The Changing Nature of Senior-School Interviews

“Interviews are now conversations, not interrogations.”


Oppidan’s work in schools in February included about 700 one-on-one interviews. That’s roughly the same number of interviews Eton carries out each year.

Differentiating between that number of candidates, we have learnt, rests upon the very smallest of margins. More on that, later.

 The interviews that boys take aged 10 or 11 have, at Eton for example, historically been run by teachers; academically focused, they challenged boys to think rationally and to reason logically. The interviewer would look for specificity on the subjects a boy liked, detail on what a boy had so far achieved, and context to what they wanted to achieve on arrival. Ultimately, to quote an Eton schoolmaster, they were looking for “a fizz for learning.”

 Questions involved Current Affairs:

         “What has recently interested you in the news?”

Question involvedBooks:

         “Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction?”

Questions involved Academic Rigour:

         “What would happen if clouds didn’t exist?”

 Given the noted increase in anxiety (in both parents and children) caused by over preparation for the interviews, I believe a shift in philosophy has started to take place within the interview process for senior-school places.

For a start, housemasters alone now run the Eton interviews. Less geared towards proving what you know academically, the interviews now focus on the contributing factor you will be to your house. What can you offer away from the classroom and why is the boarding element so much an attraction to you?

 Questions might involve Family Life:

         “What do you think of your role as the youngest in the family?”

Questions might involve Extracurricular Activities:

         “What would you do on a free Sunday at home?”

This softer approach to interviews has universal appeal. Interviews for Winchester College, for example, really focus on getting to know the candidate: boys are asked to analyse poems (The Castle by Edwin Muir) and paintings (Van Gogh’s Chair), real care is taken to get to know the child’s family too (parents sit in for some of the session) and the interviews are long enough to allow a boy the time to warm up and to express himself.

At Wellington College, the process is even more participatory. From drama workshops (acting out improvised Blitz evacuees) to team-building workshops involving bamboo sticks, group maths problems to Dr Hook’s Theory of the Elastic Band, the children are assessed by both teachers and by current students. The day is, I believe, a mark of how school assessments can be positive experiences for young people.

These examples of progressive interviews do not standalone. The Consortium Group of Girls’ Schools in London have changed their assessment process to include a longer, more varied interview process, whilst up and down the country, senior schools that interview for places are appeasing the need to over prepare by a stronger focus on school reports.

Which perhaps seems contradictory given the large volume of work Oppidan does on preparing children for senior schools.

 The effect of Oppidan’s interview sessions work though, both in and outside of school, is seen in the focus we put on engaging a child to feel enthused about the process – in giving a child the confidence to say what they want and what they feel and in the familiarity of talking to somebody they don’t know. By combining the changing nature of these interviews with the softer, more rounded approach we take on preparation, the interview process can finally be something for children to look forward to.

To the acknowledgement of schools and the benefit of both children and parents alike, interviews are now conversations, not interrogations.

Walter Kerr