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How to get into a school: expert insights

Learn from school officials and education experts about how to get into the private school of your choice

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Every school has a different application process. From entrance exams to academic assessments to interviews, you should note and stick to the key dates and requirements of any school you apply to. Entrance standards also vary significantly between schools. While some accept all (or nearly all) applicants, others admit only a small fraction of students—like Upper Canada College, which admits roughly one in five students in Grade 9 (the last major entry year for the school)


We provide all the information you need on the application and admissions process on OurKids.net. Here we focus on information specific to getting into a school.

We asked school officials and education experts to weigh in on key parts of the application and evaluation process, including what schools look for, interviews, grades, standardized tests, and the role of parents. What follows are some of the most valuable insights we gained into how to get into the school of your choice.

Below, you can also access all the answers they provided by topic or through their full interviews. For advice on the more general question of choosing the right school, read our comprehensive guides: education expert insights, parent insights, and choosing.

Read all answers by topic

Read full interviews

 


Highlights on getting into school: what some experts say  

On what schools look for

“Like many schools, we look for students with a strong academic background who will also contribute meaningfully to our community through sports, fine arts, or the leadership side of school life.

When we meet students, we look for a spark or passion in them. We also look at how curious and open they are about learning. As an international day and boarding school with over 40 nationalities represented, SMUS offers an enriched, multicultural environment. Students who embrace this do exceedingly well.

It can be very obvious when it is a parent who is pushing their child, and those applicants are often not granted admission. The applicant needs to be excited about their future and the opportunities at a school like SMUS.”
—Alexis Lang Lunn, Assistant Director of Admissions, St. Michaels University School, Victoria, British Columbia


“We don’t want our student community to all be the same. Quite the opposite. We embrace students who have unique skills and interests and want to share those with the community. So there are a number of factors taken into consideration when admitting a student. This includes their academic ability/potential, desire and motivation to attend Appleby, and involvement in extracurricular activities (e.g., athletics, arts, service). Parents should also be aware of how competitive the application process is, and appreciate that not all students will receive an offer of acceptance.”
—Luke Seamone, Executive Director of Admissions, Appleby College, Oakville, Ontario

Read Luke’s full interview


“In building each incoming class, we seek to admit students of good character who stand out from the crowd in a variety of ways—academically, socially, and through co-curriculars. Our students come from a wide range of backgrounds and, with the support of their families, have the motivation to grow, develop, and be engaged in all aspects of school life.

Our advice for students [during the application process]: be yourself, and remember, report cards matter. Always try your best. We are less interested in straight A’s on reports than we are in your overall growth and development. Bigger questions on our minds: Have you been working to capacity? Are you a good listener? How are your social and regulation skills? What makes you proud?”
—Chantel Kenney, Executive Director of Admissions, Upper Canada College, Toronto, Ontario


On the interview

“The interview is a way for the admissions office to get to know more about the applicant, to see if they are the right fit for the school. Prospective students will be asked questions about their interests, academics, family, and character. There will be opportunities to ask questions about the school during the interview as well. To prepare for the interview, students should reflect on their interests and why they want to move schools. They should also research the school and be knowledgeable about the programs and overall approach of the school, both in and out of the classroom. Other than that, a student should not over rehearse. The best interview is one where a student can honestly and meaningfully reflect who they are as a person and what is important to them—not what they think we want to hear.”
—Kathy LaBranche, Director of Admissions, Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario

Read Kathy’s full interview


The interview is an important part of the process. We don’t want students to be over prepared or rehearsed, as we are looking to get to know the girls. The message I’d like the girls to have before they come for an interview is that at Havergal we are looking to discover what their strengths are, what interests them, and what they are passionate about. There are no ‘wrong’ answers. For girls who would feel more comfortable preparing something in advance, I would recommend taking some time to reflect on what they feel their strengths are and what they hope their new school has to offer. At Havergal, it really is a dialogue, with many opportunities for questions on both sides.
—Maggie Houston-White, Executive Director of Enrolment Management, Havergal College, Toronto, Ontario

Read Maggie’s full interview


“The interview is one of the only opportunities a family has to add that human, emotional, and personal touch to their application, so it’s crucial that you do your homework. Preparing for the interview is more than simply memorizing a set of interview questions and responses. Some quick tips on preparing for the interview:

