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How to win a place at a top school

Education Advisers Ltd runs the best-schools.co.uk website, and we offer bespoke advice on applying to the best schools in the UK. This year, we have helped our students receive offers from elite, top-ranking schools including Westminster, Benenden, Tonbridge (scholarship), Wellington College, Brighton College (scholarship), Alleyn’s, Oxford International College, King’s Canterbury, Whitgift, King’s Wimbledon (scholarship)…

Here, we offer our 5 top tips on how to get into the most competitive, top-ranking schools.

  • Start early

Parents and students first need to understand that there is huge domestic and global demand for the UK’s top-ranked private schools. As a result, it is common for these schools to have 10 or more applicants for every available space, and the vetting process is incredibly rigorous.

For senior school entry at age 13+, most of the top schools require students to register by the end of Year 5, at age 10, and take the ISEB Common Pre-Tests in October or November of Year 6 – a good three years ahead of entry. It pays to register early, with popular schools like Wellington College making 70% of their offers in March of Year 6. This leaves a limited number of sought-after places for late applicants.

The top schools rarely consider applicants outside of the main entry points (age 13+ and 16+) and are strict on registration deadlines. Miss the deadline, and your child will not be considered.

In short, if you want to aim for the top schools, you need to plan ahead. Be prepared and be organised.

  • Make a good first impression

For entry at age 13+, up to 90% of students enrolling in the top schools are introduced by the Heads of the top private prep schools. If you are enquiring directly as a parent, you will need to open the lines of communication in an informed and effective manner. If in doubt, we can help.

Whatever entry point you target, your child’s profile will need to make the best possible first impression. Whilst an influential introduction is useful, it is the school reports themselves that need to be outstanding. The top schools are very selective, and look to enrol students who are already displaying exceptional ability, as well as an exemplary attitude towards their studies, extra-curricular activities, and school community.

A supporting personal statement and objective reference is often not a prerequisite, but submitting these provides schools with a useful way to distinguish between the swathe of glowing school reports. A standout personal statement can really give students the edge over the competition.

School reports, personal statement, and a nuanced introduction: First impressions count!

  • Test well

Entry tests are usually based on the British curriculum, but set at a level above what students are expected to know. The top private prep schools will usually have children displaying academic levels a good year or two ahead of their state school counterparts, so entry tests to the top private senior schools are correspondingly tough.

If a child is applying from an international (non-British) curriculum, there may well be discrepancies or gaps in their previous study. If time allows, it is worth taking our personalised pupil assessments, which identify areas of weakness. This information can be used to inform the focus of a private tutor – a staple in the homes of students applying to the academically elite schools.

We cannot sit entry tests for our students, which is probably for the best! Like parents, we can only help them make the right preparations – the rest is up to them.

  • Be interesting

With all the prominence given to academic achievement and potential, parents and students often overlook the fact that the best schools are also looking for a certain spark in their applicants. Exactly what that “spark” is depends on the individual school, but the majority are looking for students who will contribute greatly to the school community, and possess a drive and passion for learning and self-improvement.

Schools will always hold interviews, and often group assessments, so students need to make sure they are well prepared to display the kinds of personal attributes schools are looking for. Being interesting and interested in others is a great start. We thoroughly prepare our students to ensure they are sufficiently comfortable and confident, without being overly-polished or insincere.

  • Have a back-up and keep an open mind

Keep in mind that, for every delighted student and parent receiving an offer from one of the top schools, there are 5-10 disappointed families. Even the brightest children can have an off day during entry tests, or freeze during an interview.

When offer letters are sent out, we usually receive a deluge of enquiries from the stressed parents of (offer-less) children who haven’t been lucky enough to be offered a place

It is never too late to find a solution, but we always strongly advise our clients to register for a back-up school/option? or two at the same time as applying to the elite schools. If a child misses out on one elite school, there is a high chance they won’t be made offers from the other elite schools. Having a suitable reserve option provides a comfortable insurance.

Not getting into an elite school is not the end of the world. Schools with lower average exam results will still have a healthy number of students getting top exam results and progressing onto Oxbridge, Medical schools, and the like. A prime example is our previous student, Nick B, who missed the 6th form application deadlines for the very elite schools. He ended up enrolling at Bromsgrove School in September 2016, going on to achieve top marks on the IB Diploma. By September 2018, he was starting his undergrad degree in Natural Sciences at The University of Cambridge.

To summarise

Even the most academically gifted students need to perform at their peak level to compete for places at the elite British private schools. Knowing what each specific school is looking for is the key, and preparing the right things in the right way can provide the edge over some very steep competition.

Remember that the academic ranking of a school does not indicate how well it will fit your child’s personality. A happy child who feels like they belong will normally have better outcomes, both academically and personally, than a stressed or downright miserable child at an academically elite school.

Please do get in touch to tell us about your child, and your objectives for their schooling. We offer a free initial consultation to discuss possibilities and a suitable strategy, and a bespoke service to help gain offers from the best-fitting and, sometimes, most elite schools available.