A Headteacher’s Guide to Independent School interviews

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June 13th, 2022Last updated: October 21st, 2022

Graham, a former headteacher with experience of interviewing for both British and American independent schools, seeks to calm parents’ (and students’!) nerves with a little glimpse into the mysteries of how this important part of the pupil selection process takes place.

‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.’  

William Shakespeare’s opening to his 116th Sonnet is often used at weddings.  You can see why.  Yet the wise words lead us to reflect that the match of a child to a school is very much like a marriage.  Getting the choice right means a partnership which can last over a decade, and whose influence can last a lifetime.  

Of course many marriages last far longer than ten years (!) but I hope you can begin to see the point. It may calm parents’ and children’s nerves to consider that the joining of pupils to educational establishments is a two-way process.  Just as you may think that schools are selecting your child and your family, so you are selecting them. You are just as much in the driving seat as the admissions officer or headteacher is. You need to weigh up what is the right place for your child to blossom and flourish. 

The Headteacher’s Perspective

I have been headteacher and involved in the admissions process at several British and American style independent schools.  I must admit that my colleagues and I did not usually approach the admissions interviews with the same level of anxiety that we knew our potential pupils and parents were suffering.  Nonetheless, I hope we were always wise and humble enough to recognise that we were being sized up, just as we were seeking to assess a good ‘fit’ with applicants.  We knew we were being considered alongside other school options.  Even when we were a first choice, I would do my best to encourage parents to look carefully at what kind of school we were – and what we were not. Disappointment would ensue if parents (or pupils) thought we might deliver one kind of education and found that was not our mission at all.  To take another analogy, both BMW and Land Rover make excellent prestige cars.  But they are designed for quite different purposes.  

Interviewers use all kinds of techniques in order to get a sense of the person sitting in front of them.  Some of them I have used myself.  One thing we would NOT do in a school context is perform any of the tricks or ruses designed to ferret out imposters seeking to join a business!  I am sure you know the kind of thing I mean…Any headteacher or school interviewer is acutely sensitive to the fact that the person facing them is a nervous child, however polished the veneer of sophistication might be.  The interviewers will, therefore, work hard to put the candidate for their school at ease and will be skilled at doing so.  I would very much hope, or even expect that your child will come out of her or his interview room with a smile and say “They were so nice!”

The Questions Asked

As for the kinds of questions that your child can expect, some will be more or less predictable, such as: ‘Why would you like to come to our school?’ or ‘What is your favourite subject and why?’.  Beyond these, though, schools may be creative in terms of what they ask your child.  They may even offer a picture (I like doing that), a poem, or a piece of writing for the child to respond to.  Clearly, there are no ‘right’ answers in all of this.  What schools are trying to do is to evaluate how your child really thinks, not simply what they have prepared. 

Having worked with both American and British private schools, I must say that I think our ‘cousins’ over the pond are ahead of us in terms of the subtlety and sophistication they bring to the school admissions process.  There are numerous websites where you can find examples of the kinds of interview questions which might be asked.  In researching this, though, I found the examples on finalsite.com (a website design company which works with many independent schools in the USA) to be particularly interesting. 

Here are some examples: 

  • What are your three favourite things about yourself?
  • What are three things you’d like to improve upon?
  • What do you do when you’re having a hard time in a subject?
  • What is one achievement that makes you proud?
  • Who is someone you look up to or admire and why?
  • What would you do if someone asked to copy your homework?

You can see what each of these questions is seeking to find out.  I particularly like the last one as the ethical dimension of a child’s development can easily be overlooked. 

Final Thoughts

Finally, there is the section of the interview in which the candidate is given the chance to ask questions about the organisation she or he is seeking to join.  Schools value this moment in the interview just as much as employers do, of course. In this regard, I would like to end with this story of an applicant which a former headmaster of Eton College (Eric Anderson, I think) told.  I invite you to draw your own conclusions. The headmaster of the school and his staff had reached the final part of the interview and invited the thoughtful twelve year old boy in front of them if he had any questions for them.  The young man paused for a few moments and then, rather carefully, said: 

‘Yes, I was wondering about those windows in your study, sir.  They look thirteenth century and yet they have certain aspects of the Perpendicular Gothic Style about them so I wondered whether they might, in fact, be rather later.  Can you tell me, please, Sir?’

The Eton headmaster recalled: ‘We took him, of course.’

Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Good luck with your interviews, everyone!



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