Expat mums: is this the craziest school admission process ever?

I guess if you’re reading this you’ve gone through it already or are about to face it.

You thought the house move was tough. You find it hard to master your new local language, but nothing prepared you for… the dreaded school application process.

School admissions can be a stressful process no matter your country. I’ve heard stories of parents in Antwerp camping out the night before at school gates to get their kids’ names on lists. Friends in London have, at a considerable expense, moved house to a catchment area with better school options, or sold shares to afford top notch private school fees.

But nothing compares to Santiago, Chile.

While weighing up our move here a friend had warned me about the process, stressing just how awful school applications are. I believed her, but I didn’t fully understand the situation, naively believing that coming from a comfortable financial existence and with some good contacts on our side, we’d have our pick of the private schools. Besides our eldest was just turning four, so how hard could it really be?

Expat child looking for a school
Ahoy captain, a good school ashore!

Little black book

Here in Chile, contacts come first. School application forms will openly question whom you know and the strength of your relationship. I’ve been in touch with teachers at various schools, but apparently this isn’t enough. We’re talking head master, school governor level for a golden entry ticket.

Personally, coming from London where I was a regular on the members club scene, where I could have the pick of most restaurants in town with a few phone calls, Chile came as a shock. (#firstworldproblems…  I know)

A friend here agreed. Applying to one notoriously elite school, we were both rejected immediately without any explanation. The school claims to be an international, bilingual school, yet word on the block is that if you’re not Chilean, or you don’t know someone high up in the school, you won’t stand a chance. Get to the back of the queue, gringa!

contacts for entry into an expat school Chile
The real school entry ticket?

All about the parents

Herein lies a fundamental difference with schools in other countries. It’s not the children who are tested, it’s the parents.

On one application day, I spied a parent brandishing a PowerPoint print out ‘Why you should choose my child’, complete with photos and diagrams. It was so long that it came in its own individual folder.

I looked down at my excuse for a one page letter. Underlining that we truly loved our kids, and wanted the best for them wasn’t going to cut it, it seemed.

Another parent nervously bit her fingernails as she waited, slurping coffee between breaths. Another had come with detailed spreadsheets and agendas with details of all her applications thus far.

stressed expat mum doing school applications
and breathe…

The initial application 

After our house move a few weeks back and nearly losing my third unborn child due to exhaustion, I was told to slow down. To slow down but… could I just first do a few online school application forms as these were very, very important.

All applications start online, with some asking to print off documents and take them to the school in person, and others requiring everything to be done online. Forms can be up to ten pages in length, with unique personal passwords and requiring very personal information. While my fabulous relocation consultant offered to help, and while school admission consultants even exist here in Chile, you’ll still find yourself doing the bulk of the process yourself.

Applications are accompanied by a personal letter to the head master or rector and should include an introduction to your family and the child applying, the reasoning behind your application, what you will bring to the school and any connections you have to the institution.

Then you’ll need to include carnet size (smaller than passport) photos, your child’s birth certificate (some ask for the original), your civil marriage certificate, an updated form from the nursery your child is attending (if applicable), as well as your religious marriage certificate and your child’s baptism certificate if you’re applying to a Catholic school. If your child has any medical needs, you’ll need to include an updated letter from your pediatrician too.


expat school application process in Santiago Chile
Just applying for some schools…

Follow up interviews with the parents

The initial application is followed up by a very personal interview with the parents. Religion, household routine, discipline methods, marital relations… nothing is off limits.

We’ve been through just one interview so far, and it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. While my husband was nervous, I figured this was a chance for us to vet the school. No matter how good it was online, no matter what the PISA league tables said, if I didn’t feel it would be a good fit for my child, then who cares?

We never even got to look round one school we were rejected from. In fact we’d only applied because the application process took place very early on and we’d been advised to give it a shot by our relocation consultant, just in case. After reports of rote learning and alleged bullying, I knew that this was not the right choice for our children anyway.

Think of the kids

After the parental interview an exam with the child comes next.

Yes, you heard right, ‘exam’.

Your child may only be four years old, but there is still an exam. In practice, this can be anything from a 30 minute chat and play with a child psychologist, to a full on three day intensive round of role play, cognitive tasks and sporting activities. Some schools forego the parental interview and rely more on the exam, others put the emphasis on the role of the parents.

My husband today mentioned how the parents of a child at a school we are applying for sent his (four year old) child on an exam preparatory course, and asked if we should do the same. My answer? A firm no.

My child is excited by the prospect of school, he’s looking forward to his ‘school invitation days’ (this is how I have phrased the exams – ‘hooray darling, you’ve won a very special invitation to a play date’) and he really cannot wait. A mother who did the same said her child didn’t get in to various schools she’d hoped for, but that he enjoyed every minute of the tests. Other children, she said had been so prepped by their nervous parents that they cried and screamed throughout the whole process.

With the wrong sort of pressure from parents the process can be tough on any child. But let me underline, we’re talking about four year old children here. Four year olds. 

Expat child excited about school
My kids are superheroes

Time will tell

Am I being naive, should I play the game to get the best school choice? Or surely the right school will be one that nurtures my child, that believes him in as much as I do and doesn’t go on PowerPoint presentations or little black books alone.

Time will tell. I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Olga
    June 5, 2021 / 4:46 pm

    This sounds exhausting. Almost feels like there is room for opening a no-BS preschool in Santiago.

    • Nina
      June 9, 2021 / 8:06 am

      Ha! That is exactly what I thought. I’m not sure if the process is down to the schools themselves, whether it’s a cultural thing or what is going on but it’s odd. At least as a mum who is rather inexperienced I find it odd. I’ve found job applications far easier!

  2. Mark Sanford
    June 22, 2021 / 10:31 pm

    Hi. I am an expat living in Vitacura with my Chilean wife. Our child is in a nursery at the moment (2 1/2 years) and we are about to start thinking about choosing a school for pre-kinder. I work from home and my wife is originally from Concepcion so we don’t have any “contacts” or influential friends to help with the application process. From your experience, what schools would you suggest and how best to succeed. We want a School preferably in Vitacura as you know the traffic is a nightmare, thanks in advance, Mark

Comment on this post

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Connect on Instagram
%d bloggers like this: