Boarding School • Boarding School Application Guide

UK Boarding School Admissions: Everything You Need to Know

POSTED ON 10/06/2023 BY The Red Pen

UK Boarding school student

UK boarding schools are renowned for their history, academic excellence, and unique approach to education. There are approximately 500 boarding schools across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with 1,926 Indian overseas students enrolled in 2023, according to the Independent School Council. These UK schools are well-known for facilitating entry into selective universities like Ivy League institutions and Oxbridge. There are numerous compelling reasons to consider boarding schools in the UK; they provide a holistic approach to education, foster independence and accountability, and build strong networks. Schools like Harrow, Eton and Charterhouse have fostered some of the world’s brightest minds, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, George Orwell and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Understanding the UK boarding school system

The UK boarding school system is a well-structured educational framework with distinct levels, catering to a wide range of students. Understanding these levels is crucial for domestic and international students enrolling in these esteemed institutions. Let’s delve deeper into each phase. 

1) Primary education (Age Group: 4 or 5 to 11 or 13)

This stage goes by various names, including primary school, infant school, junior school, pre-preparatory school, or preparatory school. During these formative years, students acquire fundamental knowledge and skills that become the bedrock for their future academic pursuits. The curriculum covers subjects like English, mathematics, science, geography, history, music, PE, information technology, and art. Several schools also introduce students to languages such as French or German. Assessment methods vary, with some using national tests at around age 11. Some independent schools employ alternative evaluation systems to suit individual student needs. 

2) Secondary education (Age Group: 11 or 13 to 16)

Upon completing primary education, students transition into secondary education, referred to as secondary school or senior school. During the latter part of this phase (ages 14 to 16), students prepare for their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) qualifications. It’s important to highlight that Scotland has its distinct educational equivalents, known as Standard Grades and Intermediates, comparable to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in other parts of the UK. In addition to these options, some students in the UK may choose the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme as an alternative qualification pathway. 

3) Sixth Form  (Age Group: 16 to 18)

The final leg of the UK boarding school journey occurs in the Sixth Form, typically comprising two years divided into Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth. Students often take the A Levels at this stage. Alternatively, students might pursue Standard Grades and Highers or opt for the International Baccalaureate. The Sixth Form phase allows students to specialise in their chosen subjects, shaping their academic and career paths.

Application requirements for UK boarding schools 

1) Registration form 

When applying to UK boarding schools, parents must complete a registration form to express interest as the initial step towards admission. This form serves as an official request for their child’s enrollment and usually pertains to the start of the UK school year in September. Families typically submit this earlier in the admissions process while exploring different boarding schools. Registration fees, usually non-refundable, are charged to cover administrative costs. The registration form typically begins by requesting basic personal information about the student, which includes their full name, date of birth, gender, nationality, and current address. Contact details for the student and their parents or guardians are also required. Filling out a registration form does not guarantee admission to a boarding school. It is primarily a way for the school to inform potential applicants about its admissions process and events.

2) Application forms

The application form for UK boarding schools is a critical document in the admissions process. Students and their families interested in these schools must complete this official application. Typically, application forms require the following: 

  • Academic history: Applicants must provide the name and address of their current school. They must include two recent report cards and list their academic achievements, including grades, courses taken, and any honours or awards received. This information provides a comprehensive overview of the applicant’s academic performance, behaviour and study habits. 
  • Extracurricular activities: Applicants should also list their extracurricular activities and interests, such as sports, drama and music clubs, community service, and hobbies. Doing so enables the school to gain insight into the student’s interests and involvement outside academics.
  • Subject choices: UK boarding schools typically offer diverse subjects at both GCSE and A Level. They encompass core disciplines such as English, mathematics, and sciences. Other subjects include modern languages like French, German, Spanish, classic languages like Latin or Greek, history, geography, theology, economics, art, music, drama, design technology, computer science and more. Subject choices in a UK boarding school application form carry substantial weight, influencing a student’s academic journey and prospects. Applicants must consider their interests, strengths, and career aspirations when making these selections. Always aim for a mix of subjects spanning various disciplines to garner a comprehensive education, enhancing your preparedness for a broad spectrum of career options. Do not shy away from challenging subjects that pique your interest. Boarding schools provide a supportive environment where you can access the necessary assistance to succeed.
  • Short-answer questions or personal statements: Many application forms include a section where the student must complete short answer questions about their goals, interests and why they wish to attend the boarding school. It allows the admissions committee to understand the applicant’s personality and motivations. Some schools, like Charterhouse School and Sevenoaks School, ask Sixth Form applicants to submit a personal statement. It enables them to see the applicant’s reasons, interests and writing skills, but it is also an opportunity to show off their talents. Harrow School, for example, asks for a one-page handwritten letter to the Head Master in which the student explains why he would like to come to the School. Students should strive to go beyond the superficial and be authentic. 
  • References: Application forms also ask students to provide the names and contact details of teachers, counsellors, or others who can provide insights into their character, academic abilities, and potential. The boarding schools will then contact these individuals for a reference letter. Giving your referees a brag sheet with all your achievements is always a good idea so they can use it while crafting their letters. 
  • Financial information: If the boarding school has specific financial requirements, the application form may request information about the student’s or their family’s financial situation. Applicants may include income details or the need for financial aid.
  • Visa status: For international students, there may be a section on the form where they must provide visa-related information, including their current visa status (if applicable) and visa application details.

3) Entrance exams

Almost all UK boarding schools, especially those catering to students aged 11 and older, have a common practice of conducting entrance exams. These exams enable schools to assess the academic abilities of prospective students and determine if they are well-suited for the school’s educational programmes. Some of the UK entrance exams for international students include: 

1) UKiset: An adaptive online entrance test conducted in English, the UKiset is specifically designed for international students and typically taken by those applying to the Sixth Form level. It offers flexibility by allowing students to take the test in their home country or at an authorised testing centre in the UK. This test evaluates a student’s skills and aptitude for learning and identifies their strengths, weaknesses, and preferred learning styles. As for the cost, the UKiset test is £295, which covers registration, test date arrangement, invigilation fees, sending results to the candidate, and providing the complete UKiset Profile to up to five schools. The test typically takes around 2.5 hours to complete, although it may take longer for year 12 entries (16+). UKiset assesses five key areas: Non-Verbal Reasoning, Spatial Ability, Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Application, and English language. Close to 300 UK independent schools accept this test. Some require international students to provide a UKiset profile. 

2) ISEB: The Independent School Examination Board (ISEB) offers a range of student assessments for those applying to senior school. It includes tests for 11+ and 13+ levels. 11+ entrance exams are usually taken by students in Year 6 or Year 7 of their primary education. This process begins a few years earlier, around Year 4 or 5. These exams are diverse because most institutions create and administer their own tests. Typically, the 13+ examination is taken by domestic UK students when they are in Year 8.

3) School-specific tests: In Year 8, overseas students would sit an English and math paper. Occasionally, some schools may require students to take a verbal reasoning test. Individual schools set these exams. Sixth Form applicants take a math and English tests, along with selected IB (HL) or A Level subjects. The difficulty of these tests depends on the school you have applied for and the subjects chosen. 

4) CAT4: Some independent schools in the UK incorporate the CAT4 (Cognitive Abilities Test) into their admissions procedure to evaluate an applicant’s verbal, non-verbal, mathematical, and spatial reasoning skills, as well as their academic potential. The CAT4 assessment is structured into ten levels. Each level aligns with specific academic levels and age. Additionally, UK independent prep schools utilise CAT4 tests as one of the factors, alongside in-school qualitative and quantitative data, to inform discussions with parents regarding senior school placements.

4) Interviews

Schools then invite the Sixth Form applicants for an interview and are happy to conduct online interviews for overseas applicants. Interviews mainly consist of academic and general questions about a student’s character and interests. They are usually between 15 to 40 minutes in length. 

Typically, Year 9 students are invited to the school for an assessment day. Interactions on this day evaluate how well a child adapts to different scenarios. For example, Charterhouse School achieves this through a mix of engaging group activities, friendly interviews, and interesting written assessments to uncover the diverse talents that each student possesses. The written evaluation includes creativity, comprehension, and logical puzzles, all intended to bring out the best in applicants. Interviews and assessment days also use open dialogues to evaluate an applicant’s fit for the boarding school. 

Harrow School invites applicants to sit the Harrow Test at the School in the autumn term of Year 7 for Year 9 admissions. The Harrow Test comprises two 15-minute interviews (one with a House Master and another with a senior teacher), a computerised English and maths assessment (one hour in total) and a classroom-based group activity (30 minutes).

The journey to a UK boarding school is a meticulously structured process that demands careful planning and preparation. By understanding the requirements and nuances of this system, aspiring students can embark on a path that leads to academic excellence, personal growth, and lifelong connections. You may read our overview of boarding schools in the UK and our blog on 7 compelling reasons to send your child to boarding school. If you need assistance selecting the best-fit school for your child or require guidance on the application process, please contact us. Our experts look forward to helping you.