Interviews are daunting for people of any age, but for young children, they can be absolutely terrifying.

It is a lot to ask a young child to interact with strangers, with poise and confidence, and to present themselves in a positive light, particularly if they feel they will be letting their parents down if they don’t get into the school of their choice.

However, there is a lot that parents can do to help their child develop the social and cultural skills that will prepare them for such an encounter without overtly preparing them for the interview itself, and there are a few specific language tips that might be useful for non-native speakers.

First impressions count

First impressions are very important – according to Forbes, the first seven seconds are crucial, in the business world, at least – and that means not just what the child says, but also appearance, posture and body language. A child will feel much more relaxed when greeting and interacting with adults if he or she is accustomed to acknowledging the people they meet socially, and whilst this might seem self-evident, teachers have observed that in a society in which children often only communicate via a screen, such soft-skills can be seriously lacking. Interviewers are likely to be more impressed if older children in particular have the self-confidence to take the initiative and introduce themselves. When shaking hands, encourage children to offer a grip that is firm, but not bone-crushingly so.

What to wear is often a source of anxiety. In many cultures, school uniforms are the norm, so this is usually a safe bet, but whatever you wear, be it school uniform or your own clothes, both parents and students look clean and smart, and show respect through their attire. With older students who are able to wear their own clothes, it is acceptable to show a bit of personality and flair, especially if a garment can become a ‘talking point’, but be careful not to be too unconventional.

Eye contact

In British culture, it is considered appropriate to make eye contact, but don’t overdo it. Too much is unsettling for the person interviewing, but too little eye contact might be interpreted as being rude or uninterested. One well-documented cultural misunderstanding that took place in the UK was when secondary school teachers of black Afro-Caribbean school boys reported having major discipline problems with their pupils, who were perceived as insubordinate and sullen because they wouldn’t look their teachers in the eye. In fact, these lads had been brought up to think that looking an authority figure in the eye was a mark of disrespect. However, once his cultural difference was acknowledged, relations between harassed staff and troubled youths improved no end.

Responding to questions

A successful – and indeed enjoyable interview, is one in which the child actively engages in conversation, rather than just responding to questions. Encouraging your child to participate in family discussions and to offer their opinions will help prepare them for this. Chatting about the news and current events, or about films and TV programs the family has seen, is excellent training for this, especially if the child gets used to justifying their opinions. Saying why they like or dislike something is not always easy for children, especially if English is not their first language, and particularly if they are feeling stressed by the interview, so encouraging them to realize that every question will almost certainly have a follow-up ‘Why do you think that?’ is very important, and making them realize that ‘I just do’, or a shrug of the shoulders, is not the best response. Neither is, ‘I didn’t like it because it was too hard’, so encouraging your child to respond the content of a book or film, rather than just their emotional response to it, is good practice.

Having said that, you don’t want your child to feel terrified if they can’t answer a question, so developing techniques to buy time and hedge their answers is another good way of helping your child prepare for the interview. Making sure your child is confident with phrases like ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,’ ‘Could you say that again, please?’ and ‘Would you mind repeating the question, please’, will gain some thinking time, and space to calm down, but if the child is really unsure about why they like something, encourage them to speculate: ‘I’m not really sure, but I like dogs, and he has a lovely dog … ’

Remember, the aim of the interview is to enable children to articulate their passions and enthusiasms, so spend time encouraging children to talk about what they do and like and, above all, why.

What skills are being assessed?

Justifying opinions is a high-level skill, even for native speakers, and whilst older children who already have a good command of English might be expected to attempt this, the chances are the school will be assessing basic linguistic competence, as well as attitude, in which case, encourage your child to talk about familiar topics little and often to boost his or her confidence. The school wants to know that they can engage and communicate with your child so that they can develop those higher-level skills later. It is very important not to make the child anxious by thinking more is expected of them than is the case.

Specific language problems

If English is not your child’s first language, there are some culturally specific language points that tend to be overlooked in the language class but which can affect how the speaker comes across to the interviewer.

  • Monosyllabic yes/no answers in English can sound a bit abrupt, even rude, so do practise those short answers. (‘Yes, I do’, ‘No, I don’t’. ‘Yes, I can’ etc.) It is worth spending time on these often ignored short answer forms because they can make such a difference to how people react.
  • Non-native speakers should also be rather careful about translating such phrases as natürlichvale and bien sure as ‘of course’, and then over-using them. ‘Of course’, in English, often has a stronger meaning than the word or phrase it is used to translate in the original language and it can acquire a meaning more like ‘obviously’, or ‘self-evidently’, which is not necessarily what the speaker intended. This can sound a little too direct and being direct in English is not necessarily perceived as being polite.
  • Contrary to popular belief, speaking quickly does NOT automatically make you sound more proficient. Whilst you should try to sound natural, to the trained ear, speaking quickly will tend to highlight rather than hide errors.


For a non-native speaker of any language, social niceties are a constant source of terror, but remember that whatever faux pas you make in terms of etiquette, it can usually be forgiven and forgotten if you smile. The interviewer will be sympathetic to the fact your child is trying to communicate in a foreign language and will almost certainly make allowances.

Know the school you are applying to

The above are all good tips generally, but one thing that is overlooked surprisingly often is making sure the child knows about the school he or she might be going to. It is important that the child knows what the school has to offer. It won’t look good if they say how keen they are to play lacrosse if the school doesn’t offer it.

Don’t over-prepare your child

Apart from the fact that over-preparation can result in tearful, stressed children, it will be obvious to the interviewers, who are usually very experienced in their field, when a child has memorised answers. A child citing Einstein as a role model, when he or she clearly has absolutely no interest in physics whatsoever, will lack conviction. Let your child be themselves.

Don’t hide the problems

If your child has a particular learning difficulty or mental health problem, there is no point trying to conceal it. Eventually, it will out. One of the best things about British education is a genuine commitment throughout the system, in both the private and state sector, to support those with specific learning needs. If you are using the services of an educational consultant, they would by now have steered you towards the school that they feel is best suited to your child’s needs, so encourage your child to be positive about how they can manage any problems they might have, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. Encourage your child to focus on what they can do, rather than the obstacles they encounter.

Remember …

The interview is not a test in the traditional sense; it is an opportunity for both the school and the applicant to see if this particular school is the right environment for them. Hard as it might seem, the best thing is to try to relax and enjoy the process.

If you’re thinking of sending your child to boarding school, please do contact one of our experts for a free, no-obligation informal chat to find out more. You can find us at or call us on  +441702588225.