11+ and 13+ ISEB Pre-tests | A Comprehensive Guide on How to Prepare and Practise

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An increasing number of top, in-demand independent schools have introduced a process of pretesting, in response to increased demand and competition for places. It helps them deal more effectively with the ever-increasing number of applications that they receive, providing them with a strong indication at age 10/11, as opposed to age 12/13, if a child will be suitable for their school.


Pretesting forms the first stage of the admissions process and normally takes place in Year 6 or 7. Children who perform well at this stage are usually offered a place, conditional to them passing Common Entrance in Year 8. To be clear: pretesting is a precursor to Common Entrance (CE) or Scholarship exams, which still have to be taken.


Whilst many parents think of pretesting as merely academic testing in maths, English and Reasoning, it is usually much more than this. For many schools, the pretest is a comprehensive process which includes testing (online and/or written or both) and interview/group assessment. It aims to assess both a child’s current academic ability and potential, as well as their attitude and personality.


If a child does not get through the pretest phase, then a school may offer them a place on their waiting list or they maybe declined a place altogether. This can be disappointing news for families who feel that their child is being judged too harshly too early. But looked at in a positive light, pretesting can really help families.


The most comforting factor is knowing earlier that a certain school is not right for your child. This gives you more time to consider your options. If this happens and your plan for your child’s schooling hits a pretest curve ball, take advice from their current school, seek guidance from independent educational experts and do your own research.


It is better that your child is in a school where they can access the curriculum and flourish in their own time, than be pushed to keep up with an academic programme that is too challenging. This can be undermining, unsettling and disheartening.


So, What Does the Pre-test Process Involve?


The academic part of the pretest process normally comprises testing in three areas: maths, English and Reasoning (usually both Verbal and Non-Verbal). Tests may be written or computerised, or comprise a combination of the two, dependent on the school.


Many schools use the ISEB Common Pretest which is an online, multiple-choice test in maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning. It comprises four sections and lasts two and a half hours. The test is usually administered and taken in a child’s current prep school. Sections can be taken separately or in one sitting, as defined by your child’s prep school.


The advantage to the ISEB Common Pretest is that it is taken only once. Results are then shared with all of the senior schools to which you have applied. It is age-standardised; a child taking it early in Year 6 or who is young for their age is supposedly not disadvantaged. Questions are adaptive. This means that after the first question, each subsequent question presented is based on the candidate’s response to the previous question.


Not all schools use the ISEB Common Pretest. Some instead create their own. These can be solely written papers or contain a combination of offline and online elements. If a school has developed its own online test (and this is quite rare) they will normally have done so in conjunction with a known educational provider like GL or Cambridge Assessment/CEM. Eton is a prime example of a school which has developed its own computerised reasoning test.


At Pretest Plus, we have created specialist online practice tests to help your child prepare for the computerised element of pretests. Our tests cover maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning and are designed to replicate the pretest process.


They will give your child an excellent idea of what the tests will look like, feel like and provide examples of the question types that they may come up against. We provide detailed feedback per question, which will aid learning and help increase speed, accuracy and confidence. We also supply a full breakdown of age-based statistical averages to give you context on your child’s performance.


We believe that familiarity with the format of these tests, coupled with exposure to their content and style, will dramatically improve your child’s chances in these increasingly competitive examinations.


Which Schools Use Online Pre-testing?


Many schools use the ISEB Common Pretest, (see also The ISEB Common Pre-test: what you need to know) including Brighton College, City of London School for Boys, Charterhouse, Harrow, St Paul’s Boys, Westminster, University College School and Wellington College.


Eton College and St Paul’s Girls’ School (at 11+) have developed their own online reasoning tests.


How a school uses online pretesting varies. St Paul’s Boys and Westminster have two layers of academic testing. They ask boys to sit the ISEB Common Pretest and if they pass, they ask them to complete further written papers in maths and English, which each of the schools set themselves. After this there is a third stage, the interview – more on this later.


City of London School for Boys just uses the ISEB Common Pretest and does not ask candidates to sit further papers. They use the results from the ISEB pretest to decide who to call back for interview.


Harrow has yet a different approach. Its second layer, after the ISEB test, is known as the ‘Harrow Test’. It comprises two fifteen minute interviews, a further hour of computerised tests in English and maths and a twenty-minute written essay.


University College School follows up with an interview and taster day, in which candidates are asked to take part in sample lessons and academic discussion.


After the ISEB tests, Brighton College calls back successful candidates for an ‘Orientation Day’ which seems to include all elements: short tests in English and maths – which will help to inform two short interviews and which will also cover co-curricular interests, taster lessons, and group activities.


So the lesson here? Each school is slightly different, but every school has a rigorous process to identify the right pupils for its school. It’s essential therefore to check each school’s approach so your child knows what to expect.


How Can I Prepare My Child for Academic Pre-testing?


Build your child’s stamina and focus. Familiarity with the testing format will help to alleviate their fears of the unknown, enabling them to perform to the best of their ability. Practise the key skills needed.


Always research the testing process at the schools that you wish to apply to, so you know what skills your child should practise. Find out if they will be sitting written or online tests, or a combination and which subjects.


Maths and English questions will generally be linked to the National Curriculum Key Stage 2 and will test age appropriate skills and knowledge. Top academic schools will be expecting children to work at the higher academic levels, through to Level 7, and will be looking for a reading age (and associated command of vocabulary) approximately eighteen months to two years above a child’s chronological age.


