right children for their school. As the several registrars pointed out, it is in everyone’s interests to have the right child at the right school. If a child is not selected, then it is most likely that it is not the school for them. But parents can rest assured that there are many excellent schools in the UK and the most important task is to find the one which will offer each particular student the most fulfilling opportunities to grow and develop and give them the best educational experience.


Fiona spoke to the over 30 schools including the following:

Roedean School, Sedbergh School, Gordonstoun, Stover School, Mill Hill School, Hatherop School, Pocklington School, Burgess Hill Girls school, Monkton School, Malvern College, Princess Helena College, Worth School, Bloxham School, Ryde School, Ardingly College, Beechwood Sacred Hearts School, Ashford School, Glenalmond School, Taunton School, Rendcomb College, Loretto School, Sherfield School, Trent College, Rugby School, Handford School, Eastbourne College.


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