  1. Research fully each school and understand their respective missions, visions, and core values;
  2. Understand what your family’s educational values are and how those align with the school’s;
  3. Prepare to communicate just how involved you are in your child’s life and don’t forget to provide examples;
  4. Think about how you can articulate to the school why your family and the school are the right fit; and,
  5. Come up with one or two thoughtful, non-clichéd questions to ask the interviewer."
    —Bryan Ide, Educational Director, KEY Education

Read Bryan’s full interview


On report cards and grades

“Report cards are very important, but to me, grades are less important than teacher comments and learning skills. Recent research that I conducted, supported by the Eureka! research grant provided to UTS by the Newton Foundation, and working with an OISE researcher, revealed some really interesting information that can be drawn from teacher report comments. Every school will have different criteria and things they look for. At UTS, students with good work habits, high resilience, and strong collaboration skills, tend to be very successful, so indicators in the report comments that point to those characteristics are important to us.”
—Garth Chalmers, Vice-principal, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario


“We are more concerned about potential than test scores, transcripts, and past academic successes. We believe that if students have the ability, we have a great track record of getting them to fulfill it. There may be underlying reasons that students are getting low grades, and there may be emotional costs to students who are achieving As. Bottom line, don’t be too concerned about grades. If students have ability that has been unfulfilled, we are interested!”
—Clayton Johnston, Director of Admissions, Brentwood College School, Mill Bay, British Columbia

Read Clayton’s full interview


“There is certainly a range of grades considered to make sure a student is able to handle the academic program, but if learning skills are weak, this will have just as much of an impact on the ability to manage pace and expectations of the program. Strong learning skills will positively impact grades, so this is something which parents should pay attention to. If a student’s marks are low across all areas, the concern is that there must be gaps in the foundation of skills and knowledge that will impact the student’s transition to the academic program. While families should not place all emphasis on grades, they should be aware of strengths and needs in the area of learning skills, as well as looking at potential learning gaps indicated in progress reports and report card comments.”
—Kathy LaBranche, Director of Admissions, Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario


On the SSAT/Standardized tests

“The reliance on the SSAT or other entrance tests will vary from school to school. At UTS, where we receive 350-400 applications for 96 spots in grade 7, we use the SSAT as our first measure in order to reduce our pool to about 200 students who will write a second UTS test and be part of a multiple mini interview. As a result, the SSAT is important for the first round. In terms of preparation for SSAT, I encourage families to get a preparation book with practice tests, administer the practice tests with real-life test conditions, and have their child work through practice questions in areas that may need improvement. SSAT itself has launched a new online portal that includes a diagnostic pre-test, two practice tests, and practice questions. Because it is new, I cannot say how effective it is, but it sounds like a great tool to help families prepare and the best part is that it is not very expensive ($50 US, I think), especially when compared to prep courses or tutors.”
—Garth Chalmers, Vice-principal, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario


“The entrance exam is a very important part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. Students should prepare most immediately by having a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep the night before. In terms of preparing for the content, they should be well versed in the curriculum as they have completed it in school. If they are good students who work well, they shouldn’t worry about extra preparation. Having students take extra preparation classes and putting a great deal of emphasis on this exam sometimes proves to give students a great deal of anxiety, which may adversely affect their results.”
—Antonia Zannis, Deputy Head of School, The Study, Montreal, Quebec


On the role of parents

“Parents should be involved throughout the whole application process—for their own family’s sake, but also to demonstrate their sincerity to and engagement with the school—but they should so within reason. Parents should attend the relevant open houses or information sessions. If tours are available, parents should participate. Most importantly, parents shouldn’t feel shy about calling or emailing the admissions staff if they have any thoughtful questions about the school or its admissions processes. ”
—Brian Ide, Educational Director, KEY Education


“Parents need to keep their own stress levels in check! Make sure the dates of open houses and application deadlines are marked in your calendar by the end of August. Give yourself time to fill out the application and let your child have plenty of time as well. It is important for students to understand the process, what is expected of them, in terms of their current report card, open houses, and interviews. I typically find that the admissions process is a healthy one for students and that most schools are supportive.”
—Elaine Danson, Education Consultant, Danson and Associates

Read Elaine’s full interview


Additional words of wisdom

“I think it is important to approach application to independent school as a learning opportunity. Whether it is preparing for a test and learning new material in the process or preparing to answer questions on the spot in an interview, the applicant will gain from the experience. Because an offer of admission is never guaranteed, thinking about the application process as a growth opportunity may take some of the pressure off. I also encourage families to reach out to the admissions offices of the schools they apply to, but do not receive offers from, to learn more about the decision, as that will further the growth.”
—Garth Chalmers, Vice-principal, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario

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