The reasoning section tests potential, logic, cognitive ability and the way a child thinks. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning is not often taught in schools, but books and resources can be bought to provide practice reasoning questions, so your child can learn and become adept in this area.


For those schools that use paper tests, you can sometimes find sample 11+ papers which will cover the disciplines needed. These will give your child a good feel for what to expect. Take a look at the 11+ resources at Exam Papers Plus.


Time management in an exam is a core discipline required to perform well. Have your child complete sample papers under timed conditions, so they get used to regular timed practice.


The Interview and/or Assessment

The interview and/or assessment is as important – and for some schools, more important – than the academic testing. Whilst a certain score needs to be achieved to ensure a call back for interview, once children are in this position, the playing field is level again. Everyone called back will be bright; but who will display the right attitude, desire to learn and personality to fit the school and its community?


Many schools will ask children to meet with a senior member of staff or houseparent (if boarding). This person’s opinion will be respected by the school and head teacher.


Some interviews will focus on a child’s interests and extra curricular hobbies and experiences; others may have a more academic focus. More often than not, they will combine an element of both. Interviews could be one on one or conducted in a group. Therefore your child must not be thrown if put in a group of strangers and asked to answer questions in front of others that they do not know.


If talking about themselves or if they are asked to give their opinion on a subject, there is no right or wrong answer. As long as a child is able to back up their thoughts with sound argument, then this is fine. Discussions around the dining table and with friends and family can help build confidence and the skills needed for reasoned debate.


Always have examples of current or past reading, as children are often asked about what they are reading or what they have enjoyed. Tell your child that they should always assume that the interviewer has read the book they choose to talk about; and never allow them to say they have read something when they haven’t!


It is essential that your child is confident in answering questions and talking about themselves in a positive way. Time and preparation spent on focusing their minds as to their achievements, qualities and skills will help immensely in this area.


The Report/Reference


This comes from their current school and is usually written by the head teacher. It is nearly always requested by senior schools and forms a traditional and essential part of the pretest process.


Prep school heads take this process very seriously. Supporting their leavers and ensuring that an incoming school judges them fairly and accurately is a key part of their job. It is also something on which their professional reputation as a head is judged. Something in a school reference could make a senior school think twice: either to accept a borderline candidate who may not have performed as well as expected in a test, or to decline someone who appeared ‘good on paper’.


For this reason, work with, consult and listen to the advice of your current head when deciding on senior schools.


What if My Child is Coming From Overseas and English is Their Second Language?


Overseas candidates will still have to go through a pretest process and consideration will be given to their command of the English language and how this will impact on their ability to access the curriculum and settle in the school. Therefore this element has to be measured as part of the pretest process and many schools use a standardised test called UKiset.


UKiset testing often forms the very first part of the pretest process because it is a way to objectively assess a candidate’s ability to cope in an English speaking school. It can even be used by parents, academic consultants and a candidate’s current school to assess the type of school a child should be aiming for.


Many schools – including Charterhouse, Epsom College, Eton College, Harrow, Oundle and Winchester College – use the UKiset test, which is an assessment of current attainment, intelligence and English language skills. It tests English, maths and problem solving and contains both online and offline elements. At Pretest Plus, we have developed an online practice UKiset test for the Reasoning section which will help your child prepare for the reasoning section, whilst also becoming familiar with the style and content of computerised testing.


For more information on UKiset, see previous posts – UKiset: a brief introduction and UKiset Essay Guide: top tips for success and sample questions


Overseas candidates who perform well on the UKiset test may still be expected to take further papers in maths and English, and go through the interview process. A reference will also be sought from their current school, so it is essential that you explain the importance of this to your current head.


Sometimes overseas schools do not realise the importance of the reference and that it needs to be an accurate and personalised summary of your child’s strengths and achievements. It should always be signed by the head – even if the head has had to consult other members of staff who know your child well and who work with him/her on a regular basis so that it provides an accurate and informed overview.


In Summary: How Best do I Help My Child For the Pre-test Process?


Think of the pretest process holistically. It is not merely an academic test, but an assessment of a child’s ability, personality and potential. Many factors are being assessed. In this sense, it is not unlike a rigorous adult assessment for a top job, with multiple interviews and call backs.


Therefore the best thing you can do is to give your child confidence in their abilities. And to do this you need to ensure that their technical knowledge is sound (mathematical concepts, grammar, spelling and punctuation etc); that they have practised the types of questions that could come up; and that they are familiar with both the online and offline formats.


We believe steady preparation and regular practise is the best approach to take to build up the skills needed in a non-pressurised way. If you can, start the process eighteen months to a year out. Access to varied materials (paper and online), knowledge of different question types and some one on one support if needed, will ensure a comprehensive and broad experience base and, we hope, keep your child engaged and energised.


Encourage them to read widely, form their own opinion on topics and have knowledge of current affairs. Finally they need to form a ‘can do’ attitude. As any interviewer will know, taking on strong candidate who is ready and willing to learn and develop their skills, is the final x-factor needed.


This article was written by Louise Lang, co-founder of Pretest Plus and Exam Papers Plus. If you have any further questions or queries, please feel free to contact Louise at [email protected]



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