Most families do not choose to send their children to their nearest school, shows the biggest ever study of state secondary school choices in England.
More than 60% opt for a school that is further away - usually because it is higher achieving.
"Contrary to a widely-held belief, only a minority of parents choose their local school as their first option," say researchers.
It also debunks the idea that richer families are more engaged with choices.
The study, from researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, is the most detailed examination of choices of secondary school places in England, using more than 520,000 applications from 2014 to 2015. It found that parents were actively using the system of preferences - and were not passively accepting their nearest option.
"On average we found parents and pupils usually attempt to try to study at the highest-attaining school, rather than the one which is closest," said Prof Anna Vignoles, from the University of Cambridge.
Despite any assumptions about the "sharp elbows" of middle-class families, there was no significant difference in behaviour between wealthier and more disadvantaged parents.
Both were similarly engaged in using choices to seek more desirable school places.