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How to get offered a place at the world's best boarding schools

8 August 2018

Being accepted to one of the world's best boarding schools is undoubtedly an achievement anyone should be proud of. But often the best schools are looking for so much more than outstanding academic grades or proof that you can afford the school fees. In this post we consider what the "best" actually looks like for you, and how to maximise your chances of being offered a place.

A student reads a book while sitting on the bed of her dorm room in the UWC-USA school

Attending boarding school can be a life changing experience. Those years spent in your home-away-from-home can open up a world of opportunity, help you to get into a great university, and lead to lifelong friendships. It isn't for everybody. But for those who want the challenge, the focus and the sense of community that comes with attending a leading boarding school, finding the best one for you can make all the difference.

How should you approach it? And how can you be sure to stand out?

Define what the "world's best boarding school" is for you

Search online for the world's best boarding schools and you'll find an array of articles. They're showcasing institutions that offer very different experiences, and very different curricula. From religious schools, to military schools, from schools in the mountains, to schools in the heart of busy financial districts. The choice is extensive, and many lay claim to being "the best". But "the best" can really only ever be "the best for you".

Sadly, however, when you search for the "world's best boarding schools" or a similar phrase, the results often go hand-in-hand with the words "prestigious", "elite" and "expensive". For many students, none of those things are actually what makes a boarding school the right choice for them.

So, before you let a school choose you, it's important that you choose them for reasons that matter to you.

You might want to:

  • Consider the mission of the boarding schools that you're researching, and think about whether their mission and vision fits with your values and view of the world
  • Discover who typically attends that school and decide if these are the people that you wish to have as your lifelong friends and network of acquaintances
  • Think more about how the school balances academics with non-academic experiences such as sport, pursuing a passion or serving a community
  • Find out how others perceive the school, from employers to friends, family and universities that you may want to apply to in future.

Define how you are the right student for them

Once you've decided that this is the boarding school for you, an important part of your application process will be to persuade them that you are also the right student for them. Most of the best boarding schools are selective, and so you need to demonstrate that you will be a valuable member of their community. Your application is never just about what you will gain from the school, but also what the school will gain from you.

You could:

  • Look again at the school's mission and vision. Explain and demonstrate clearly how your own world view supports and contributes to their mission
  • Consider how the school will benefit from choosing you. For some schools, academic performance is everything. For others, the network and prestige is important. But for others, like UWC schools, the importance of bringing diversity and difference to the school community is central to the selection criteria
  • Consider how other students will benefit from having you as their friend and classmate. Are you a wonderful team player? Do you have a talent for inspiring others? Do you want to see every student progress? Will you introduce other students to something new, or help them see the world in a different way?

Be clear about why you're a great fit for them, and be confident in this as you enter the application process. At UWC, we are very transparent about our selection criteria and our values, so showing how you fit with these is important. Other great boarding schools will also share their values and selection criteria, so be sure to spend time working out how this describes you.

The importance of academic achievement, and so much more...

This will be more crucial in some schools than others. For some boarding schools, nothing short of straight As and perfect scores throughout your school history so far will be enough. But that isn't true of all of the best boarding schools.

Matthias Rosenberg, UWC's Head of Global Selections, has been reviewing student school applications for over 15 years. Matthias says that learning more about the applicant as a rounded individual is as important - or in some cases even more important - than grades and test scores.

"The applicants who have really stood out to me are often those who have an intriguing range of interests, as well as causes that are close to their heart. Think human rights alongside bee keeping, for example!"

For this reason, our Global Selection Programme application form asks you to tell us about your involvement in cultural activities, sport, youth associations, and community projects, as well as your personal interests and hobbies, and reading preferences. We want to know not only what you do, but also why you do it and what those experiences mean to you.

So, as you showcase your academic successes, remember to also:

  • Demonstrate your involvement in (and leadership of) non-academic interests such as hobbies, art and cultural activities, sports, causes and community work
  • Think about the impact that you have had on the lives of others. This might have been through volunteering and community service, caring for someone, fighting for their cause or bringing out the best in a friend or contact
  • Focus on strengths that you and the world needs, that academic examinations don't always test for. These might include leadership skills, influence, persuasion, empathy, networking, problem solving, integrity, creativity and presentation skills
  • Make sure your passion shines through.

For Matthias, true passion is not hard to spot in a student's application:

"Applications that show a deep and burning passion for one or two topics of global or local importance really stand out. I'm always interested in learning how the student as an individual is making a difference, whether that's through taking a lead with passion, or by playing a role that has enabled others around them to shine and achieve. And for me, it's not about the prestige of your cause. It's always about learning what drives you as a socially-aware individual."

