Diana Harrison is Deputy Head at St Mary's School, Calne. Here she shares what top schools look for in interviews and assessments.
1. What is the most common misconception about getting into boarding school?
When talking to prospective parents it is clear that some of them feel that they have to convince the school that the child is outstanding at something in order for the school to take them. We are even beginning to see pupils arrive with their own printed photobook of achievements which they will proudly hand over at interview; this is totally unnecessary. In my experience, schools are confident that their selection procedure and the information they receive from prep schools give them a good idea of a child’s potential and whether they are a right fit for the school.
2. What do you look for in a potential student?
What I look for in a potential student is mainly an ability to think. In a modern world where information is abundant, knowledge is becoming less of a currency whereas the ability to think critically and creatively is crucial. Prospective pupils who have been coached extensively are often too busy trying to find the correct answer to be able or confident to think through a problem when they might make a mistake. At St Mary’s Calne, we have deliberately changed our Entrance Day to incorporate a Critical Thinking task and practical problem solving. We are looking for girls who can problem solve, work in a team and are articulate. With those skills, we are confident we can teach them everything they need to know to be successful academically as well as for life beyond school.
3. What would be a typical interview question you might ask and how might the perfect candidate answer it?
We do have some standard interview questions but very often the most interesting conversations happen as an offshoot of the original question. I always ask a few standard questions initially which the girls have usually prepared answers for such as: tell me about the book are you reading at the moment or what can you tell me about what is happening on the news to help the girls relax and feel comfortable in the interview. Then it is about having a discussion on a topic and seeing how well the girl can defend her point of view or how easily she can amend her ideas when given new information. A good prospective pupil will be able to listen and respond to the new idea presented to them and come up with a good rebuttal or alternatively incorporate the new idea into their thinking and build on it.
4. What can parents do to help their child through the school application process?
My advice would always be to get their child to read, to get out and about to museums, art galleries, stately homes in order to increase general knowledge and better understand the world around them. This will make the pupil much more interesting to talk to and allow them to better contextualise questions both at interview and in the examinations. The other thing parents can do is talk to their children about everything and anything! Have discussions on things that are coming up in the news and seek their son or daughter’s opinion, ask them to review the books they have read or films they have seen, get them to think about what they are experiencing rather than being a passive recipient of knowledge.
5. What advice would you give candidates ahead of their assessment?
Ahead of their assessment, pupils should find out as much about the school they are going to as possible. Hopefully they will be able to find at least one particular element of the school that excites them and can spur them on when they are finding the preparation stressful. The other thing for them to do is remember that they are going to be well prepared by their prep school and that everyone on the day is going to be looking for positives not focussing on negatives so not to worry unduly. They should be themselves and enjoy it.
Diana Harrison has been teaching in HMC boarding schools for over 20 years. Prior to becoming Deputy Head at St Mary's Calne, she was a Housemistress at Bradfield College where she was involved in the Admissions procedure. In her current role, she meets prospective parents, interviews prospective pupils (including all Academic Scholarship candidates) and has a key role in the selection of pupils to the school. Diana has recently reviewed and revamped the Entrance procedure at St Mary's Calne to place a greater emphasis on potential rather than prior rote learning.