10 common secondary school application mistakes

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Applying for a job is a walk in the park compared to choosing, applying for and getting your child into your preferred secondary school. In the next few frantic weeks, half a million families will be putting pen to paper – so make sure your application form doesn’t contain any of their common mistakes.

If your heart is set on a particular secondary school, losing out to another family can be soul-destroying. With 11 children applying for every place at the country’s most popular schools, we asked the insiders for their tips on avoiding common mistakes and maximising your chances of success.

1. Check that your child is eligible for all the schools that you’re applying for.

Some schools, such as faith schools, have admission criteria that either exclude your child or reduce their chances of getting a place, such as requiring regular attendance at a particular place of worship. ‘All of the schools you list on your Common Application Form (CAF) count as choices, whether you’re eligible or not, so if you apply for a school that your child is not eligible for, you’ll be wasting one of your options,’ says Angeline Tyler, co-author of Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In.

2. Supply the right documentation to prove your address or other details relating to your application.

Check that the documents are valid: most local authorities will request a utility bill dated within the past six to 12 months. ‘Some parents also make the mistake of sending in photocopies, when the application requires originals,’ says Matt Richards, senior partner of School Appeals Services and author of Secure the School of your Choice.

3. Fill in a supplementary information form (SIF) if required.

These additional application forms, required by some schools, should be completed as well as the CAF but returned directly to the school. ‘Include as much detail as possible, as the school will use the information to help allocate places,’ Matt advises.

4. Double-check closing dates.

In most areas, this is 31 October, but it does vary in some places. ‘This is the last date for the council to receive your application form, not the last date for posting it,’ Angeline adds.

5. Don't forget you’re entitled to apply for schools outside your local authority. 

‘You may want to do this if you live close to a council border, or would like to apply for a school with a particular specialism in another area,’ explains Angeline. ‘However, you must apply for these schools on the CAF from your own local authority, which will pass your information on.’

6. Use all your choices.

‘Even if you’re set on one school, it’s sensible to fill in all your choices,’ Matt advises. ‘If you don’t, you risk being allocated a school a long way away if you don’t get your first preference. Also, if you decide to appeal, the panel may look unfavourably on your application if you only listed one choice.’

7. Consider listing a less popular school as one of your options.

‘If you put very popular schools as your second and third preferences but don't fulfil the highest admissions criteria, you’re unlikely to get in, as they’ll be filled by applicants who better fulfil the admissions criteria,’ explains Angeline. ‘This means that if you don’t get your first preference, you will probably be offered a school not on your list.’ Angeline suggests listing at least one nearby school that is less heavily subscribed as your second or third choice, to avoid being allocated an unpopular school or one a long way from your home.

It's important to read the advice offered by your local authority and schools, though, as advice can vary based on local conditionsall school preferences you make are treated equally, as schools are not informed of other preferences you have made or the order you place them in, and it is perfectly possible for children to be offered a place at an oversubscribed school that was third or fourth on their preference list.

It might be helpful to understand a little more about school admissions.

The first stage is that children are ranked according to admissions criteria for all of the schools they’ve listed on their application form. If they fall within the PAN (Published Admission Number: the number of places each school has to offer) for only one of the listed schools, they’ll be given a place at that school – though it may not be their first choice.

If they fall within the PAN for more than one school, they’re allocated a place at the highest ranking school from their list.

If schools have more applicants than places, the places are allocated according to admissions criteria – so a child who listed a school as their third choice would be offered the place over and above children who had listed it first but fulfil lesser criteria.

In other words, it is worth putting schools in 2nd/3rd place that your child has a realistic chance of getting into, based on the admissions criteria. You only need to take the schools' popularity into account if all the PAN places are likely to be filled by pupils who fulfil higher criteria – so, for example, there’s not a lot of point listing a well-respected school in 2nd place if it typically fills all its places with children who live within 0.5 miles and you live two miles away. On the other hand, if you live 0.5 miles from a school and put it in 3rd or 4th place, you would still be allocated a place over and above children who put it in first place but live two miles away (once all other admissions criteria have been taken into account).

8. Keep a copy of your CAF.

‘If you end up appealing your school allocation, it’s essential that you have a photocopy of your signed and dated CAF if you applied by post, or a print-out of your online application, as evidence of what you wrote on your form,’ says Matt.

9. Get proof that your application form has been sent.

‘If you’re posting the CAF, send it by recorded mail and get proof of posting, and if you’re applying online, take a screen shot of the page confirming that your form has been submitted,’ Matt suggests. ‘It’s also a good idea to phone the local authority a few days later to confirm receipt.’

10. If you have questions, ask for advice.

Your local authority should have a phone number to call for assistance. ‘Remember, you only get one shot at applying for secondary schools, so don’t make simple mistakes that could jeopardise your application,’ says Angeline.