Plan plenty of time to apply and complete your application

To get into a leading boarding school, there's every chance that the application process is going to challenge you to really think and show yourself in the best light. You might be asked to write essays and reflect on questions that you've never thought about before.

For the UWC Global Selection Programme, for example, we ask students a series of reflective questions that help us to really understand who you are and how you seek to make a difference in the world.

These questions cover areas such as how you resolve conflict, what you have learnt from a previous difficult situation in which something unexpected happened, and how you would contribute to solving an important social problem in your surroundings.

It's therefore important that you:

  • Know when application deadlines are
  • Go through the full application form before you fill anything in, making sure you know what is asked and expected of you. This will help you plan your responses properly and gather any required evidence and references. We ask a diverse range of questions, including some that may surprise you, such as what changes you would make if you were headteacher of your school for a week.
  • Start your application as soon as you possibly can. Don't leave it until the day or week of the deadline. This way, you will have plenty of time to work on the application and submit it early. Read our five steps to a completed UWC application.
  • Reach out to referees well in advance. They might be writing multiple references for multiple students, so be sure to allow them time to get yours done first. It is likely that the earlier references that they write will also be the ones that they put the most energy and enthusiasm into. Make sure that reference is yours by working with them early. Read more of our tips for getting winning references for your UWC application.
  • Make sure that you make a note of any potential interview or assessment dates in case you're shortlisted following your application. It's important that you're available for those sessions
  • Allow plenty of time to apply for and process visa applications if the boarding school you're considering is in another country (UWC has schools in 18 different countries, so don't restrict yourself to looking only at boarding schools reasonably close to home).

Find out more about the UWC application process.

Connect with those in the know

There are many people who can help you with your application or help you to choose which schools to apply to. It's important, however, particularly for older students (such as those applying to study for the pre-university 2-year IB Diploma programme that we offer) that even if you ask others for advice, that they don't complete the application for you.

"Needless to say we're less than keen to see parents writing or dictating what's written in the application form," says Matthias Rosenberg. "Parents can be a great help in encouraging applicants to write about themselves with authenticity and originality. If the applicant hasn't mentioned everything that may be relevant, parents can also help in pointing this out. But it's important that parents advise rather than direct."

Think about having conversations with:

  • Admissions staff in the schools that you're thinking of applying to. By speaking with them you can get a better understanding of the culture and community in that school, as well as their selection criteria. If you're interested in applying to join UWC, for example, you can email
  • Teachers, advisors and counsellors in your school. They'll be able to help you choose the right school for you and help you to really think about your strengths and how to shine in your application
  • Alumni of the school (those who studied there) or current students. If you don't know any, then the school might be able to put you in touch with some. Searching platforms such as LinkedIn can also be a good way to find them, especially alumni. They'll be able to give you insights into what the school is really like and provide some unique insights into the community, the experience and the application process. Even if you can't speak to them directly, reading stories of alumni or stories about current students will give you a strong flavour for the character of a school and the types of people who attend. You might be interested in learning what UWC alumni want new students to know, in addition to how UWC alumni are changing the world.

Keep your options open

When you've found your dream boarding school, the temptation to focus all of your energy on applying to just the one school can be strong. Don't.

For all your strengths, academic achievements, and outstanding personal traits, the best boarding schools are often also very selective. A rejection from the school of your choice is not a reflection that you're "not good enough". It's often more about being the right match for that particular school.

So set out to apply to multiple schools and keep your options open. Students applying through the UWC Global Selection Programme have the opportunity to apply to multiple campuses through a single application, and we encourage them to choose up to four. But you might also consider applying to other boarding schools too. This might maximise your chance of being accepted to a school that you love, and that fits you perfectly.

Joining a UWC boarding school

UWC boarding schools are unique amongst some of the world's top boarding schools. While many of these schools pride themselves on exclusivity, elitism, family connection and legacy, our schools are inclusive and deliberately diverse. We ensure that students with the potential to become global change-makers and leaders have access to an experience like no other, irrespective of their background, beliefs and financial means.

All of UWC's 18 schools around the world offer the 2-year IB Diploma Programme (IBDP). Most students participate as boarders, although some who live near a school might also become day students. Some of our schools also offer education for younger students too.

If you're interested in joining one of our boarding schools to study the IBDP, then there are two application routes:

If you have any questions about applying, we are always happy to hear from you. Don't hesitate to contact us, or to start your application today.