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Prepared for a bright future

Prior practice is vital to a good entrance assessment, but pushy parents will only make it harder for their children

Once you've drawn up a shortlist of the possible schools for your child, the next hurdle to clear is securing a place. While there are never any guarantees of success, it is possible to prepare yourself and your child for the impending application process.

In fact, you could start preparing years in advance if time allows. "Parents need to think about getting their children lots of interesting experiences, so that they have something to say," recommends Paula Holloway, principal at St Clare's, Oxford. She believes that you can help your child make a good first impression when meeting potential schools by encouraging activities such as hobbies and sport, as well as having regular discussions around the dinner table.

For those already at the point of applying, the first stage to focus on is doing research and using existing contacts to find out more information. "To get into a prep school, book early and get to see and know the schools available," suggests Peter Philips, headmaster of Cundall Manor School in North Yorkshire. "In terms of getting into senior schools, work with your child's headteacher to take advantage of their knowledge of your child and links to available senior schools."

The research stage is also the ideal time to find out about any scholarships that the school is offering, as well as other subject-specific awards for music, sport, drama and more, as these could affect the way you need to apply.

The application process itself can vary widely between institutions, but in most cases the admissions officer (or registrar) should be your first port of call, says Bernard Trafford, headmaster at Newcastle Royal Grammar School. "Of course, parents will want to meet teachers and heads, but actually the person guiding them through will be the admissions officer."

After making initial contact many schools require parents to register their child, adding their name to the list of candidates (for which there's often an administration fee). Beyond this point, parents and children might encounter different types of application form, entrance exams, assessment days and – almost always – interviews.

An application form might simply ask for biographical details or, depending on the school, require input from the candidate themselves. It might also require references from a current school. This is an area where parents might notify the school of particularly noteworthy extra-curricular activities, but otherwise it's probably best to take a step backwards. "Schools might not take kindly to parents leaning on them to include things in a reference," cautions Trafford.

But if there's only a little you can do with regards to references, exams are a different matter. Schools may test for English, maths and reasoning skills at 11, or take a broader approach at 13 and include subjects such as geography and modern languages. Whatever your child's age though, Trafford believes in being prepared. "Some schools will say 'we don't want your child to be coached at all, we can tell', and I think that's a bit arrogant of the schools," he says. "Parents want to know that their child isn't going to freeze."

Although hiring a tutor is a popular option for some parents, Trafford suggests that simply getting hold of practice tests and papers and just letting your child get a feel for them. Finding out what format the exams take, whether they involve multiple choice or long answers, is also useful, but he stresses that entrance exams are looking for potential. "Don't look for any trick questions, we just want to see what you can do," he advises students.

In addition to exams some schools run assessment days to make sure they meet the real child, not the one prepped for the exam hall. "We're looking for intellectual curiosity, not boys on tutored tramlines," explains Mike Strother, the incoming director of admissions from Manchester Grammar School, an all-boys institution. The school's assessment days involve sample lessons, group work and meeting current students. To help prepare, Strother counsels against drilling your child on the way to behave, instead, parents should encourage their children to read, think, ask questions and enjoy learning, he says.

The search for potential continues at the interview, an almost universal part of the application process that gives candidates a chance to shine (and can compensate for weak entrance exam results). To help your child succeed it's better to focus on the kind of discussion they might have with the interviewer rather than sweating the details too much. Both Trafford and Holloway say that interviews are crucial, and that although they might cover English, mental arithmetic or comprehension, it's the quality of the mind they're looking for rather than the specific knowledge it contains. "We're looking for a spark and a willingness to stick at things," says Trafford. Rehearsed answers and false claims are the kiss of death, he says: "But someone who's truly passionate about something is exciting."

Holloway agrees that showing an opinion can really separate one candidate from another. She also tries to discuss what students like, and digs to see if they can they talk intelligently about it. "We don't mind what that might be; parents don't need to worry about finding something politically correct. I'll find it quite interesting if they ride a unicycle!"

When it comes to helping your child secure a place there's ultimately a tricky balance to strike – getting involved, but not too involved. "My advice would be don't go overboard," says Trafford. A little extra tuition is fine, he believes, but don't push your child beyond their abilities or into an admissions process that isn't right for them. "Parents are anxious, of course, but if they try to force things it's more likely to go wrong than right," he explains.

Holloway adds that parents should realise that anxiety at any stage, but especially interview days, "won't help your child one bit". Being relaxed yourself will put your child at ease and help the interviewer to get a more accurate picture of their personality and abilities.

She also has some final advice for students, whether they're about to attend an assessment day, sit an exam or be interviewed. "Get a good night's sleep the night before, have a good breakfast and be on time so you're not flustered." Then relax and try to enjoy the process, she says, because the people who are assessing you "want you to be successful".